When should you use “Tu” or “Vous” in French?

Tu or Vous

I love how English is usually simpler than French. In English, anybody is a “you”, but in French, you might be in front of a “tu” or a “vous” situation. A dilemma that many people who learn French are struggling with, particularly anglophones, who are not used to make a difference between a formal pronoun (vous) and an informal pronoun (tu).

I was looking for a way to easily explain it when I found this amazing diagram created by William Alexander and published in the Los Angeles Times. Take a minute to read the different hilarious options, it’s worth it!

Using Tu or Vous part 1
Using Tu or Vous part 2
Using Tu or Vous part 3
Using Tu or Vous part 4

What it means in the translation world

The choice between “tu” or “vous” is one of the reasons why human translators are still relevant: even with powerful algorithms, machine translation tools can struggle to determine the right pronoun in French. Let’s look at this simple sentence as an example:

You are perfect for the job.

Scenario 1: A boss interviews a candidate for a position to fill and finds him excellent. He says, “You are perfect for the job.” In French, this would be translated with a “vous” since we are in a formal context:

Vous êtes parfait pour ce travail.”

Scenario 2: A mother cheers up her son before a job interview. She says, “You are perfect for the job.” This is a “tu” situation (ordinary talk between family members):

Tu es parfait pour ce travail.”

Scenario 3: A speaker motivates a crowd of employees attending a conference as part of their training for work. He says to the audience: “You are perfect for the job.” Since he talks to more than one person, it can be translated by the plural “vous”:

Vous êtes parfaits pour ce travail”.

I hope you don’t have a headache yet!

This is one of the reasons why it is so important to hire professional translators for your translation projects. You would not want a serious document to be misinterpreted or to sound informal when it should not…

If you need serious conversation help…

As an English-French translator, I am always glad to answer your questions about my first language. However, I do not teach French. Some people are brilliant teachers, such as Jessica from French Your Way, who offers online courses. Her article about “Tu or vous?” is great and I recommend it to you if you want to know more about one of the many great mysteries of French.

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