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The subject pronouns Tu and Vous can be quite confusing for English speakers when they are first learning French, considering we only have one subject pronoun to mean you in English. However, once you get your head around how to use it, you will see it’s not as difficult as it first appears.
But what’s the difference between vous and tu?
To put it simply, we use vous when talking to more than one person or in a formal setting, while tu is reserved for singular and informal settings. Therefore, if you are talking to more than one person, you will always use vous, no matter your relationship with the people. When talking to a single person, you will have to decide whether to use vous or tu.
By using tu when talking to someone, it indicates you have an amicable or equal relationship with the other person. For example, you would use this pronoun when talking to a friend, family, partner, classmate, or colleague. Children and teens often use this with one another, even when meeting for the first time. Tu is also used when talking to children, animals and inanimate objects. However, if you use the tu pronoun with someone that doesn’t fit into these categories, you are likely to cause offense. Using tu when talking to someone you’ve just met could be a sign of disrespect or contempt.
By using vous, you are showing that you respect the person you are speaking to or indicating that your relationship is distant. This is used between strangers and in professional environments, for example between an employee and a customer, or between a Doctor and their patient. Using vous with someone who doesn’t fall into these categories would imply a dislike for the person, or be seen as snobbery.
If you are not sure which to use, it is usually best to pick the vous form, so that you don’t accidentally offend someone. You can also try to pick up on social cues to decide which form to use, for example, if someone keeps referring to you as tu, it is normally an indication that you can do the same. If you’re not sure, you can use the phrase “on peut se tutoyer?”, which basically means ‘can we refer to each other as tu?’. If they respond yes, you can use the tu form when communicating with them in the future.
Don’t worry if you accidentally use the wrong one! It is completely normal to get mixed up sometimes, especially at the beginning when you are new to French. French people can normally detect when you have an English accent, even if it is very slight, so they won’t take offense if they know you are learning. You’ve got this!
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