Should You Use “tú” or “usted”?

Many English speakers struggle when they find that “you” can have multiple translations in Spanish. So should you use “tú” or “usted”?

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The difference between tú and usted is in their formality.

Formal vs. informal

The difference between tú and usted is how formal which of them is. Many languages have multiple translations for “you”. In French, for example, we can use “tu” (singular) or “vous” (plural), but the plural is also used in formal situations. In Russian, Ты (singular) is used only between very close friends and children, while Вы (plural) is much more common in day to day conversations with strangers. In Spanish, “you” can be translated as “tú” (singular, informal”) or “usted” (singular, formal).

So when should you use “tú” or “usted”?

“Tú” is used for long time friends, classmates, close relatives and children. “Usted” is used when speaking to figures of authority, like teachers, public personalities or erdely people.

This rule applies to all of the Spanish-speaking world. However, in Spain, it is quite common for people around the same age to treat each other by “tú”. In Latin America, strangers always use “usted”.

Remember, one can never be criticized for being too polite. When in doubt, use “usted” and wait for the person to tell you “tutéame por favor” or “me puedes tutear”. Tutear is a Spanish verb that means “to address using the familiar tú form”. (If you know French, it is a synonym of “tutoyer”.)

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What about the plural: vosotros vs. ustedes?

In many of the languages we mentioned above, the foral form is also the plural. Spanish is a bit different. The plural “you” as two forms: “vosotros” and “ustedes”.

The difference between these two plural forms is not their formality. But “ustedes” is far more used in Latin America and “vosotros” is rarely heard. In Spain, they’re practically interchangeable and they’re both heard often.

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