When do I use tu and when do I use vous?

The words tu and vous both mean you. In English, the word you can be used to address any person or number of people, whatever the age, social status etc of that person. In French, which word for you is used depends on the person being addressed (spoken/written to).

A common misconception is that "tu is used for talking to children and vous for talking to adults" or "tu is for friends and vous is for strangers". If this was the whole truth, life would be nice and simple and we could all go away and have a cup of tea rather than reading web pages about when to use tu and when to use vous (and I wouldn't have to write one...). As we'll see below, the reality is a bit more complex. For example, there are situations where two adults meeting for the first time will automatically use tu, and cases where an adult will address a child as vous.

So what can we make of this complex situation? Well, remember first that tu is always used to address a single person. As a general rule of thumb:

The tu form is more likely to be used to address somebody in a similar social situation.

So what does similar social situation mean? Well, all sorts of things-- I've chosen a deliberately vague term. But things like:

  • Age
  • Your role in the current "speech context" (shopkeeper vs. customer; teacher vs. pupil)
  • By extension, job status (junior vs. boss)
  • Where the person you're speaking to fits in your "social network"
  • How well you know the person you're speaking to
  • Your attitude towards the person you're speaking to (respect / disdain)

So the choice of tu or vous has to do with age, but also to do with other things, and age isn't always the presiding factor.

Linguists sometimes use the term honorific to denote 'polite' forms of language like vous. More generally, tu is often referred to as the familiar form, and vous as the formal or polite form.

Here are some more concrete examples. Note that some of them do refer to age, and that particular ages should of course be taken as 'rough figures'.

SpeakersForm of address usedComments
Family memberstuFamily members pretty automatically use tu between one another. So a 3-year-old child would normally use tu tu his 80-year-old grandmother.
Speakers aged 15-30Generally tuGenerally, adults up to the age of about 30 (and often up to 40) automatically use tu unless another factor (e.g. a junior worker talking to their boss) provokes vous. Conversely, close solidarity (a 20-year-old and 50-year-old in the same job) could extend this age range.
Adult to childOften tu unless a specific social barrier demands vous.Generally, somebody above the age of about 15 would automatically use tu to somebody below the age of 15. For speakers around the age of 15, this is essentially an extension of the previous observation.
Young child to adultvousA young child (up to about 10) talking to an adult (aged about 15 onwards) would commonly use vous.
Child to childtuChildren under the age of about 15 will automatically use tu to one another.
ColleaguesGenerally tu, or vous when there is a marked difference in hierarchyGenerally, colleagues would use tu to one another. But, for example, a teacher talking to the headmaster, or a junior office worker talking to their boss or somebody important in the company, would be likely to use vous. It would also be normal for the boss to use vous back to the junior colleague. Particular workplaces can also have particular protocols (just as in English-speaking companies there may be a protocol as to whether people are addressed on first name terms).
Pupil to teachervousThis is an analoguous situation to the 'hierarchy gap' mentioned above.
Teacher to primary school pupiltuTo young children in any social situation, tu is generally used.
Teacher to older pupilOften vousIt is not uncommon for teachers to use vous to pupils from the age of about 13, possibly as a way of 'distancing themselves' socially from the pupil.
Participants in on-line forums, Internet Relay Chat etcGenerally tuThe tendancy to use tu in these non face-to-face situations appears to be stronger than in face-to-face situations.
New business contactsvous initially, then often tuNew contacts meeting or exchanging e-mails for the first time would generally use vous. If a close working relationship was forged, then it would be common for one party to suggest using tu.
Speaker A treating speaker B with contempt (e.g. because B has just crashed into A's car).Often tuWhen a speaker wants to be deliberately disrespectful to somebody (e.g. because they're annoyed with them), they can deliberately 'break' the social barrier and use tu where vous would otherwise be expected.

As a general trend, it is more and more common for tu to be used 'automatically', particularly by younger speakers.

Other uses of tu

Speakers use tu when addressing non-humans (speaking to their dog, shouting at their computer...). Christians also use tu when addressing God (and tu forms are embedded in the French version of the Lord's Prayer).

Addressing more than one person

In general, the choice for addressing more than one person, formally or informally, is restricted to vous. Informally (and to people who as individuals they would address as tu), on can also be used to mean 'you (all)'. So the full form of address system is:

 FormalInformal
1 personvoustu
> 1 personvousvous / on

Negotiating the form of address

If you're unsure whether to use tu or vous, it's safer to start by using vous. The verb tutoyer means to 'address as tu' and is often used to 'negotiate' the familiar form of address:

tu peux me tutoyer
you can address me as 'tu'
on peut se tutoyer, non?
we can address each other as 'tu', don't you think?
est-ce qu'on peut se tutoyer?
can we address each other as 'tu'?
ne me tutoyez pas, s'il vous plaît
please don't address me as 'tu'
je n'aime pas qu'on me tutoie
I don't like being addressed as 'tu'

Feedback Suggest a change / proposez une modification

Exercises / discussion questions

  1. Two conference delegates meet on the plane after the conference. They've never met before. One is aged 28 and the other 38. They automatically address each other as tu. Explain why.
  2. A radio interviewer interviews a pop star. They've never met before; why might they address each other as tu?
  3. Which form of address might you use to translate a poster saying "Win prizes!"
  4. If you know or are learning another language that has honorific forms (e.g. German Du vs Sie), compare their use with tu and vous in French. What differences are there between the two languages?

Further reading...

Comprehensive French Grammar

Section 196 (p. 135) gives a very condensed account of when the tu is used.

French Grammar and Usage (Hawkins & Towell)

See section 3.1.2 (pp. 41-43) for a table similar to the above plus additional notes.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.