As modern-day English speakers, most of us are accustomed to using only one word for “you.” It doesn’t matter if we are talking to one person, many people, old people, young people, teachers, doctors, children, or anyone else. In some languages, this is not always the case – and French is one of them. French grammar provides French-speakers with two ways to say “you”: “tu” (pronounce it almost like the English number, but pucker your lips a little more) and “vous” (with a vowel that sounds more like the English “oo” sound). So how do you know when to use them?
“Tu” is used when the speaker is talking to one person only, and that person is a social equal or inferior. So for example, if you are speaking to a classmate, coworker, or friend, you would probably address them using “tu.” It is also more likely to be used the more comfortable or familiar you are with the person. Don’t use “tu” in situations that warrant formality.
An archaic but probably more precise translation of “tu” than “you” would be the English word “thou,” used commonly in English until about 150 – 175 years ago. You can still find it in the texts of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and of English writers for several centuries after him. Writers also sometimes use “thou” to help imitate the more old-fashioned speech of times past without making their text incomprehensible to modern-day speakers.
French grammar dictates that “vous” be used in two basic situations. In one situation, you are still speaking to only one person, but that person is your social superior. It could be your boss at work, a teacher or professor, or a friend’s older relative. Depending on the level of formality used in a family, it could also be used by a child speaking to his or her parents or grandparents, although many families do not require this. In any other situation that requires formality, or when in doubt, use “vous.”
In the second basic situation, the speaker is talking to more than one person. It doesn’t matter if you are talking to two people or a thousand, to women, to men, or to both (and yes there are languages that care about this, too!). The formality of the situation also becomes less important in this case, since the speaker will use “vous” in any case. In some regional spoken dialects of modern English, people will say “y’all” (short for “you all”) when speaking to more than one person. For those English-speakers who include “y’all” in their speech, this is a reasonably closer English equivalent to “vous” than the simple “you.”
So when you are speaking and are trying to figure out which one to use, ask yourself three basic questions: Is it a formal situation? Are you speaking to more than one person? (Use “vous!”) Or are you speaking to one person in a more relaxed, familiar situation? (Use “tu!”) And keep at it with your study of French language and grammar! Learning French takes persistence, but time and effort will help you master it.
Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching students since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
Photo by Gareth Williams