Formal 'You' in French

Instructor: Emily France

Emily has experience teaching English and French and has a master's degree in International Studies

In this lesson, we'll learn the basic guidelines for using 'vous,' the formal form of 'you' in French. We'll learn about uses and verb conjugations for the formal 'vous' and the informal 'tu.'

Vous and Tu

If you've ever read Shakespeare, you probably encountered a lot of thees and thous. While this old-fashioned language may have caused you to grumble while reading Hamlet in high school, it's an interesting linguistic artifact that actually originates in French.

In old English, 'thou' was used as the singular, informal pronoun for 'you,' whereas 'you' was reserved for groups or for formal use. In French, the usage of vous (formal or plural you, pronunciation: voo) and tu (informal/singular you, pronunciation: too) is exactly the same. While this distinction has fallen out of use in English, it's still common practice in French.

Shakespeare used two different forms of you, like in French
shakespeare portrait

In French, it's considered impolite to use tu with someone you don't know well, so it's important to know when and how to use tu and vous. Once you figure out the basic rules for using these pronouns, it's fairly easy to distinguish between the two.

So, allons-y! (let's go!)

When to Use Tu

Tu is the pronoun you'd use for someone you know fairly well, like a friend or family member. You wouldn't use tu with an acquaintance, or someone you've just met. People also use tu when talking to children, or in most online contexts.

It's important to remember that tu is always singular. Even if you're talking to a group of close friends, you wouldn't use tu to refer to multiple people.

So, to recap, you will want to use tu when you're talking to:

  • a friend
  • a family member
  • a child or teenager
  • someone online

These best friends would use tu when talking together
Two friends

When to Use Vous

Vous is used in conversations with strangers, most work colleagues, authority figures, or people much older than you. Vous is also used to refer to multiple people.

In sum, it's best to use vous when you're talking to:

  • a colleague
  • a boss
  • a teacher
  • a stranger
  • more than one person
  • someone much older than you

These students would use vous with their teacher
teacher and students

When in Doubt

If you're ever unsure about which pronoun to use, it's generally best to rely on vous. Or, if you've been using vous with someone, it's perfectly acceptable to ask them if you can switch to tu. The verb for this in French is tutoyer (pronunciation: too-twah-yay). For example, the following questions are common ways to check if it's okay to use tu instead of vous with someone:

On se tutoie? (pronunciation: ohn suh too-twah, 'do we use tu with each other?')

Est-ce que je peux vous tutoyer? (pronunciation: ess kuh zhuh puh voo too-twah-yay, 'may I use tu with you?')

You may also tell someone you're okay with them using the informal you, by saying tu peux me tutoyer (pronunciation: too puh muh too-twah-yay, 'you can use tu with me').

When in doubt, it's almost always safer to use vous. However, between friends, using vous instead of tu could be seen as a sign of distance or rudeness, but such instances are rare.

Common Phrases

Now, let's look at a few common phrases to see how they change depending on the context. For instance, the way you ask 'how are you?' in French depends on who you're talking to. Here are a few examples:

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