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The subtlety of "you" (tu vs. vous)

English speakers may struggle with the French using two different words for "you": tu and vous. We learn that "tu" is used for informal (close) relationships and "vous" is the more formal (polite) term used when addressing an individual. But recognizing there are different words for "you" does not help us to really grasp the sense of it because, in English, there is only "you". We may even conclude that the French are being overly particular in the use of tu/vous but believe me when I say that it is part of the French psyche that may take a while to fully sink in. I try to read a lot of French books and this point was made so clearly in Marcel Pagnol's Angèle. The title character, Angèle, is the victim of bad judgment involving some bad people but ultimately finds true love with a humble paysan. After addressing each other as "vous" throughout the story, she finally - and inadvertently - blurts out "toi" and as she does so, she says, "Oh...j'ai dit « tu »!", to which the young man replies, "Merci, ma belle." Thus they were both keenly aware and appreciative of the change in the intimate nature of their relationship as expressed by one little word.

Duolingo begins by teaching "tu" as "you" and only introduces "vous" a bit later. The explanation is there in the comments but many learners are so focused on memorizing individual words that "tu" becomes embedded as "you" and the subtlety of vous/tu is lost.

November 25, 2016



As a second language speaker, this is what I understand (please tell me if I've left anything out). You tutoyer:

Really close friends on a similar social standing

Your lovers

Children, or in general people who are on a lower social standing (e.g., a captain tutoyers a sergeant; a teacher, a student,;a king, a guard; a guard, a peasant, etc.)

Your enemies, when you're not trying to hide the fact that you're enemies

Job applicants (if you're in Quebec)—just kidding!

And you "vous" everyone else.

To add another example of the TV distinction, and the subtleties conveyed in social interactions, in Victor Hugo's "Quatrevingt-treize," Cimourdain is Gauvain's old priest and teacher, having known him since he was a boy. Therefore, Cimourdain always tutoyers Gauvain, even though Gauvain is now a commander in the revolutionary army.

At the end, a chapter ends like this:

"La voix de Cimourdain avait repris son accent ordinaire. — [Gauvain], dit-il, levez-vous.

"Il ne tutoyait plus Gauvain."

That's how you know that their relationship and the plot has taken a dark, dramatic, and serious turn.


That pretty much sums it up. I shared this because so many new learners get the idea that "tu" and "vous" are always interchangeable and especially young learners say "my teacher told me that 'you' is 'tu'." So there are very good reasons to respect the "vous" form and only use "tu" when you are aware of what you are doing when you use it.


Thanks G. for sharing your understanding of the French "tu" and "vous". Reading this carefully, I have realized that since 1934 (issue date of Marcel Pagnol's 'Angèle'), a lot has changed in the French society.

Three main events have happened since: WWII, the French May 1968 Events, and the on-going 'digital revolution' of the 21st century.

As a consequence, nowadays, 4 overlapping generations are using "tu" and "vous" with different rules.

French translators (of books, movies, TV series) do know it, and their use of "tu" and "vous" is first and foremost driven by the time the story is supposed to be taking place. The second criteria is the protagonists' age ranges and the third one is the socio-economic environment of the story.


This is interesting-- the breakdown of those time periods. I've never lived somewhere French-speaking, but a few times discussions came up here (& elsewhere) that were reminders of how out-of-date pieces of my knowledge were. I first studied French in the first half of the 1980s, and my teacher was old and not a native speaker. Reverse-engineering the math now, she could certainly have done her studies pre-war (quite possibly with teachers born before the year 1900.) Vous was absolutely the default "you" in high school. And I can look at certain changes made official by the Académie française in the years between my last college class (1989) and last year when I started focusing on Duolingo and then taking some in-person and online classes again and realize definite gaps in my knowledge that come from lack of a natural evolution.


Out of curiosity, do these same shifts apply outside of France? For example Canadian French, or the French spoken in various African countries?


I've been studying French for years, and still have massive anxiety over this. After taking it up again last year I also started going to conversation classes, and because it's a class, address the teachers as Vous. But it's not actually school school, and at this point, they are usually younger than me, and they all know I'm a teacher too, so it feels a lot like artifice. (I guess it is, really, but designed to sort of simulate some alternate reality.)

Likewise with lessons on Verbling, where I am definitely much older than my tutors. Some have tutoyer-ed me right off the bat, and others (esp. the youngest of them used vous.) I never know what to do there. I feel like I talk about myself too much because of it. :P


You might adopt a simple conduct: use the pronoun they use first. This means that you have to manage that they use a pronoun first!

Start with "comment ça va ?" instead of "comment allez-vous/vas-tu ?"

Then don't address the person directly, save time, beat around the bush with your little talk, in other words, avoid the thing.

Be careful with non-words, like "you know", in: "It's been a long time, you know?" - change it to "ça fait longtemps, non ?"

If you need more of these, just ask me.


Thanks. Yes, this is pretty much the approach I take-- it just doesn't particularly fill me with confidence. (And speaking of confidence, I am really at a point where I casually throw in filler words-- you know-- etc.)


However, it isn't always proper to use the same pronoun they're using to adress you. Old people usually say "tu" to me since I'm way younger, but it certainly isn't an invitation to start tutoyer them.

My advice would be to always start with "vous" if you're not sure what to use, and then switch to "tu" if the other person says it's okay. Your accent will mark you as a non-native speaker anyway, so they'll know you're probably struggling with this.


Good to know.

I have delayed addressing a person directly in hopes they will use a pronoun first, but it can feel awkward. To me, there is this big elephant in the room, this tu/vous question hovering over the conversation. As an anglophone, it is difficult to fully comprehend all the fine nuances, and as you mentioned, the rules vary somewhat from generation to generation. Additionally, when first meeting a person in American culture, it is considered polite to inquire about them and show an interest in the person. However, that necessitates using pronouns. Scary pronouns...

As a last resort, I just use vous. It's generally safest.

Your suggestions for filler phrases and indirect chit-chat are very welcome!


If one confuses the two is it best to err on the side of using vous?

[deactivated user]

    Yes. That is more formal. The person to whom you are talking may well ask you to use ''tu'', but better that than accidentally insulting somebody.


    Yes, unless your familiar relationship is well-established, it's always best to start with "vous".


    It depends a lot on the age gap. If one of two young people were to start with "vous", it would come across as very awkward and snobbish.


    This is a very good explanation... but I have found out something very interesting in the past year or so...

    German has the formal/informal you as well. I joined a Facebook group where we only talk to each other in German - there are native and non-native speakers in this group - everyone refers to each other informally!

    Now, if I were to travel to Germany again, I would most certainly address everybody formally. But I found it very strange that, after learning to use formal you my entire life, social media is often informal.

    I wonder if this is just specific to this group, or if it's just German, or if people are becoming more informal in general?


    Hi, Brooke. It is so true (as Sitesurf has also pointed out) that there are certainly other factors at play here. The group which meets for conversation over social media is likely to be informal since they are a group of friends with a level playing field. And people (in general) are likely to be more informal today because of the influence of social media. It is just something to be aware of so we don't throw our knowledge of the language under the bus. For example, some French classes involving young children may find the teacher only giving the "quick and dirty" explanation that "you" is "tu". Since everybody in the room is a child, they are naturally going to use "tu" anyway. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the teacher may not bother to explain about the use of "vous" thinking that it may just confuse them. So they come away from that brief experience thinking that they have mastered it. What parent has not been confronted with their child coming home from school saying "Of course it's true. My teacher said so." So, to answer your question. My opinion is that many people are more informal these days and will speak that way unless there is some other reason not to. It is the ability to assess the situation and know that speaking informally is going to be accepted with the group. It also means assessing the situation to know when there is a reason to speak more formally and to slip into that mode when it is appropriate. Basically, it involves being sensitive to one's environment and adapting to it. As much as it is to say that when one enters a little shop in Paris, you will say "Bonjour" to the shop clerk and say "Merci, au revoir" when you leave. In the U.S., this little bit of protocol is generally not on anyone's radar.


    It seems this course is written for Americans who are more brash than their European counterparts. I suspect that most learners of French are not on familiar terms with a French person so vous should be the default usage. I am disappointed that the Duolingo course does not use this because beginners habits die hard.


    I agree. Duolingo is teaching us, in essence, to be rude!


    Interesting and helpful....as always! Thank you.


    So as a new learner im guessing for holiday French ( iwont know people that well) i would be best using vous all the time?


    It will depend a lot of your age, the circumstances in which you find yourself, and how willing you are to be familiar with people you don't know. We constantly being told about somebody being offended if you use "tu" and they expect "vous" (being too familiar when the person doesn't expect it) and being offended if you use "vous" when they would rather "tutoyer" and they think you are being snobbish. So it may be easy to offend someone and if so, be prepared with an appropriate response.

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