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When to use vous vs tu in French

How would you react if a stranger came up to you, and said: “Hey there, what’s up” ?

You would probably wonder what is wrong with that person! Or be embarrassed, maybe even angry. You would most probably wonder who this guy is and why he talks to you as if you were his best friend!

That’s exactly the same in French. The distinction between “vous” and “tu” indicates your relationship to the person you are talking to. Using the wrong form will lead people to think that you don’t respect them. For this reason, knowing when to use “tu” and when to use “vous” is critical.

Every day spent in French brings its fair share of challenges for all learners. Choosing whether to use “tu” or “vous” with the people we interact is indeed a tricky thing!

If “vous” is always the safest bet, then when do we switch to “tu”?

Here Are 5 Great Tips To Know When to Use “Tu & Vous” In French!

1. Vous = The Formal “You”

If you don’t know whether you should use “vous” or “tu”, use “vous”. Nobody will ever blame you for being too formal.

You use “vous” to say “you” in French with:

  • People you don’t know (people on the street, sellers…)
  • At work: with colleagues and bosses you don’t know well
  • People older than you
  • Groups

The last one is particularly important. If you talk to multiple people, you always use “vous”, because “vous” is also the plural “you”.

2. Tu = The Informal “You”

Think about the people you are the closest to: your parents, your husband/wife, your friends, maybe some of your colleagues. These are the people you can use “tu” with.

You can also use “tu” with:

  • Kids and teenagers
  • God
  • On most internet forums

You never use “tu” when talking to a group.

3. Can I start a conversation with “Vous” and switch to “Tu” later?

Absolutely! When you speak English, you sometimes start talking to someone formally, and then switch to a more informal language as you get to know each other.

The same happens in French. Sometimes, you start talking to someone using “vous”, and finish the conversation with “tu”.

This also happens when you start a conversation with “vous” because you aren’t sure whether you can use “tu” or not, and then realize using “tu” would be perfectly fine with this person, either because the person invited you to use “tu” or because it just feels right.

4. How to ask a person if you can use “Tu” ?

Sometimes you won’t know whether you should use “vous” or “tu”. So to be safe, you can ask:

On se tutoie ? (Do we use “tu” with each other?)

or in a more formal way:

Est-ce que je peux vous tutoyer ? (May I use “tu” with you?)

This is a rhetorical question though and answering no would be awkward.

Remember:

  • tutoyer = saying “tu” to someone
    • Je tutoie mon père. (I say “tu” to my father.)
  • se tutoyer = to use “tu” with each other
    • Vous vous tutoyez?  (You use “tu” with each other?)
    • Oui, on se tutoie = Nous nous tutoyons. (Yes, we do.)
  • vouvoyer = saying “vous” to someone
    • Ma mère vouvoie encore son père. (My mother still says “vous” to her father.)
  • se vouvoyer = to use “vous” with each other
    • Vous vous vouvoyez?  (You use “vous” with each other?)
    • Oui, on se vouvoie = Nous nous vouvoyons. (Yes, we do.)

5. Can it be rude to use “Vous” ?

In case of doubt, it’s always better to use “vous” than “tu”.

However, there are some rare cases where the use of “vous” instead of “tu” can offend a person.

Now you probably wonder how being more polite can offend someone.

The reality is that “vous” doesn’t only show respect, it shows distance. So when a 20 year-old uses “vous” with a 40 year-old, the 40 year-old may feel older as a result. In this situation, the use of “vous” highlights the difference of age.

The same is true between friends. If one friend uses “vous” and the other “tu”, this may create distance and make the friend who uses “tu” feel uncomfortable.

Coming from Quebec, where we have a much more North American approach due to the influence of the English language where the notion of “Tu & Vous” doesn’t exist, I can confirm that we tend to use “Tu” much faster than in any other French speaking regions of the world. It is therefore very normal for a waiter or a cashier at the supermarket to use “tu” with their customers. It simply expresses their friendliness and what is considered good customer service. Many French speaking Europeans are shocked by this practice at first,  but it becomes very normal and “sympathique” after a while!

La recette de grammaire

Still not sure whether to use "vous" or "tu"? Make sure to watch our video for a little summary of the main rules to choose the most appropriate term.

I hope you now have more tools to help you know when to use “tu & vous” in your daily conversation in French!

Isabelle

As a native Québécoise, born to a Franco-Belgian family, now living in Nyon with her two children, Isabelle is no stranger to the expat reality! Trained as a professional opera singer, her passion for arts and languages led her to become an ambassador of the French language & francophone culture, i.e. a French Teacher!

She founded Prêt à Parler in January 2015. Since then she's been hard at work helping native and non-native English-speaking expats make French part of their everyday life! Prêt à Parler's mission is based on what Isabelle does best: helping busy professionals and parents improve their language skills by providing a high quality, eco-friendly, fun, no-nonsense approach to learning French online!

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