The French word for you is used differently than in English. The pronoun 'you' has two forms in French, whereas in English it has but one form. This often confuses beginning French students but it needn't trip you up. Here are tips to understand the different French words for you.
Understanding the French Word for You
In the English language, the second person pronoun is simply 'you'. A pronoun is a grammatical term which means a word that stands in for another noun. Examples include using the word "I" to refer to yourself, or using "he" to refer to your dog.
In English, people use the word you to refer to one person or to many people. For example, "Are you going to the store?" may be used to ask your sister or both your brother and sister if they're heading out to the grocery store. In English, there is no distinction in a person's age or social status when addressing them using the word you. If you were addressing your best friend or the President of the United States, you would still choose the word you. "Are you going to Camp David this weekend, Mr.President?" connotes the same level of respect as asking your best friend, "Are you going to the beach this weekend, Joe?"
In French, there are two words for you: 'tu' and 'vous'. Herein lies the difference between the French word for you and the English word for you, and why so many beginning French students struggle with the concept.
Differences Between Tu and Vous
At first glance, the differences between using tu and vous seem easy.
- Tu is the familiar form. It may be used to denote the singular or plural.
- Vous is the more formal form of the word and is only used for the plural
But these basic definitions barely scratch the surface and don't get to the subtle nuances inherent in the terms.
Social Status and Position
In French, word choices often convey a sense of social position or status. Tu and vous are two such words.
Tu connotes a similar social status or position. This may mean that you are speaking to someone around the same age as you are, with the same job title, or just someone close to you like a good friend or relative. By comparison, vous maintains a distance and hints at a more formal relationship such as between a doctor and patient or teacher and pupil.
The chart below may help you sort through the complexities of when to choose tu and vous by social status and position.
|People||Word to Use||Why|
|Family Members||Tu||Family members almost always use tu when speaking with each other, no matter what the age difference or relationship among the members.|
|Children talking to other children||Tu||Children almost always use tu when speaking to one another.|
|Teacher to young children||Tu||Teachers usually use tu when speaking to their pupils, particularly little children.|
|Teenagers and Young Adults||Generally Tu||Most teens and young adults use the familiar tu form of you when speaking among themselves.|
|Workplace, business associates||Generally Tu||Most business associates and colleagues use tu when speaking with one another, but sometimes the more formal vous is used, especially if people are not well acquainted.|
|Student talking to teacher||Vous||The vous form is chosen when students talk to their teachers no matter the age of the pupil to denote respect for la professor.|
|Addressing a stranger or new acquaintance||Vous||When addressing a new colleague, doctor or stranger older than you are, choose the more formal word.|
|Speaking to a group of people||Vous||Always use vous, no matter the relationship, when using the plural form or speaking about a group of people|
There are several special circumstances when one chooses to use tu instead of vous.
- Prayers nearly always use the tu form of the pronoun when addressing the deity. The connotation is that of a close relationship. While this is most notable in Christian prayers said in French, most other religions follow suit.
- Adult students may drop the vous form and use tu when speaking to their teacher, especially if the student is older than the teacher as may be the case at a college, university, or post graduate training program.
- French people may choose to use the word tu inappropriately to show contempt, hatred, or disgust with someone. The implication is that they are acting childish and thus deserve to be spoken to as if they were a child.
- Participants in French speaking chat rooms almost always use the tu form for you.
Sometimes you might need to choose vous instead of tu.
- Colleagues meeting for the first time or workers new to a company may begin addressing others using the vous form, then switch to tu as they get to know one another or if they are being addressed using the tu form.
- When you want to maintain your distance from someone, choose vous.
While it never hurts to choose vous, you may seem a bit pushy or awkward if you begin referring to everyone as tu. When in doubt, you can choose vous. But knowing the French word for you and when to use it properly indicates a fluency with the language that shows you're a master at speaking French.