Elle est jeune. Mais elle est inconnue de vous. «Tu» ou «vous»?
She’s young. But you don’t know her. «Tu» or «vous»?
- «tu» ou «vous» – le bon usage
learning to use «tu» and «vous» correctly
When you want to address someone in English, it’s easy. You always use the word ‘you’.
In French you can address someone as tu or vous. It’s a question of social practice.
Vous is generally a mark of respect:
Monsieur, je vous demande pardon, vous avez l’heure s’il vous plaît?
Excuse me, sir, do you have the time please?
Tu is generally a sign of informality:
Tu veux un café ma chérie?
Do you want a coffee my darling?
But should you be respectful or informal with work colleagues? Strangers? Your mother-in-law? The distinction is often subtle. Getting it straight from the start is a good way of building confidence.
First though, let’s look at the grammatical distinctions.
Tu is always singular. You pronounce the u sound by making a circle with your lips and compressing the middle of your cheeks. You’ll get a chance to practise at the end of the lesson.
Bonjour, tu vas bien?
Hello, are you well?
can only refer to just one person. The verb that follows tu always ends in a silent s.
Tu parles français?
Do you speak French?
Tu chantes bien.
You sing well.
Tu manges trop.
You eat too much.
Tu es gentil.
You are nice (masculine).
Tu es gentille.
You are nice (feminine).
Tu seras en vacances bientôt.
You will be on holiday soon.
Tu voudrais aller au cinéma ce soir?
Would you like to go to the cinema tonight?
The vous form is used as a mark of respect when addressing one person. It’s also used when addressing a group of people whatever your relationship with them. You find the ou sound by making a circle with your lips but relaxing your cheek muscles.
Bonjour, vous allez bien?
Hello, how are you?
could be directed at one person or a group of people – it depends on the context. The verb that follows vous will, generally speaking, end in -ez. -ez in French is pronounced like the letter A in English.
Vous voulez un café ou un thé?
Do you want a coffee or a tea?
Vous serez à l’heure.
You will be on time.
Vous aviez une maison en Provence?
You used to have a house in Provence?
There are two important verbs that don’t end in -ez in the vous form in the present:
you do, you make
Vous faites des erreurs de frappe.
You are making typing errors.
Vous dites vrai. Vous avez raison.
What you say is true. You’re right.
3 «Tu» or «Vous»?
So, when does one use the respectful vous and when the informal tu? Here are some guidelines:
Children under the age of 13 are normally spoken to in the tu form. A shopkeeper, for example, or a teacher might say:
Comment tu t’appelles?
What’s your name?
Est-ce que tu sais lire?
Do you know how to read?
Tu veux un bonbon?
Do you want a sweet?
S’il te plaît, sois sage.
Tu as perdu ta langue?
Have you lost your tongue? (Directed at a child who’s turned quiet.)
Older children though, will be told:
Vous vous appelez comment?
What’s your name?
Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?
What do you want?
Je voudrais vous parler après la classe.
I would like to speak with you after the class.
The right to tutoyer les adultes – to speak to other adults in the tu form – depends on the relationship you have with them.
Strangers are always vous. This is particularly true of anyone you meet in a professional context. A shop assistant – even one who looks young enough to be your son or daughter – is always vous.
Vous avez Le Monde, s’il vous plaît?
Do you have Le Monde, please?
Vous avez des timbres?
Do you have some stamps?
The same goes for any adult you meet for the first time in a professional context.
ii) Work colleagues
If you go for a job interview, or you are meeting a company representative, you will use the vous form: you are meeting a stranger in a professional context.
Most people who work closely together will finish by using tu in the end.
But the vous form is still used by managers who wish to keep their distance. They use vous to their hierarchical inferiors, knowing full well that they will receive reciprocal treatment:
Mademoiselle, vous porterez le courrier dans mon bureau, s’il vous plaît?
Young lady, would you bring the post to my office please?
Bien monsieur le Président, vous voulez que je le classe?
Certainly, Mr. President, would you like me to put it in order?
Often people who tutoient in private will adopt the vous form in a board meeting or in a public debate, to show that the context is impersonal. Sometimes they slip up though. It’s amusing to listen out on television for politicians who use tu by accident when addressing their opponents.
iii) The family
There was a time when the French aristocracy used the vous form between husband and wife, parents and children. Today tu is the only form to use within the close family.
Quand tu prends ma voiture, fiston, c’est toujours pareil: tu oublies de remplir le réservoir!
When you take my car, my lad, it’s always the same: you forget to fill up the tank.
If you have French in-laws, begin with vous and listen for a signal. Some will invite you to move to tu – others will stick with the formal vous. Either way, you shouldn’t take it personally: it generally depends more on their character than yours.
4 Making the change
So how do you move from tu to vous? When a stranger becomes a friend, a work associate becomes a colleague, or a mother-in-law starts to gossip, they will say:
Est-ce que je peux vous tutoyer?
Can I use «tu»?
If you don’t want to cause a scandal, the answer is:
Oui, bien sûr!
Yes, of course.
Some people enjoy scandal though. It’s said that François Mitterrand enjoyed replying to the invitation to tutoyer with the words:
Comme vous voulez.
As you wish.
leaving the person he was talking to utterly mortified.
5 Some subtleties
To finish this lesson, some more subtle connotations of the tu form. In the world of theatre and dance, everyone uses it. It’s a sign of simplicity and friendship:
Tu comprends, Coco, il faudrait davantage de subventions.
You understand, Coco, we need more subsidies.
In the world of politics, it’s a sign of alliance. For parties to the right, the connotation is that of an exclusive club:
Mon cher, tu as été magnifique, bravo, vraiment!
My dear you were magnificent, well done, really!
And for parties to the left, the use of tu is a sign of egalitarian principles. In the communist party, for example:
Camarade, tu trahis le parti, tu es exclu.
Comrade, you are betraying the party, you are expelled.
And the tu form can also be used as a means of insulting strangers. For example, following a traffic accident:
Tu pourrais faire attention, chauffard! T’as* eu ton permis dans une pochette surprise?
You could pay attention, road hog. Did you get your driving licence in a lucky dip?
*Normally «tu as» is written as two separate words. «T’as» is a contraction used to denote slang.
Now click below for the exercises