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.
How to conjugate tú and usted
When you learn Spanish, you learn native Spanish speakers barely use the subject pronouns. The conjugation of the verb is what you must pay attention to. Let’s get started with some of the most common verbs in Spanish Grammar:
|Ser (to be)||eres||sos||es|
|Estar (to be)||estás||estás||está|
|Ir (to go)||vas||vas||va|
|Necesitar (to need)||necesitas||necesitás||necesita|
|Tener (to have)||tienes||tenés||tiene|
|Querer (to want)||quieres||querés||quiere|
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:
- El Salvador
- Costa Rica
Some other Spanish-speaking countries use tú and vos are:
And there are those who only use tú:
- Puerto Rico
- Dominican Republic
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.
And last but not least, you can use tú with insults. There is not much to be said here, insults are informal and you mean to disrespect.
Use usted in the Formal Register
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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This is the general rule: Use tú for informal situations such as with friends, children, young people, people you know very well. Use usted (Ud.) for formal situations such as in a job interview, in a bank, with elderly people, with someone you don't know or somone you have just met.How do you decide if you should use tú or usted? ›
If you're a child, teen or young adult, use usted with people older than you. Tú is acceptable to use with people younger than you, friends and close family. In work situations, use tú for people who you know relatively well. Tú implies a kind of friendship, while usted highlights respect.Why is it not usually necessary to use the pronoun tú or usted when talking to someone? ›
In English tú and usted both translate to “you.” The main difference between these two words is that usted is only used to address people formally. In most Latin American countries we only use tú with family members, friends, or people we estimate are of a similar age and social status as us.Are the rules for the use of tú and usted the same in every Spanish-speaking culture? ›
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.How does Spain use tú and usted? ›
In Spain, the singular second-person subject pronouns are tú (informal “you,” one person) and usted (formal “you,” one person). The plural forms are vosotros/vosotras (informal men or mixed groups/a group of all women) and ustedes (formal, group). Latin America is the same, except that vosotros typically isn't used.Would you use tu or usted to speak to your teacher? ›
So, remember to use usted when speaking to a teacher, a police officer, a boss, or someone in a position of power.In which situation would you most likely use the pronoun usted? ›
There are some obvious situations when usted is called for: a child speaking to a parent. a student speaking to a teacher. a patient speaking to a doctor.
Yet, Usted in Spanish used in Spain still exists and is used daily. However, there are very specific situations in which Usted is used. The safest way to manage this tricky situation is to listen to how the people speak to you and just 'do the same'.Do Spanish speakers actually use usted? ›
Usted translates to “you” in English, and so does tú. Spanish speakers use both, so the tricky part can be deciding which one to use. Essentially, you choose based on the formality of the relationship.Why does Spain not use usted? ›
Usted is not falling out of use in Spain, Spanish society has changed and usted reflects a certain way society interacts. Usted is a way to mark distance and respect when speaking, the difference is not in the Spanish language but in how Spaniards mark distance and respect now as opposed to then.
The difference between su vs tu is the same as the one between tú and usted: tu is the informal way of saying “your,” while su is the formal one. The same people you'd use tú with, you'd also use tu, and the same applies for usted and su.Do you always need to use a subject pronoun with a verb in Spanish? ›
A pronoun replaces a noun in order to avoid repetition. Subject pronouns function as the subject of a verb. Unlike English, the use of subject pronouns is optional in Spanish.Do people use usted in Mexico? ›
When using the formal version, use the “usted” (singular) or “ustedes” (plural) form. In Mexico, it's not necessary to differentiate. The same goes for the second-person plural (used when addressing a group, such as “you all”). In Spain, you should use “vosotros,” whereas in Mexico you use “ustedes.”What is the difference between tú and usted imperative? ›
Usted commands, like tú commands, are used to tell a person what to do. However, we use usted commands in more formal settings or to imply respect. To make an usted command, use the él/ella/usted form of the present simple subjunctive.Why do Colombians say vos? ›
I quickly learned that using “vos” (referred to as voseo) instead of “tú” (also called tuteo) to say “you” is a common practice in many Latin American countries, including some parts of Colombia. In Colombia, voseo sits somewhere between “tú” and “usted” in formality, and can often be used with friends or family.Did English ever have a formal version of you? ›
After the French-speaking Normans invaded in 1066, English changed in response. By the 13th century, thou became the informal “you” and ye became the formal “you,” making it similar to the French vous/tu distinction. The separation of the two “you”s remained until at least the 17th century.Who would you address using tú? ›
We're obviously not saying that you don't respect somebody you are familiar with, but you would use TÚ to address children, family members, someone who is younger than you are… and you use USTED to address a stranger, your boss, a police officer, your doctor.Would you use tú or vous when talking to your mom? ›
'Tu' is used by parents towards their children's friends, but when parents meet parents it is always 'vous' unless they have become friends. Within families, everyone says 'tu'. This was not the case in the 18th century and occasionally older generations are still being called 'vous' by their grand-children.Would it be appropriate to use tú when talking to a teacher? ›
The general rule of thumb is to use tu when speaking to children and friends, and vous for adults, strangers, and more than one person.Does Vosotros mean they? ›
Vosotros is used when an individual person or speaker is addressing a group of 2 or more people. Vosotros in English stands for “you” as the plural “you and others.”
Most people in Mexico also use "usted" with their grandparents, their friends' parents, and sometimes even their own parents or other family members who are older than them. In general, you can use it with anyone who looks older than you — even if you just met them randomly on the street.How do you know which pronoun to use in Spanish? ›
- I: Yo.
- You: Tú (informal) / Usted (Formal):
- He: Él.
- She: Ella.
- We: Nosotros / Nosotras.
- You, plural and informal: Vosotros / Vosotras.
- You, plural and formal: Ustedes.
- They: Ellos / Ellas.
"Vosotros" is not used because it is not useful outside of Spain. However, most conjugation tables include it, probably because it makes the whole personal pronoun structure of the language very symmetrical. It´s used more than Uds. in Spain.Why doesn t mexican Spanish use vosotros? ›
'Nosotros' means 'we' and is used in American Spanish and Peninsular Spanish. 'Vosotros' is used exclusively in peninsular Spanish. It is plural, informal 'you' roughly equivalent to you guys/y'all in North American English.Why is the word usted sometimes used when talking to someone instead of tú? ›
You can also use it when you want to express a certain level of intimacy with someone. Most adults address children using tú. Usted signifies a more respectful way of talking to someone, such as a new acquaintance, an older person, or someone you consider to be of higher rank.What is the closest language to Spanish grammatically? ›
Portuguese. In the north-western part of Spain, Galicia is the mother-land of the Portuguese mother tongue. It's widely considered the closest language to Spanish – the lexical similarity is approximated at 89%.Who speaks Spanish with a lisp? ›
People of Madrid, and most parts of Spain, pronounce the letters z and c (when before an e or i) different from people in Latin America. This difference in pronunciation is what's called the “Spanish lisp.”Can you read Spanish but not speak it? ›
Some people talk about dormant or passive bilingualism, but there is nothing passive in understanding a language. Your brain works at full speed to process foreign sounds and give them meaning. So, when you can understand and read Spanish but cannot speak it, you're receptively bilingual.What English letters don't exist in Spanish? ›
The letters k and w do not occur in Spanish words unless the word has been borrowed from another language such as English or even Japanese. For example, el karate is considered a “Spanish” noun, even though the k is not a Spanish letter. In Spanish, there are two ways to produce the sound of the English letter k.Do people in Spain understand ustedes? ›
Because the term ustedes is spoken and understood everywhere, including Spain, it is usually the translation for 'you guys' in Spanish courses, while vosotros may or may not be taught.
In 2010, the Royal Spanish Academy officially removed two letters (ch and ll) from the alphabet, making it 27 letters instead of 29.Do Mexicans say vos? ›
Vos in Mexican Spanish is only used in the southern states of Tabasco and Chiapas in a social context. In the case of Central America, the majority of countries use the pronoun vos.Do Puerto Ricans use vosotros? ›
In Latin America: Vosotros is not used. Ustedes is used both as a plural of tú in informal situations and of usted in formal ones.Is Vosotros only used in Spain? ›
You will not hear people using the word “vosotros” in Latin America. We only use ustedes. Vosotros is used in Spain only (and not even the whole of Spain, there are parts, like Canarias and Western Andalucía where they don't use vosotros). So if you are learning the Spanish of Latin America, just only ever use ustedes.Why do Spanish speakers often omit subject pronouns? ›
Michael: As you may have noticed, the subject pronoun in Spanish sentences is often omitted. This is because the conjugation of Spanish verbs is enough to show the person (first person, second person, or third person) and number (singular or plural) of the subject.Which pronoun Cannot be used as a subject? ›
A reflexive pronoun cannot replace the subject of a sentence, such as in "Burcu and myself are taking that class together." Instead, use a personal pronoun: "Burcu and I are taking that class together" or "Burcu and I myself are taking that class together."
Spanish object pronouns can appear before or after the verb, depending on the sentence structure. If the main verb is conjugated, the object pronoun should come before verb. For example: (Yo) te amo.Which individuals should be addressed with tú? ›
We're obviously not saying that you don't respect somebody you are familiar with, but you would use TÚ to address children, family members, someone who is younger than you are… and you use USTED to address a stranger, your boss, a police officer, your doctor.How do you know when to use formal or informal in Spanish? ›
We use the informal style when speaking to a friend, a family member or a child. We use the formal style when speaking to someone in a position of power or someone we are meeting for the first time. Both the subject pronouns and the verbs used in a sentence tell you whether you are speaking formally or informally.Who would you use an usted command with? ›
Usted commands, like tú commands, are used to tell a person what to do. However, we use usted commands in more formal settings or to imply respect. To make an usted command, use the él/ella/usted form of the present simple subjunctive.
As a general rule, you would use usted when addressing strangers, your teachers, people in authority, or a person you address by his or her last name. Tú is used with family, very good friends, people you would address by their first name, children, pets and the Diety.