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Tu vs Vous
Today's subject is YOU
One of the very first things French students discover is that there are two ways to say "you," which can seem really strange for English speakers. In some cases, the choice between tu and vous is obvious, but for certain relationships, it's much more of an art 🎨 than a science. 🧪
As you'll discover in the reading and listening features, even native speakers don't always know which pronoun to use, so it really isn't the end of the world if you have a bit of trouble here. Nonetheless:
It is vital to understand the key differences between tu and vous in order to communicate effectively and at the appropriate register in everyday situations.
Today’s issue of Lawless French à fond takes an in-depth look at how to say "you," including analyses by and between native speakers.
The distinction between tu and vous is one of the most confounding aspects of French, and one of the most basic. The influence it has on verb conjugations, adjectives, and pronouns is considerable, but more than that, the choice of tu or vous is a matter of etiquette: it defines the relationship between two people and how they interact, and using the wrong pronoun can have negative consequences.
Some general guidelines in the form of a slideshow.
Beyond subject pronouns ➡
The choice between tu and vous isn't limited to subject pronouns and their verb conjugations; it also influences a number of other grammar concepts.
ton - ta - tes
votre - vos
le tien - la tienne - les tiens - les tiennes
le vôtre - la vôtre - les vôtres
In fact, the difference is important enough and discussed enough that each subject pronoun has a corresponding verb and noun:
tutoyer - to use tu
le tutoiement - using tu
vouvoyer - to use vous
le vouvoiement - using vous
The existence of this expression proves the tu vs vous distinction is not always clear-cut, even for native speakers. When in doubt, just ask if you can use tu.
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See how you do with the different types of "you" in this fill-in-the-blanks quiz.
In this fast-paced video, linguist Laélia Veron discusses the difficulties even native speakers have with tu and vous and offers some interesting examples of how things can go wrong.
Wide-ranging discussion of obvious and not-so-obvious meanings behind the choice of tu vs vous, plus a look at languages that make – or used to make – a similar distinction.
Fascinating article about tu vs vous decisions when translating into French.
In general, vouvoiement is expected when addressing the public. This article considers instances where tutoiement was used instead.
The Old Switcheroo 🔄
You can find many shifts between vous and tu in TV, movies, and literature.
While writing this newsletter, I remembered a famous exchange in Corneille's Le Cid. In Act I, Scene 3 (PDF), Don Diègue and the Count (Don Gomès) are arguing, and the latter abruptly shifts from vous to tu, to the shock and consternation of his interlocutor (and the 17th-century audience, according to my college professor). 😲
In the series Engrenages, a couple uses vous at work to hide the fact of their intimate relationship. 🤐
And recently I watched a documentary in which two buddies met up and jokingly used vous for a moment before reverting to their normal tu.
✍️ Share your favorite examples in the comments! ✍️
When describing one of these transitions, you need to consider their duration and purpose.
In the case of a permanent shift, as in the Le Cid example – or just the normal progression of a friendly relationship – you'd say
passer au tutoiement
passer du vouvoiement au tutoiement
For an intentional back-and-forth situation like the lovers, you can say
alterner (entre) le tutoiement et le vouvoiement
If the speaker vacillates because they're not sure which one is appropriate, you can use alterner, or you can emphasize the uncertainty with
hésiter entre le tutoiement et le vouvoiement
Or how about this solution proposed by a conference interpreter?
Juste pour rigoler
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