How to say you in French : a short explanation of Tu and vous

In English, there is only one word for you, but in French, You can be translated by different words depending on the context : Tu, Vous,... It's a commonly used word that should be used with care as it can hurt people’s sensitivity if it's not used the proper way. It’s sometimes a matter of formality.

So it’s more than important to know the different usages of You in French and how to differentiate them. And that’s what you'll be learning today.

1. The importance of differentiating Tu and Vous

You is a Personal Pronoun subject destined to replace a noun and is the subject of the verb. It can be translated as Tu or Vous.

If you meet someone for the first time and you say Tu, the person can be shocked as there are formalities around it's use. It can be considered rude or even as a disrespect.

Let’s take the example of a man trying to seduce a woman. We'll Assume that in order to be less formal, the man asked her to use Tu instead of Vous when addressing him. But if the woman keeps using Vous to address him, that means she wants to keep a distance between them to avoid falling in the familiarity with him. Using Vous can build up a barrier and make the communication less smooth.

So, what to do to avoid being mistakenly rude?

The simplest way would be to say Vous, unless you are authorized not to. In general people won’t complain because you used the formal way.

2. What’s the real difference between Tu and Vous?

Tu and Vous all mean you. You should note that You is always translated as Vous when talking about several persons. That one is quite easy to figure out.

But when referring to one person, you have two options : Tu or Vous. So which one to choose?

The rule is simple.

➡Use Tu when:

  • Talking to a friend, a family member and in all situations with a person that you know very well. For example in a mother to daughter conversation. Ex : Tu as fait tes devoirs? => Did you do your homework?

  • It's an older person talking to a younger one like an adult to kid for conversation.

➡Use Vous when:

  • the person you are interacting with is older than you

  • In a professional context or formal relationship. For example patient-doctor, teacher-student, with colleagues or your boss.

  • talking to someone you don’t know well. For example, if you want to ask your way, better say : Excusez moi, pouvez-vous m'indiquer où se trouve la banque? => Excuse me, can you tell me where is the bank?

  • referring to several persons. Always use vous in this context as it's the only option that you have.

French Linguistics has a nice table of the appropriate situations of use. You can can check it out here.

3. Tutoyer vs vouvoyer : How to ask someone which one to use?

Tutoyer is the verb used when you use Tu with someone and vouvoyer with Vous. You'll certainly hear this, especially when you meet someone for the first time. In general people use Vous to avoid complications as explained previously. But if you want be less formal with someone, you can politely ask if you can use Tu instead of Vous.

That's where the verb tutoyer comes handy. You can say :

Je peux vous tutoyer? => Can I be familiar?

On se tutoie? => Can we be familiar?

Ça vous gêne si on se tutoie? => Do you mind if i use the familiar form?

On se tutoie ou on se vouvoie? => We use the formal or informal form?

The person generally accepts by saying :

Oui, pas de problème => Sure, no problem

Oui, on peut se tutoyer sans aucun souci => Yes, we can be familiar without any problem

On se tutoie bien sur ! => Of course we can be familiar

Non, je n'aime pas être tutoyé (e) => No, I don't like being addressed as Tu.

4. What are the other usages of you in French?

In addition to Tu and Vous, it can mean have different translations in French. Let’s take a look at these examples.

Je te parle de ma vie. => I am speaking to you about my life. In this sentence, you can be translated as Te. In this context, Te is an indirect pronoun. ( Je parle à qui? À toi?)

Nous te remercions pour ton cadeau. => we thank you for your gift. Here, the equivalent of you is Te which is a direct pronoun. When using Te in front of a vowel, it become T'. Ex : Nous t’aimons beaucoup. =>We love you very much.

Tu te laves => You shower yourself. In this sentence You is equal to Te which is a reflexive pronoun.

Ce cadeau est pour toi. =>This gift is for you. In this sentence, You can be expressed as Toi. We can also use a possessive pronoun and say "Ce cadeau est le tien. " It will still have the same meaning.

To sum up

There are different ways of saying you in French. It can be confusing when it comes to making the difference between Tu and Vous but as we’ve seen, you should take into consideration the kind of relationship you have with your interlocutor. If you are afraid of making a mistake remember to use Vous, it works fine In most of the cases, and no one will blame you for using that.

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