In French, there are two ways of saying you: tu and vous. Knowing when to use which French pronoun will help you navigate through many social situations. “Tu” is only used to address one person, while “vous” is used to address one or more people. As a singular second person pronoun, “vous” is used in more formal contexts while “tu” is more familiar.
Historically, English worked similarly with the pronoun “thou” and its corresponding terms (“thy”, “thine”) being more familiar and for one person, while “you” and its corresponding terms (“your”, “yours”) were used for individuals in more formal contexts and also to address many people. If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, which draw from many social contexts, it could help you get a sense of the levels of formality and familiarity expressed by “vous” and “tu”. Of course, that was a different era, but it helps to get a sense of nuances in addressing people of different rank, milieu, and affinity. Think of Samson of the house of Capulet saying “No sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir” when encountering Abraham of the house of Montague in Romeo and Juliet. He later says to his fellow servant, “Gregory, remember thy swashing blow” when Abraham takes offense and they decide to fight.
In French you generally use “tu” to address friends, family members, or children. If you are inviting a friend to your home for coffee, then you would say “Tu viens chez moi prendre un café ?” Using the French pronoun “vous” would sound awkward in this situation, since a friend is by definition someone with whom you are familiar. People within families also use “tu” when addressing one another, regardless of age, which also comes from a sense of familiarity. There are some exceptions to this, as we see in Louis Malle’s film, Au revoir, les enfants, which takes place during World War II at a Catholic boys’ school. In this film, one of the pupils, Julien, says “vous” to his mother, since they are from a very bourgeois family. Children are always tutoied, though, as are pets and inanimate objects, such as smartphones, cars, and instruments, if their owners feel the need to do things like yell at them if they don’t work properly or praise them for how well-tuned they sound.
In some professional contexts, you would also use “tu”, as between colleagues at work, unless you are speaking to someone of a much higher rank or the relationship is very formal. Members of a troupe would also tutoie one another, as would participants in a dance class or sports team. Students generally tutoie one another as well, although they would vouvoie their professors. Things might change a bit within French learning environments in non-francophone countries, taking on the characteristics of the countries they are in. Ergo, you might find people in French departments at American universities all saying “tu” to one another, partly because American universities have a less formal culture and partly because there are a lot of people in that environment who are still learning to differentiate between what form of address to use.
Generally, though, it is more common to use “vous” when addressing a professor, and professors also use “vous” for students. This begins in France when children attend lycée, their high school. Before that, students address their instructors as “vous” while they are themselves addressed as “tu”. Being addressed at lycée as “vous” is a bit of a rite of passage, indicating that students are entering a more adult environment and taking on responsibilities, such as studying long hours for the baccalaureate exam!
If you are applying for any kind of a position, whether it is for study or work, you would use “vous” forms in your letter of interest, as seen in this standard closing address for formal letters: “Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués”. You would also use “vous” forms at an interview, with new business contacts, and in bureaucratic situations.
In addition, if you are receiving medical attention, you and your medical practitioner will address each other as “vous”. So no matter how many intimate details of your life you give to your therapists, you would still use “vous” when speaking to them. Idem for receiving a medical exam while only wearing a flimsy paper robe.
Remaining on the formal side usually shows politeness, and if you are unsure about whether to use “tu” or “vous”, or if your degree of familiarity changes between you and another person, you can always ask “Est-ce qu’on se vouvoie ou est-ce qu’on se tutoie ?” This happens among French speakers regularly, as their knowledge of one another changes, as do their ranks and the contexts in which they see one another.
There are some unique situations in which you would use the “tu” form for an unknown person or for a very honored presence. If an unknown person smashed your bike, for example, you could yell at this person, using a “tu” form. And if you prayed to a deity you revered afterward for guidance, you would also use a “tu” form. Using “tu” to address Dieu is very common. On the other hand, certain prayers, such as the “Hail Mary”, “Je vous salue Marie”, use the “vous” form.
As you can see, whether or not to use “tu” or “vous” in a French-speaking environment largely depends on social context. Age and rank have to do with what to use, as well as formality vs. familiarity. Most of the time you will be addressing people in a larger context, so it will become apparent what the norms are in the situations in which you find yourself. If you are enrolling at a French university, for instance, and all of the students are addressing one another as “tu”, you should do the same. And if you are introduced to someone who says “Je vous présente ... ”, you can conclude that “vous” should be used in this context, especially since it is a context of introduction and thus most or all parties are unfamiliar with one another. As with any aspect of language, it helps to be observant, listen carefully, and respond to one’s environment, and that is always appreciated, no matter what social context you enter.
Knowing and mastering French grammar can be difficult. However, the more you use them, the more clear you will be. Glossika shows you when "tu" and "vous" are used in real-life conversations, which gives you a better idea of when to use which French pronoun. Our spaced repetition training builds up your understanding of French grammar by familiarizing you little by little with various sentence structures and patterns.
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