When do we use it?
When to use ‘tu’ and ‘vous’
The words tu and vous both mean you. In English, the word you can be used to address any person or number of people, whatever the age, social status etc of that person. In French, which word for you is used depends on the person being addressed (spoken/written to).
A common misconception is that “tu is used for talking to children and vous for talking to adults” or “tu is for friends and vous is for strangers”. If this was the whole truth, life would be nice and simple and we could all go away and have a cup of tea rather than reading web pages about when to use tu and when to use vous (and I wouldn’t have to write one…). As we’ll see below, the reality is a bit more complex. For example, there are situations where two adults meeting for the first time will automatically use tu, and cases where an adult will address a child as vous.
So what can we make of this complex situation? Well, remember first that tu is always used to address a single person. As a general rule of thumb:
The tu form is more likely to be used to address somebody in a similar social situation.
So what does similar social situation mean? Well, all sorts of things– I’ve chosen a deliberately vague term. But things like:
- Your role in the current “speech context” (shopkeeper vs. customer; teacher vs. pupil)
- By extension, job status (junior vs. boss)
- Where the person you’re speaking to fits in your “social network”
- How well you know the person you’re speaking to
- Your attitude towards the person you’re speaking to (respect / disdain)
So the choice of tu or vous has to do with age, but also to do with other things, and age isn’t always the presiding factor.
Linguists sometimes use the term honorific to denote ‘polite’ forms of language like vous. More generally, tu is often referred to as the familiar form, and vous as the formal or polite form.
- Two conference delegates meet on the plane after the conference. They've never met before. One is aged 28 and the other 38. They automatically address each other as tu. Explain why
- they are of a similar social standing
- A radio interviewer interviews a pop star. They've never met before; why might they address each other as tu?
- Your answer should include: job status / social network
- Which form of address might you use to translate a poster saying "Win prizes!"?
How to form ‘vous’
To form the ‘vous’ part of the verb:
- for verbs ending -er, remove the last two letters of the infinitive and add ‘-ez’ e.g. ‘vous aimez’, ‘vous mangez’
- for verbs ending -ir, remove the last two letter of the infinitve and add ‘-issez’ e.g. ‘vous finissez’ (N.B. irregular verbs just add ‘-ez’ and include dormir (to sleep), sortir (to go out), mentir (to lie), partir (to leave), sentir (to feel) and servir (to serve)
- for verbs ending -re, remove the last two letters of the infinitive and add ‘-ez’ e.g. ‘vous vendez’