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Whereas English only has one from of the word ‘you’ (serving as both the singular and plural*) French, like many languages, has two (tu and vous). But do you know why? And do you know when to use them?
‘Tu‘ and ‘vous‘ are personal pronouns that replace (or refer to) the subject of a sentence**. They both mean ‘you’ . . . but there are differences you need to be aware of so you can be sure to use them properly.
‘Tu’ is the singular, informal form of ‘you’. You use it to refer or speak to one person that you know relatively well. It is considered impolite in France and most other francophone countries to us ‘tu‘ with someone you don’t know well, have just met, or (see below) who is in a position of superiority***. One exception to this rule is adults speaking with children – in general, most adults will use ‘tu’ when speaking to kids. The use of ‘tu’ is called ‘tutoiement’.
‘Vous’ also means ‘you’ . . . but it can be singular or plural****. It is more formal than ‘tu’ and is used when speaking with superiors, strangers, or people you don’t know yet. The use of ‘vous’ is referred to as ‘vouvoiement’.
Let’s look at some examples:
Pierre, est-ce que tu veux aller au cinéma ce soir? / Peter, do you want to go to the movies tonight? (Where Pierre/Peter is a friend of a child)
M. Dupont, avez-vous reçu le courriel de Mme. Dubois? / Mr. Dupont, did you receive Mrs. Dubois’ e-mail? (If M. Dupont was your boss, or even a coworker in a more traditional office place)
Marie et Jean, vous avez de la visite! / Mary and John, you have company!
Maman, tu es très jolie aujourd’hui. / Mom, you look very pretty today.
Guillaume, passe moi le sel, s’il te plaît. / William, pass me the salt, please. (William is a good friend eating with you).
Votre attention, s’il vous plaît. / (May I have) your attention, please. (Notice that ‘please‘ – literally ‘if it pleases you’ – changes according to who you’re speaking to).
Et pour finir (and to end), a little song from another of my favorite French singers that highlights this weeks topic. Je te dis vous (I say ‘you’ (formal) to ‘you’ (intimate)) plays off of the differences between the two forms of ‘you’ to highlight a power differential in a (possible) love story.
* Interestingly, English used to have two forms of ‘you’, too. The forms thee, thy, and thine (among others) that you sometimes come across in older English-language works were singular forms of ‘you’ and ‘your’ (and ‘yours’) that have faded and been replaced by ‘you’ and ‘your’ and ‘yours’ over time, leaving us with just ‘you’ for both ‘you, singular’ and ‘you, plural/collective’. Or not! In some parts of the US (and more and more it seems in modern usage) people have come up with their own ways to differentiate the singular from the plural. This article from a few years back in Slate holds more details if you (or you all!) are interested. [Warning: The Slate article is safe for work, but it does include some very mild profanity.] English is also among the only (if not the only) languages that capitalizes the first person singular pronoun (I). But that’s another story.
** The other pronouns are:
|je – I||nous – we|
|tu – you (singular informal)||vous – you (singular formal, or plural)|
|il – he/it (m.)||ils – they (m.)|
|elle – she/it (f.)||elles – they (f.)|
|on – one|
Note: ‘on’ is singular and conjugated like ‘il’ and ‘elle’, but it can refer to more than one person.
*** In Quebec, you’re much more likely to see people who don’t know each other well use ‘tu’. And even in France today among millennials you’ll find ‘tu’ has become more common, even in the workplace (especially in tech companies). As a foreigner/French learner though, it’s always safest to use ‘vous‘ when in doubt and let your interlocutor tell you when it’s ok to switch to ‘tu’.
**** ‘vous’ wasn’t always singular. Way back when the world still spoke Latin, like the old English ‘thee’ and ‘you‘, there was a singular ‘you’ and a plural ‘you’, ancestor of the modern day ‘vous’. Around the end of the 3rd century, the emperor Diocletian split the Romain Empire in two, the two halves being ruled by an emperor and a counselor. When one spoke for the other or in the name of both, they would use the plural form ‘nos’ (we) instead of the singular ‘ego’ (I) . . and in response they would be referred to as ‘vos’ (the plural form of ‘you’)! As often happens with the habits of the rich and powerful, this practice spread to other nobles, through the Catholic church, and eventually to the common folk . . . and as Latin evolved into French (and Italian, and Spanish, …) the practice followed.
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