A Love-Hate Respect Relationship
Bonjour ! I’m Laura K. Lawless, virtual French teacher since 1999 and Francophile forever. You can find lessons, comprehension exercises, and all kinds of other good stuff at LawlessFrench.com, but for now, I hope you enjoy this video. Bonne écoute !
One of the tricky aspects of French is that there are two different words for you, tu and vous, and very complicated rules about when to use which one. Choosing the right subject pronoun is important not just from a grammatical point of view, but also for reasons of etiquette. You can read more about that in my lesson later; for now, here are some general guidelines to help you decide which pronoun to use with different people.
Tu is the informal pronoun, so you use it when talking to people you know and like, such as family – use tu with siblings, cousins, parents, aunts, and uncles, etc. In some upper-class families, kids have to address their parents as vous. This is similar to “Southern manners” in the US, when kids are expected to use “sir” and “ma’am” with their parents (and all adults).
Tu with your significant other is obvious, though you might playfully use vous once in a while.
Use tu when talking to a friend your own age or younger. With an older friend, it depends on your respective ages; generally speaking, the older your friend is compared to you, the more likely you should use vous. And it’s not uncommon to see elderly women using vous with each other.
If you’re in a class or a club or on a team, you’ll probably use tu with the other members, especially after you’ve known each other for a while.
Generally speaking, you might start out with vous with your colleagues, but you’ll quickly switch to tu.
Use tu with all kids, regardless of whether you know them or not.
Use tu with teenagers. A friend of mine, though, likes to use vous once in a while to give teens a little thrill.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but you should address God as Tu.
Use tu with animals, or at least the tu form of the imperative.
If you’re the kind of person who yells at, I mean talks to your computer and other inanimate objects, use tu.
Vous is the formal pronoun, so you use it in any kind of professional or service interaction, such as when talking to a lawyer, doctor, patient…
receptionist, cashier, plumber…
waiter, customer, or police officer.
Basically, any time you’re addressing an adult stranger, use vous. Except when you’re being introduced to a friend of a friend, in which case tu is expected.
If you’re really not sure which pronoun to use, default to vous, as there’s no risk of offending someone by being too polite. Or you can just ask:
- On peut se tutoyer ?
- Peut-on se tutoyer ?
- On se tutoie ?
One more thing: vous is also the plural pronoun, so you use it when talking to a roomful of kids, both of your parents, a group of friends, or the handful of paperclips you just dropped on the floor.
So to sum it all up: tu is informal and singular, while vous is formal and/or plural.
Et voilà, I hope this video helps you understand when to use tu or vous. Be sure to visit LawlessFrench.com for lessons, comprehension exercises, and lots more. À bientôt !
~ ~ ~