Tu Vs Vous In French: Which Pronoun For You Should I Choose?

If you’re new to learning French then one of the most confusing areas to master is learning the difference between when to use the personal pronouns “tu” and and vous”.

My name is David Issokson. I offer French lessons via Skype and have spent my entire life learning and mastering French. I used to struggle with the distinction between tu an vous. However, I now have several guidelines on when to use tu and when to use vous and would like to share them with you today.

What Are Tu & Vous?

First I must explain what is “tu” and what is “vous”. Basically, there are two ways of saying “you” in French. This is very tricky for English speakers because we have one simple word: “you”.

The word “tu” means “you” in the singular, meaning when you’re talking to one specific person. More importantly, “tu” is the familiar form of “you”, meaning you use it when you’re talking to somebody you already know (a peer) or somebody who’s younger than yourself.

“Vous” is the plural form of you, meaning that you use it when you’re talking to a group of people. It would equate to “ya’all” in the American south or “you guys” in other regions of the country. Vous is also used as the formal “you” when you’re speaking to a stranger or somebody older than yourself.

In my online teaching I always use “tu” with my students. This is because I believe it helps to foster a friendly learning atmosphere. In many online courses such as Rocket French, “tu” as the creators of the course were aiming for a casual approach when they wrote the lessons.

With Strangers Always Start With Vous

A key question is who should I use “vous” with. The answer is simple: Use it with people who you don’t know and with your elders. This includes anybody who’d you’d meet working in a place of business such as a shop, restaurant, train station, etc.

You’d also use “vous” initially with your French teacher as well as friends and relatives of your French friends. If you’re working in France you’d use “vous” with your boss, supervisors and with colleagues who you don’t know very well.

While you might be tempted to use “tu” when you first meet somebody it’s always wise to start with “vous”. Then, let them tell you to use “tu”. Based on my experience some people have told me to use “tu” right away while others never told me to use “tu” and I’ve used “vous” with them for many years!

One really tricky question is which to use with somebody your own age who you meet in a social setting such as a party. The French will often use “vous” in these situations and this might seem a bit strange to you as an English speaker.My suggestion is to just go with the flow and use “vous”. If you really feel comfortable with the person you could suggest using “tu”.

In Some Situations Using “Tu” Is 100% Okay

There are lots of situations where it would be very awkward to use “vous” and you’re expected to use “tu”. The main one is when talking to kids. More specifically this refers to both children and adolescents. In French culture if you were to say “vous” to a child it would appear very strange. That said, if a child were to use “tu” with you as an adult and foreign visitor it would appear as very rude and disrespectful.

If you’re speaking to a group of kids you still must use “vous” because “vous” means “you plural”, as mentioned above.

How To Tell Somebody To Use Tu Or Vous

The French actually have specific verbs which describe “call me tu” or “call me you”. The verb for “call me tu” or “say tu” is: “tutoyer“. So, to tell somebody, “You can use tu with me” say: “Tu peux me tutoyer“. The verb for “to say vous” is “vouvoyer“. If a young person is inappropriately using “tu” with you you can tell him or her: “Tu dois me vouvoyer!” or “You must say vous to me!”. If you’d like to ask an older person if it’s okay to use “tu” you may ask, “Est-ce que je peux vous tutoyer?

You Can Learn From My Mistakes!

I’ve goofed up with tu and vous a few times over the years. While these situations seem funny to me now I really did learn a lot from them.

When I first arrived in France in 1992 I met my French host family in the train platform in Douai, France. When I got off the train and met my host mother for the first time on the platform I asked her, “Comment t’appelles-tu?”, or “What’s your name?” in the “tu” form.

My mistaken logic for using “tu” at that time was that since I was going to see her everyday for one year I may as well be friendly from the get-go. However, I was totally unaware that it’s seen as extremely rude in French culture to use “tu” initially with an older stranger. Nobody said anything that day but at a later date I was told I’d been out of place.

A second situation where I wanted to put my foot in my mouth was with a university professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1993. I was taking a French composition course with the native French-speaking students. The professor was very young — probably just out of university herself. Furthermore, she was extremely friendly and had a wonderful demeanor.

Thus, I decided to use “tu” with her in front of all the other students. This went on for a few weeks until she pulled me aside and told me that saying “tu” to a university professor is very rude. I put my tail between my legs and said, “Excusez-moi, madame“.

Conclusion

I hope this short article on when to use tu and when to use vous has helped. In summary, use vous with both strangers and people older then yourself. When in doubt use vous initially and let them tell you to use “tu”. Also, use “vous” with a group of people as “vous” also means “you plural”. Use “tu” with kids and remember that to use “vous” with them would be seen as awkward.

What’s been your experience with using “tu” and “vous”? Has this article helped? Please let me know in the comments section below. Merci!

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