What is the difference between tu and vous in French? Both these French subject pronouns mean “you“ however they are used in different situations, explained below.
English speakers can have a hard time with tu and vous because our language does not make this distinction in the same manner. This power hieracrchy can be found in other European languages, such as the Italian tu/Lei or the German du/Sei. Violating this hieracrchy can be relative to walking through an imaginary social minefield! This article should resolve some confusion surrounding the two pronouns.
Just as a quick note, I think the biggest way to get adjusted to having two “you” subjects is to practice with French natives… correct context becomes a lot clearer when you interact with others or simply listen to French natives speaking.
Formal and safe, vous is your by default form of the word “you” unless it is one of the exceptions discussed later.
Vous is what you use when:
1. You do not really know a person well
(strangers, acquaintances, coworkers which aren’t your friends)
2. You wish to show respect to someone
(boss/superiors, teachers, customers, etc..)
3. You are referring to more than one person at once
(audiences, crowds, two or more people, etc…)
4. The person is a lot older than you
5. You’re not sure whether or not to use vous
(always be safe and then switch or ask to switch later)
So what are some real world examples for vous? Any formal situations where you don’t really know people and you want to convey respect is definitely a vous scenario. Business interactions and talking to strangers are things which come to mind first. Also remember that vous is how French people say “you” when speaking to multiple people at once! So even if you would normally say tu to both those people, if you are referring to both of them, you must use vous.
I know of a lot of people, if they believe the relationship will develop into friendship or if they want to remove the “formal” sort of atmosphere, they will start using tu. If you want to use tu, and you’re uncertain weather or not it’s appropriate then just ask!
Cela vous dérange si nous nous tutyons ?
Formal language, loosely translated, it means: would it bother you if we were on a first name basis.
On pourrait se tutoyer / on peut se tutoyer?
A normal version to say the same thing as above
Tu peux me tutoyer.
A statement, usually to people who are showing you respect by using vous.
More informal than vous, this form of you should be used only in the following situations, otherwise it may convey disrespect (depending on who you’re talking to).
Tu is what you use when:
1. You talk to family members, lovers, friends, and other people you know really well
2. You talk to people younger than you (usually)
3. You want to convey a less formal atmosphere (informal parties,
4. You curse at somebody or mean to be disrespectful
5. When you don’t necessarily need to show respect because you are equals. For example, when teens talk to kids or when teens talk to other teens, when teachers talk to coworkers (other teachers) that they know, etc…
By using vous a lot in informal situations, the French will notice it. You’re being too formal or polite is essentially how they’ll react. Say you went to a birthday party of a friend and you’re using vous with everybody you already know… it seems weird! On the other hand, if you accidentally refer to somebody as tu and they really meant to be a vous, don’t panic! The person will probably realize you’re not French, and let it slide… you can correct yourself and continue on with life.
The problem for beginners and many learning programs which teach beginners is that tu is often overlooked until later in the student’s learning process. It makes sense; the first interactions the student will have probably involve business transactions with strangers (buying clothes, food, tickets, taxi/bus interactions). Only later, when you actually make friends in French or learn about people do you really need to use tu.
I hope this series helped you understand the difference between tu and vous in French. If you want to learn French in a more comprehensive manner, you should try this out.
Any questions or comments can be made in the section below!