If you’ve ever wondered “what is the difference between tu and vous in French?,” you’re not alone! Unlike in English, where there’s only one word for you, you in French can be either vous or tu. Knowing when to use which can get confusing, so this post is here to walk you through every element of tu vs vous.
We’ll start off by exploring how to choose between tu and vous. We’ll then look at you in French as a personal pronoun, going over the subject, direct object, indirect object, and reflexive forms. Let’s get started!
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You in French: Singular vs plural
The most obvious difference of when to use tu vs vous is dependent on how many people you’re talking to. In English, you simply use the same word you whether you’re talking to one person, several people, or a whole audience (we’re not counting the American y’all or the Irish yous here!). However, that’s not the case for you in French.
If we’re speaking to just one person, we use the singular tu. If there’s more than one person, whether that’s two people or a whole crowd, we opt for the plural vous.
- You walk. – Tu marches.
- You (all) cook. – Vous cuisinez.
You might be wondering whether you’ll need to use a masculine or feminine form of you to accommodate gender. Unlike some languages, we don’t need to differentiate the gender when we say you in French: no matter the gender of the individual or group we’re speaking to, we always stick to tu or vous.
It’s also important to note that you should always use vous when speaking to two or more people, regardless of the formality of the situation. We’ll explain more on formality in the next section, but just remember: even if they’re your closest friends, if you’re speaking to more than one person, you always use vous!
Informal vs formal You in French
The second element of tu vs vous is slightly trickier, as it comes down to levels of formality. You can think of vous as the formal you in French, and tu as the French informal you.
The nuances of when to choose tu vs vous can be particularly tricky for native English speakers to master, since in English, you stays the same whether you’re talking to your mum, your boss, or the President. However, it’s a very different story in French: mixing up French tu vs vous can leave you not just sounding out of place, but even accidentally insulting the person you’re speaking to!
If all of this is starting to sound a bit stressful, don’t worry. Even native French speakers can find it difficult to know when to use the formal you in French. We’ve put together a quick guide below to help you understand when to use tu vs vous to navigate most social situations.
Vous: When to use the formal You in French
You should use vous if you don’t know the person you’re speaking to very well, or if you want to show your respect. This sounds simple enough, but the difficulty lies in knowing just who you should be paying respect to. For example, it’s polite in French to defer to people who are more senior than you (whether by age or job role), whereas in English, you often adopt a more informal approach.
Here’s a quick list of situations where it’s probably appropriate to use vous:
- Addressing any authority figure, including professors, police officers, customs agents, civil servants, etc.
- Talking to somebody older than you
- Speaking to your boss (an exception to this might be in a very informal organization, like a startup where you wear t-shirts to work – but even then, you’re probably safer starting with vous!).
- In business meetings
- When interacting with customer service such as a waiter, and with clients
- Anybody you don’t know – this includes people you ask for directions briefly or the person you’re chatting to in a queue
In short, go for vous if you don’t know the person that well or you want to show respect. If you’re in any doubt about tu vs vous, it’s typically safer to use vous – you can always switch to tu later down the line!
Tu: When to use the informal You in French
In contrast to vous, you use tu in relaxed, informal situations with people you know well. Here are some common situations where it’s a safe bet to use tu:
- Speaking to friends and family
- Chatting to people your age in informal social situations
- If you’re an adult speaking to a child or teenager
- Talking with work colleagues you know well
Be careful with that last one – as tu denotes a level of familiarity, it’s easy to accidentally cross a line! If you’re not completely sure, it can be safer to wait until they use tu with you first.
French children are usually addressed as tu by their teachers in primary school, but as they get older the teachers will address them as vous. This added level of formality serves not only to show respect to the young adults, but also to instill a sense of growing societal responsibility in these impressionable individuals. On the other hand, if a student addresses a professor as tu (without being invited to do so), this can be grounds for disciplinary action.
Se vouvoyer, Se tutoyer
French has specific verbs for using vous vs tu with someone: se vouvoyer means to address each other with vous, while se tutoyer means to address each other with tu. It’s actually quite common for people to declare how they’d like to be addressed by using these verbs. If you’re in doubt, you can always ask too!
- Can we use the tu form with each other? – On peut se tutoyer? – On se tutoie?
- During this workshop we’ll all address each other with tu. Is there anyone for whom this poses a problem? – Durant cet atelier, nous allons nous tutoyer. Est-ce qu’il y en a pour qui cela pose problème ?
- You should use vous with the boss. – Tu devrais vouvoyer le chef.
French personal pronouns
Now that we understand the difference between vous and tu, let’s take a look at you in French when it’s used in different parts of a sentence.
English uses the same word you, whether it serves as the subject pronoun, the direct object pronoun, or the indirect object pronoun. Only as a reflexive pronoun does English use a different form: yourself.
For the singular familiar you in French there’s a second word instead of tu that’s used in the other three cases: te. (When the word following te starts with a vowel sound, te is contracted to t’.) Finally, tu can become toi when it’s stressed in certain sentence structures.
In French, vous is the personal pronoun in all of these cases, whether it’s used as the singular formal you or as the plural you.
To see what we mean here, take a look at the table below to see how we translate you to each of these pronouns. You’ll see that there’s very little variation, making it easy to remember!
|French: Informal singular
|French: Formal or Plural
Now let’s look at each of these pronouns in turn and explore some examples.
Subject pronouns: Tu, vous
You is frequently used as a subject pronoun. The subject pronoun is the word we use as the subject of the conjugated verb (the one who’s driving the action of the verb). To review the others, see our post on French subject pronouns.
- You can help. – Tu peux aider.
- You understand. – Vous comprenez.
Direct object pronouns: Te, t’, vous
The direct object pronoun in a sentence is the replacement noun for a person or thing that the action, or verb, is done to. We can see this in action in one of the most famous French phrases!
- I love you. – Je t’aime.
Here, you is the direct object pronoun, because that’s the direct object that the verb “love” is applied to. Because the speaker is obviously very familiar with the person, the tu form is applicable, which is te when it’s a direct object. And because “aime” starts with a vowel, te is shortened to t’.
Of course, in other situations, we might opt for te if the next word starts with a consonant, or for vous to add formality or if we’re addressing more than one person.
- We see you. – Nous te voyons.
- He knows all of you. – Il vous connaît.
- I respect you. – Je vous respecte.
Indirect object pronouns: Te, t’, vous
The indirect object pronoun is used to replace the indirect object of the verb. An easy way to remember this is that these pronouns are used with verbs that are followed by à, or in English, by to.
- I want to talk to you. – Je veux te parler.
- I’m asking all of you. – Je vous demande.
- She writes to you every week. – Elle t’écrit chaque semaine.
Reflexive pronouns: Te, t’, vous
Reflexive pronouns are used with reflexive verbs, which are actions that the speaker does to themself. They’re not as common in English, but they’re easy to spot when they are, as they’re usually expressed in the you form as yourself.
- You dress yourself. – Tu t’habilles.
- You hurt yourself. – Vous vous faites mal.
- You pick yourself up. – Tu te lèves.
Stressed pronouns: Toi, vous
Finally, we’ll mention another form of tu that appears in sentences for emphasis: toi. Grammatically, toi can actually fall into the other categories of pronouns we just saw above, but we’ll introduce it on its own here simply as a stressed form of you in French.
In English, the equivalent is sometimes you, sometimes yourself, or sometimes just implied. For the vous form, it remains vous as always!
- You, what do you think? – Toi, tu penses quoi ? – Vous, vous pensez quoi ?
- Are you listening to me or what? I’m talking to you! – Tu m’écoutes ou quoi ? Je parle à toi ! – Vous m’écoutez ou quoi ? Je parle à vous !
- Brush your hair! – Brosse-toi les cheveux ! – Brossez-vous les cheveux !
In this post we’ve gone over the fundamental topic of tu vs vous in French, explaining the important differences between the various forms of you in French.
The main points to keep in mind when considering tu vs vous are whether you’re addressing one person (tu) or more than one (vous), and whether you need to use formal you in singular (vous). Remember that proper use of the formal vous form can be pretty important in a lot of social contexts.
Once we covered the pivotal differences for choosing between tu vs vous, we looked at their other forms as they can appear in different parts of a sentence. Whereas vous is the same no matter where it appears, tu becomes te (or t’) when used as a direct object pronoun, an indirect object pronoun, or a reflexive pronoun, and can become toi in certain sentence structures when it’s stressed.
You should now be able to confidently answer “what is the difference between tu and vous in French?” You’ll surely hear and use tu in French all the time, but just remember that vous is often the safest bet and is often easier to use anyway!