While English only has one word for “you”, this is not the case for French. While you’re familiar with tu, there’s also vous in French. That’s because French has an informal and a formal “you”: tu and vous respectively. But beware: if you use the informal “you” in the wrong context, some French natives might think you’re rude!
With this article we’ll help you understand how to use both in the right situations, and you’ll be sounding much more like a polite native speaker.
Vous in French: What’s the difference between tu and vous?
Tu is a singular subject pronoun. You use it when you want to refer to one person informally. If you want to address someone formally instead, you’ll use vous. But vous isn’t just a singular subject pronoun , as you can also use it if you want to address a group of people as “you”. This means it can be a plural and singular subject pronoun depending on when you need to use it. (Check out our article on the use of subject pronouns with irregular verbs if you want to go deeper).
If vous is formal and tu is informal, you’re probably wondering in which contexts it’s appropriate to use them in. That is what we will be looking at next. But before, it’s worth remembering that it might not always be clear when it’s best to use either vous or tu. We’ll provide some tips to make sure that you’re using them politely in whichever situation you’re in.
Tu vs vous situations
There are some situations where using tu over vous is clearly the right choice.
Remember to use tu in these situations:
- With children or teenagers
- Peers or people who are the same age as you (particularly for young people)
- Colleagues who you are very familiar with (unless there is a marked hierarchy)
- Friends and family.
Wondering how tu works in a sentence? Here are some examples:
Alors, tu aimes ton cadeau ! (So, you like your present!)
Tu as un nouveau pull ! (You have a new jumper!)
However, there are other situations where it’ll be obvious that you should be using vous.
- With people older than you (particularly if you are a child)
- With strangers or other people that you are not well acquainted with
- Professional/bureaucratic situations
- During job interviews
- With colleagues that you are not well acquainted or familiar with
- Addressing customers at work.
Wondering how vous works in a sentence? Here are some examples:
Vous aimez votre cadeau. (You like your present.)
Vous avez un nouveau pull. (You have a new jumper.)
Learn with a community of French speakers
Learning French is easier when you’ve got a community behind you. Learn together with other native French speakers from the Busuu community today and be on your way to French fluency!
Why it’s important to use vous in formal situations
When you’re not sure which one to use, always start with vous. If you use tu when you should be using vous it can come across as rude. However, if you’re friends with someone, using vous will probably feel quite forced.
There are many situations when you might start using vous and then switch to tu (when introduced to a friend of a friend for example). You might hear someone say “Tu peux me tutoyer” which means “You can address me with tu”.
On the other hand, if you use tu and someone continues to use vous with you, it means that they most likely still feel uncomfortable talking with you informally and are trying to maintain a respectful distance with you during conversations.
Tip to remember: In English, you might start talking to someone using polite language before switching to colloquial language usage once you have both become more familiar with each other. So even though English only has one word for “you”, there are other indicators during a conversation that tell you how formal or informal it is. It’s worth bearing this in mind when you approach French conversations, as French also has levels of formality which are important to pick up.
When it’s not clear whether you should be using vous or tu
In many situations it’ll be clear to you whether using vous or tu is appropriate. But there’s a good chance you’ll run into some situations where it’s not as obvious which one you should use. We’ll unpack some of these so you can better decide when the time comes.
There are a few situations where one party will use vous and the other will use tu, for example, in cases where someone older is talking to a child. They will use tu while the child will use vous.
However, families tend to all refer to each other as tu, except in specific circumstances. Also, professors and students may also refer to each other as vous – usually starting when children enter high school.
It’s crucial to be able to tell when to use vous vs tu in conversations, as it might seem rude to use tu and not vous in many situations you encounter.
We hope that with these helpful tips, you’ll be able to tell when it’s right to use one over the other. Just remember that there are plenty of ways to ask or suggest that the other person can use tu with you – sometimes it’s best to be clear about the level of formality that you prefer!
Want expert help on your French learning?
Continue learning more French grammar and vocabulary with Busuu’s free online courses and learning resources, designed by language experts. You’ll be speaking fluent French in no time guaranteed!