If your native language doesn't distinguish between a formal and informal 'you' form (and even if it does), mastering the French 'you' can feel like Mission Impossible. In English, there's no distinction between the 'you' used when speaking to a friend and the 'you' used when speaking to a stranger, your boss, or an authority figure. In many other languages—French included—there is.
While you may be tempted to just stick to one form, this isn't a good strategy. If you go around using vous with everyone, French speakers will think you're being too formal or distant. However, if you only use tu, you risk offending people or stumbling into an awkward situation.
If you're struggling to know the differences between vous and tu, here's a quick guide to help you out!
The French ‘You’: What are the Differences?
French has nine different subject pronouns: je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, and elles. Fortunately, many of them use the same conjugations (il/elle/on and ils/elles) so you don't need to memorize nine different conjugations. Unfortunately, tu and vous use different conjugations, so you will need to learn them separately.
That's not the only difference between these two forms of 'you'. Depending on who you're talking to and the situation you're in, you may be required to use vous instead of tu or vice versa.
When to Use Tu
Tu is the informal French 'you'. Use tu when you're talking with people of the same age in an informal setting and with people you know well. It is also used with children. Here are a few examples of situations where you would use tu:
- Between work colleagues that you know well
- With friends and family
- With people your own age when you aren't in a professional setting
When to Use Vous
Vous is the formal 'you' in French. Use it in situations that require a level of professionalism or with people you don't know. Here are some situations where you should use vous:
- When speaking with older people who aren't related to you (unless you've been given permission to use tu)
- With strangers
- When addressing multiple people at once
- At work and other professional settings (ie. a conference)
- In bureaucratic settings, such as with government workers and officials
- In customer relationships
When in doubt, it's always better to start with vous and wait for someone to tell you to use tu rather than doing it the other way around.
French Conjugation for ‘You’
As mentioned previously, both tu and vous use different conjugations, you will need to learn the correct conjugation for each pronoun in all the tenses. I won't write out all of those conjugations, but here's a conjugation tool that may be helpful if you're trying to remember how to conjugate a certain verb.
As you continue your French learning journey, you'll learn about the multiple tenses used in French and some slightly more complicated French grammar rules. Again, I won't go in-depth into all of these nuances, but as some of them depend on which form of 'you' is used, I will give you a simplified version so you aren't caught off guard when you do start studying deeper.
Reflexive French Verbs
You've probably seen reflexive verbs already. They're the verbs that require the form of se/s' + verbe such as s'habiller, se lever, and s'asseoir ('dress', 'stand up', and 'sit down'). These types of verbs require a special conjugation pattern no matter which verb tense you choose. Don't worry, though: This pattern is repetitive and once you know it, conjugating reflexive French verbs isn't that hard.
Conjugating for Tu
When using tu plus a reflexive verb, the se part of the verb simply changes to te (if it's s' then it becomes t'). Here are some examples:
- s'habiller > Tu t' habilles (You get dressed)
- se lever > Tu te lèves (You stand up)
- s'asseoir > Tu t' assieds (You sit down)
If you want to use a past tense, however, you must conjugate the verb with être. All reflexive verbs are conjugated this way no matter the subject pronoun. However, this means that you will have to accord the past participle according to the gender of tu just like you do with adjectives. This means if the tu you are referring to is female, you need to add an 'e' to the end of the past participle. If the tu is male, then you don't.
Here's what that looks like in passé composé:
- For males: Tu t'es habillé, Tu t'es levé, Tu t'es assis
- For females: Tu t'es habillée, Tu t'es levée, Tu t'es assise
Conjugating for Vous
The good news is that vous doesn't have any special rules. Once you know the basics for conjugating reflexive French verbs with tu, you can do it with vous.
When conjugating a reflexive verb for vous, simply replace the se or s' by vous. Here's our example from above, but conjugated for vous:
- s'habiller > Vous vous habillez (You get dressed)
- se lever > Vous vous levez (You stand up)
- s'asseoir > Vous vous asseyez (You sit down)
In the past tense, you'll follow the same rules as before: Conjugate with être and accord the past participle. The only difference here is that if you are addressing multiple people, you need to add an 's'. If the entire group is female, then you'll add an 'e' just before the 's'. If there is one person in the group that is male, though, then you only need to add an 's'. If the past participle already ends in an 's', nothing gets added.
Here is our example, but addressed to multiple people:
- For a group with at least one male: Vous vous êtes habillés, Vous vous êtes levés, Vous vous êtes assis (As assis already ends in 's', nothing is added)
- For a group of only females: Vous vous êtes habillées, Vous vous êtes levées, Vous vous êtes assises (Here, assis has an 'e' added as we're addressing females, so we do need to add an 's')
If you are addressing one person formally, then you only need to accord by gender. Here is our example:
- For males: Vous vous êtes habillé, Vous vous êtes levé, Vous vous êtes assis
- For females: Vous vous êtes habillée, Vous vous êtes levée, Vous vous êtes assise
It’s All About You
I know it can feel overwhelming at first, but it really isn't. After some practice, you'll be conjugating both versions of the French 'you' with confidence.
When it comes to practicing your French, a French immersion program really is the best way to go. It isn't the only way, though, so if you can't afford it or can't take the time off, then using online resources such as French podcasts is another great way.
Whether you do an immersion program or you use online resources at home, exposing yourself to the French language is the best way to speed up your learning process. You'll hear real-life uses of tu and vous as well as their conjugations. This repetition is great at helping solidify the base knowledge you already have.
Just as a review before you go, here's a table to follow when it comes to choosing between tu and vous:
|With friends and family
|In casual social situations
|In professional and official situations
|With older people unrelated to you
|With colleagues you know well
|With your boss and colleagues you don't know well
|To address a single person
|To address a group