France V

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Ville de Nice

Vous (plural and/or formal ‘you’)

As an English speaker the choice between these two forms of “you”, when we only have the one, is a minefield for potential faux pas! A common misconception is that « tu » is used for talking to children/younger people and « vous » for talking to adults/older people or « tu » is for friends and « vous » is for strangers”. If this were the whole truth, the choice would be simple! The choice is far more complex and subtle, however. 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 ».

The situation is complex. Remember first and foremost « tu » is always used to address a single person. Also as a general rule:

The « tu » form is more likely to be used to address somebody in a similar social situation. Which means? All sorts of things, but things like:

  • Age
  • Your role in the current conversational context (shopkeeper vs. customer; teacher v  student)
    • 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 / disrespect)

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 overriding factor.

Some of my experiences include :

  • I know of adults who address their inlaws even after 40 years of mariage with « vous ».
  • I know of adults who use « vous » with their own parents!
  • My Head of Secondary is French and will address our wonderful cleaners and concierge with « vous » but me with « tu ».
  • In some High schools, pupils will be addressed with « vous », but we use « tu » for all our students (K-12).
  • With the new social media there is a tendancy to greater usage of « tu » e.g. on forums with people you haven’t met.

If in doubt I use « vous » and will often be met with,

« on peut se tutoyer, non? »

(« we can address each other as ‘tu’, don’t you think? »)

In general I find Anglo Saxons a little less formal in addressing others than the French and I honestly think you need to be born French to have the right instinct for the choice between « tu » and « vous ». I mean, heck, in France it can be appropriate to greet someone by kissing and yet address them with the formal « vous »! I am sure I still make mistakes.

French Today is an excellent website for those wanting to brush up on their French and it contains a great podcast where the blog author recites a well-known poem by Voltaire called “Les Vous et Les Tu”.






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6 Responses to France V

  1. Patricia Tilton says:

    Now I remember why I ddn’t study French — just teasing. It’s such a beautiful language. I enjoyed your discussion about the formalities of introductions. We are much less formal in the U.S. Kids call grown-ups by their first names and don’t use Miss, Mrs. or Mr. Not in the classroom, though. Enjoyed the lessonl

    • Joanna says:

      Isn’t it fascinating how language affects culture. This is one of the reasons I have been keen to learn the languages of the nations in which I have lived, in order to understand the people better.

  2. I have definitely stumbled over when to use “tu” and when “vous”. This was an excellent overview, and I will check out the French Today website. Thank you!

    • Joanna says:

      Thanks, Beth. I do play safe with using “vous” if in doubt, and have discovered my instinct for the correct usage has improved over the years.

  3. Diane says:

    mmmm like Pat I now realise why I didn’t take up French at school. I love listening to it, its very romantic but speak it? oh no…. sorry. Though I must admit I do try to pick up a bit of “tourist” sentences in the different languages in countries where my hubby and I visit on holiday… You know .. the, hello, thankyou, and how much?, what’s the time……lol, you get the picture!

    • Joanna says:

      But you speak a little German, Diane 🙂 I found French came more intuitively to me than German… I suspect I have some latin blood in me!

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