Tu or vous means “you” in French. But it depends on who you’re talking to.
Knowing how to choose between tu and vous is one of the most complicated things a non-native French speaker will have to learn. Fortunately, there are some rules and tips that will make it a lot easier.
Here is how to choose the right “you” in French!
Why you must know the difference between tu and vous
How would you react if a stranger came up to you, and said: “Hey dude, what’s up”?
You might be embarrassed, maybe even angry. You would wonder who this guy is, why he’s talking to you as if you’re his best friend.
That’s exactly the same in French, only formality starts with how you say “you”.
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 you don’t respect them – or, conversely, that you’re keeping them at a distance (even though you actually want to be friendly). For this reason, knowing when to use tu and when to use vous is critical.
Let’s learn a little more about each of these ways to say “you” in French.
Vous: the formal French “you”
Vous is the safe “you” in French.
If you don’t know whether you should use vous or tu, it’s usually best to use vous. At least you won’t seem disrespectful.
That said, it’s best to use vous when you actually need to. You should use vous to say “you” in French with:
- People you don’t know (people on the street, shop owners…)
- People more than 20 years older than you
- more than one person/a group
The last one is particularly important. If you’re addressing more than one person, always use vous, because vous is also the plural “you”. Vous is used to refer to multiple people, no matter how informal your relationship is.
For instance, you could refer to a group of people you’ve just met as vous. But if you’re talking to all of your family members at once, you’d address them as vous, too.
Bonjour Monsieur Dupont, comment allez-vous ? (Hello, Monsieur Dupont, how are you?)
Excusez-moi, savez-vous où se trouve le train pour Chartres ? (Excuse me/Pardon me, do you know where the train for Chartres is?)
J’espère que vous allez tous bien. (I hope you’re all doing well.)
Vous êtes mes meilleurs amis. (You’re my best friends.)
Tu: the informal French “you”
Think about the people you are the closest to.
Your parents, your husband/wife, your friends, your pet, maybe some of your colleagues.
These are people you can use tu with.
You can also use tu with:
- kids and teenagers
- people you interact with on most internet forums
- God. The fact that Francophones refer to God with the informal tu often surprises non-native speakers. Some religious French people say that it’s because God knows you and created you. But on this very interesting comment thread about why tu is used when addressing God, others point out that in Hebrew and Arabic, there is no tu or vous, so the default just seems to be tu. Another commenter explains that there is an older form of tu that was used to address very powerful people, like a king, so referring to God this way may come from there. One thing that even native speakers find a bit funny is that while you refer to God as tu, all other religious figures (saints, the Virgin Mary, priests, rabbis, etc.) are usually referred to with the formal vous.
Note that you never use tu when addressing multiple people. Remember that, regardless of your relationship to them, vous is always the plural form of “you” in French.
Tu es trop mignon ! (You’re so/too cute!)
Je t’aime. (I love you.)
Notre Père qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié… (“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name….” – the beginning of The Lord’s Prayer/Our Father, which is addressed to God)
Tu es mon meilleur ami. (You’re my best friend.)
Questions you may ask yourself about tu and vous
Can I start a conversation with vous and switch to tu later?
When you speak English, you sometimes start talking to someone formally, and then switch to 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 usually happens because you aren’t sure whether you can use tu or not (for instance, if you’re talking to a new boss or an older person), 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.
How to ask someone if you can use tu
Sometimes you won’t know whether you should use tu when you’re talking to someone. Fortunately, the French have a verb for that: tutoyer. So to be safe, you can ask:
On se tutoie ? (Can we use tu with one another?)
or in a more formal way:
Est-ce que je peux vous tutoyer ? (May I use tu with you?)
This is sort of a rhetorical question, though, since someone answering “No” would be awkward (although it’s not impossible).
One exceptional, notorious example is when current French President Emmanuel Macron, who was Minister of Finances at the time, was on an official visit and was referred to as tu by a dissenter in the crowd. On ne tutoie pas un ministre (You don’t use tu with a minster (government official)), Macron corrected him. For some, this was a logical demand for respect, while others saw it as a sign of snobbishness, rigidity, or the distance between the government and the people.
Can you ask if you should use vous with someone?
Just as there’s a verb for asking about using tu, there’s also a verb that means “to use/to refer to someone with vous“. This verb is vouvoyer.
Note that there is no “s” after the ou in this verb.
Unlike tutoyer, it’s uncommon – and would probably be pretty awkward – to use vouvoyer when talking to someone – after all, it’s like saying “You will address me with respect/distance”! So it tends to be more used when talking about how you address someone.
On vouvoie la reine d’Angleterre. (You should address the Queen of England as vous.)
Je vouvoie ma belle-mere, car nous ne sommes pas très proches. (I use vous with my mother-in-law.)
Nous nous vouvoyons même après toutes ces années. (We use vous with each other, even after all these years.)
Can it be rude to use vous?
In case of doubt, it’s almost always better to use vous rather than tu, especially with people you would normally refer to with respect or distance.
However, there are some rare cases where the use of vous instead of tu can offend a person.
The key is to remember 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 in age.
Obviously, context matters. For instance, if the two are in a professional context, it may not at all be an issue, especially if, say, they’re doing business or dealing with a customer service issue over the phone. Vous feels much more offensive or distancing if it’s being used with friends, acquaintances, or possibly neighbors.
If one friend uses vous and the other tu, this may create distance and make the friend who uses tu feel uncomfortable. It would be even worse between people in a romantic relationship.
What can I do if I accidentally use tu or vous?
The subtext of using tu or vous may make non-native speakers nervous. Luckily, most French people will understand if you use the wrong one and may just ignore it. But if you feel they might be bothered by it, or that it’s important to clarify, here are some phrases that might be helpful:
Pardon, je voulais dire vous. (Sorry, I meant to address you as “vous”)
Pardon je voulais dire tu. (Oh, sorry, I meant to address you as “tu”)
Pardon, quand je suis fatigué(e), j’ai tendance à tutoyer tout le monde ! (Sorry, when I’m tired I tend to call everyone tu !)
Pardon, quand je suis fatigué(e), j’ai tendance à vouvoyer tout le monde ! (Sorry, when I’m tired I tend to call everyone vous !)
Because you’re a non-native speaker, the person you’re talking to will probably understand and have no issues. And in some cases, when you apologize for using tu instead of vous, the other person may even see it as an opening and say it’s okay for you to call them tu from then on!
Is it okay if one person uses tu while the other uses vous?
It’s perfectly acceptable for one person to use tu while the other uses vous. It all depends on the relationship between the two people.
For instance, this happens when an adult talks to a kid.
Between adults or social equals, some people feel uncomfortable with this though, so they may tell you:
Tu peux me tutoyer. (You can use tu with me.)
Should I use vous or tu on the internet?
It’s much more common to use tu online, regardless of the age the person you’re talking to.
That said, there are, of course, exceptions. For instance, writing professional or formal emails. The best way to know whether you should use tu or vous is to observe and see what people use.
For example, if you’re on a video game forum or gaming online, using tu will generally be okay, even expected. If you’re commenting on an article from Le Monde, vous would be much more appropriate.
How can I get better at knowing when to use tu or vous?
Native French speakers grow up using tu and vous and generally have no problem instinctively choosing between one or the other. If you want to know more about what that’s like, this fascinating article by a Frenchman gives some very interesting insights.
For non-native French speakers, though, learning when to use tu and when to use vous is one of the biggest challenges of mastering French, and most will probably make at least a few mistakes, even if they’re fluent speakers. Fortunately, most French people will understand, and if they don’t, just remember that you can explain yourself using the phrases you’ve learned in our article.
That said, things aren’t totally hopeless. The more familiar you are with French, the more at ease you’ll feel with tu and vous. Make sure you read, listen to, and watch things in French as much as possible. Here’s a list of ways to do that, to get you started or maybe give you some new ideas.
For a quick way to get a solid foundation on when to use tu and when to use vous, you may also want to print out the chart in our article (or save a screenshot on your phone). Try to look at it often and quiz yourself.
Another extremely helpful thing you can do is speak French. If you don’t have a native French speaker in your life, don’t worry – it’s easy to find a French conversation partner! Speaking to someone is helpful because you can ask them about your tu and vous concerns, and they can also correct you (in a nice way) if you make a mistake.
Don’t forget to conjugate the verb accordingly
Remember that using vous to address one person doesn’t mean you keep the verb conjugation in the same form as the singular tu. You still have to conjugate it for vous.
For instance, you’d say Bonjour ! Comment allez-vous ? whether you’re addressing one person as vous or a group of people.
Not sure which “you” to use in French?
In most cases, if you aren’t sure if you should address someone as tu or vous, use vous until you are invited to use tu. You may sound overly polite, but you won’t have to worry about being rude.
That said, there are a few exceptions. If you’re talking to a child, even if you don’t know them, always use tu. And if you’re age 15-35, you can pretty safely use tu with anyone you meet in the same age group, unless it’s in an extremely formal or professional setting.
Knowing when to use tu and vous in French is a challenge for most non-native speakers. But learning the basic rules will be a big help – and reading, listening to, watching, and speaking French, will, too. Bon apprentissage à vous tous ! (Happy learning to you all!)