You in French: tu vs vous explained
There are two ways to say you in French: Tu and vous. Tu is you informal and singular. The French use tu to address 1) A single person; and 2) A known acquaintance or younger person. Vous is you for plural and formal. The French use vous to address 1) A group of people, and 2) Strangers and non-acquaintances.
My name is David. I have been both a student of the French language and teacher since 2013. I understand the difficultly when trying to choose tu or vous.
In this article I will explain the difference between tu and vous and provide several guidelines to help you which pronoun for you in French to use.
In addition to the personal pronouns tu and vous, there there are a few more ways to say you in French: te, t’ and vous (pronouns meaning to you or at you) and toi/vous (stressed pronouns for you). The last section of this article will cover the topics.
Tu vs vous: Which “you” should I choose?
What does tu mean and what does vous mean?
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 private lessons, I always use tu with my students. This is because I believe it helps to foster a friendly learning atmosphere.
When to use vous
A key question is with whom should I use vous?
The answer is simple: Use vous 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 should 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 should 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.
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.
When to use tu
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.
Tutoyer vs vouvoyer: Verbs for talking about you in French
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?“
Learn tu vs. vous 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.
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“.
Other important ways of saying you in French
In addition to tu and vous, there are four more other key ways of saying you in French.
Te or t’ as a direct and indirect object pronoun
Both te and t’ are direct and indirect object pronouns and are used to mean to you and at you. This page covers object pronouns in depth.
Here are two quick examples:
- Je te regarde. I look at you. (example of direct object pronoun).
- Je te réponds. I answer you. (example of indirect object pronoun).
In the context of object pronouns (to you, at you), vous is used. In this grammatical situation vous is not a personal pronoun but an object pronoun.
Two quick examples:
- Je vous regarde. I look at you.
- Je vous réponds. I answer you.
Toi and vous as stressed pronouns
Finally, there are to other important ways of saying you in French.
A stressed pronoun (also called disjunctive pronoun) is a personal pronoun that can be proceeded by a preposition such as avec, which means with.
Here are some examples:
- Je dîne avec toi. I have dinner with you.
- Je dîne avec vous. I have dinner with you.
Because of the preposition avec, we must you toi and not tu. Furthermore, in this context vous is is a stressed pronoun and not a personal pronoun.
You in French – summary table
There are two ways to say you in French: Tu and vous. The key differences between the two are summarized in the following table.
|You in French||Meaning||Comments|
|Tu||Personal pronoun. You singular and informal.||Use tu to address one single person who you know very well or who a child or adolescent.|
|Vous||Personal pronoun. You plural and formal.||For the plural usage, use vous to address more than one person. Age is irrelevant. Use vous to address people in formal situations or when talking to strangers. In this usage, vous can be both singular and plural.|
|Te, t', vous||Both direct and indirect object pronouns meaning to you and at you.||Examples: Je te vois (I see you); Je vous téléphone (I call you).|
|Toi, vous||Stressed pronouns. You when preceded by a preposition.||Examples: Je travaille pour toi/vous (I work for you).|