Having a distinction between formality and informality is a prevalent characteristic in any language. In Spanish, tú and usted work just like that.
Spanish has two different subject pronouns to refer to a second person, both singular and plural, and they all translate as “you” in English. In this article, we will look at how to distinguish and use them properly.
Tú is the second-person singular subject pronoun “you” in Spanish, and it’s used for informal treatment, while usted is for formal.
They are used in almost every Spanish-speaking country. Although depending on the region in Latin America, we can hear the variation vos, which is also considered informal but verbs with it are conjugated differently.
“Tu vs usted” or “tú vs usted”?
You’ll notice that a very important difference is the accent mark over the “u” in tú to talk about the pronoun. Without that accent, the tu is considered a possessive adjective. That is: “tú” is “you” and “tu” is “your”.
Spanish subject pronouns
Let’s just have a quick review of the Spanish subject pronouns
|Spanish Personal Pronouns||English Personal Pronouns|
|Tú / vos (singular – informal)||You|
|Usted (singular – formal)||You|
|Él / Ella (singular)||He / She|
|Ustedes (plural – Latin America)||You (you all)|
|Vosotros (plural – Spain)||You (you all)|
|Ellos / Ellas||They|
Notice that the pronoun “vosotros” is only used in Spain. In Latin America, even native speakers in any conversation will struggle if asked to conjugate a verb with this one.
Verbs after usted, él, and ella are conjugated in the same way.
Now, with some common Spanish reflexive verbs:
|Spanish Reflexive Verb||Tú||Vos||Usted|
|Lavarse (to wash)||te lavas||te lavás||se lava|
|Cepillarse (to brush)||te cepillas||te cepillás||se cepilla|
|Vestirse (to get dressed)||te vistes||te vestís||se viste|
|Maquillarse (to make up)||te maquillas||te maquillás||se maquilla|
|Ducharse (to take a shower)||te duchas||te duchás||se ducha|
|Dormirse (to fall asleep)||te duermes||te dormís||se duerme|
How to employ tú, usted, and vos
As an interesting Spanish fact, the informal pronoun vos is not related to vosotros. In the times of the Spanish colonization, the indigenous population used the term “vuestra merced” to refer to members of the Spanish nobility which in English would translate to “your grace”.
In Colombian Spanish people use sumercé to talk to someone they don’t know that well or they want to show respect to. They also use the formal usted to refer to someone more experienced.
Vos is a pronoun that evolved from those times. In Latin American Spanish, vos can be found with a predominant status in:
Some other Spanish-speaking countries use tú and vos are:
And there are those who only use tú:
Even when we say vos is not related to vosotros, there are regional dialects that use a combination of those two. That is, using the pronoun vos with the verb being conjugated as vosotros. Examples of it can be heard in the Zulia state in Venezuela and the Azuero Peninsula in Panama. For example:
- No sabía que vos sois zurdo. – I didn’t know you are left-handed.
On the other hand, tú is sometimes conjugated as vos in Chile. Don’t worry, all native Spanish speakers will totally understand if you conjugate everything with tú.
When to use Tú or usted: formal vs informal
Use tú in the informal register
Use tú with friends and family. Although in some regions you may hear people using usted to call their parents, this is becoming less and less common. Also, people who are close to you deserve that friendly tú.
- Tú me gustas. – I like you.
- ¿Cómo estás, mamá? – How are you, mom?
Use tú to talk with young folks like you. It would feel awkward to call someone your age usted. You can only do that if that person is not friendly or appears to be much older.
- ¡Somos de la misma edad, no me digas usted! – We are the same age, so don’t be so formal!
- Oye, ¿te gusta el rock? – Hey, do you like rock music?
Use tú to talk with colleagues and classmates. People working or studying with you are people you see often and you most likely know a little.
- Pedro, ¿tú tienes la tarea que mandó el profe hoy? – Pedro, do you have the homework the teacher sent today?
- Trabajamos en la misma oficina, deberíamos conocernos mejor, ¿tú no crees? – We’re working in the same office, we should get to know each other, don’t you think?
Use tú address children and animals. It isn’t an actual rule, it’s just how it is. Don’t you tell me you don’t speak to your pets!
- Carlitos, ¿tú quieres ganarte cinco dólares? – Carlitos, do you want to earn five dollars?
- ¿Quién es una buena chica? ¡Tú eres una buena chica! – Who’s a good girl? You’re a good girl!
Friends, family or a loved one. Learn to show them how much you care with these Spanish Terms of Endearment and Pet Names.
Use usted to refer to an older person with respect. Latin American societies are very respectful to their senior citizens, and failing to do so may show a lack of education.
Older people might address young people using tú; although certain exceptions can be made: a teacher calling students usted in class to keep a professional distance, for example.
- Juan, ¿pudo usted completar la tarea para hoy? – Juan, were you able to complete today’s homework?
- Usted siéntase tranquilo, abuelo. Ya le hago el desayuno. – You just sit back, grandpa. I’ll make you breakfast.
Use usted in general when addressing people in bureaucratic or administrative situations. You don’t mean to disrespect in this kind of context.
- Recuerden ustedes, por favor, que la asamblea comienza en diez minutos. – Please remember that the assembly begins in ten minutes.
- Tienen ustedes ahora el derecho a palabra. – You now have the right to speak.
Use usted for business: talking to your boss or to someone from another company. It shows professionalism. For example:
- ¿Podría hablar con usted después de la reunión, Sr. Ramirez? – May I have a word with you after the meeting, Mr. Ramirez?
- Usted quedó asignada como la nueva directora de Recursos Humanos, Sra. Fajardo. – You were assigned as the new Human Resources Director, Ms. Fajardo.
Use usted with people you don’t know: the first time you address a person on the street, using usted shows you are being polite.
- Disculpe usted, caballero. ¿Me podría decir qué hora es?: Excuse me, sir. Could you please tell me what time it is?
- Buenos días Sra. Rodríguez, ¿cómo está usted hoy?: Good Morning, Mrs. Rodríguez. How are you today?
Alternatives for Usted in Spanish
Just as we can use vos and tú in some regions, it might have crossed your mind the possibility of expressing usted in another way as well.
We have already mentioned that sumercé was a valid colloquial option in Colombia. But in other Spanish-speaking countries, sumercé is not used nor will it be understood.
To replace this formal pronoun, people would use señor or señora. When you call someone señor or señora, the other person will understand that a level of respect is meant. However, young women do not like being called señora, not a bit.
From the Spanish formal “usted” to the informal “tú”
As described before, a young person using tú to refer to older people is odd and not well seen. If this happens, people may consider that the younger person has either bad manners or has a level of confidence already agreed with the elder.
This isn’t something unusual, even in English, someone can request to not be called by using a formal title but to be treated on a first-name basis. Depending on the situation and the context, that could also be taken as flirting and it would be very common in Spanish. Pay attention to the details!
Remember, if you are not sure about what to go for with a person, use usted. It’s safe and polite. People will ask you to call them by their first name — or like we say in Spanish, “tutear” — when they feel the time is appropriate to do so.
Tutear y ustedear
“Tutear” means addressing a person with the informal tú for the sake of trust or familiarity. If you have been knowing somebody for quite some time and you want to address them according to the new levels of confidence, you could ask: “¿Nos podemos tutear?”
“Ustedear” is not a common word but totally valid in Spanish. Native speakers prefer to say “tratar de usted”, and that means giving or asking someone the treatment of respect with the formal pronoun usted.
Some examples with tú and usted
|You are smart.||Tú eres inteligente||Usted es inteligente|
|Could you please bring some water?||¿Podrías traer algo de agua, por favor?||¿Podría traer algo de agua, por favor?|
|You are right.||Tú tienes razón.||Usted tiene razón.|
|Are you from around here?||¿Eres de por acá?||¿Usted es de por acá?|
|You have to say please.||Tú tienes que decir por favor.||Usted, tiene que decir por favor.|
|Choose one: Spanish from Spain or Latin Spanish.||Escoge uno, español de España o español latino.||Escoja usted uno, español de España o español latino.|
|You are unlucky.||Tienes mala suerte.||Tiene mala suerte.|
Ustedes and vosotros
Even when this article is not about these two, it is important to point out the difference given that they were shown at the beginning. It was already said that vosotros is only used in Spain and that people in Latin America know little about this verb conjugation.
Well, the same thing happens with ustedes. Ustedes is used only in Latin America and the majority of Spaniards do not know how to conjugate with it. Both pronouns are not strictly formal, they can be used as the plural form of “you” as well.
- Ustedes son profesores libres: You are free teachers.
- Vosotros sois profesores libres: You are free teachers.
In conclusion, these two mean the same but are used in different places.
The rest is up to you!
Listen carefully to how native people speak using both pronouns. Like it was said before, use usted if you are not so sure on how to treat someone. People will think you are being polite and that’s never a bad thing.
Have fun trying to put this into practice, that’s the only way to remember what you learned. If you don’t have anyone to practice with, we invite you to try a free class or sign up for a free 7-day trial of our group classes. Try us out and see why thousands of students trust SpanishVIP!
Until next time!
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