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Tú vs Usted: What’s the Difference Between Tú and Usted?

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Tú vs. usted: what is the difference? If you are learning Spanish, you have probably wondered more than once why there are two second-person personal pronouns in this language.

While in English there is only one possible pronoun (“you”), in Spanish things get a little more complicated with those two forms, and usted. Lucky for you we’ve got you covered. By the end of this article, you’ll be an expert in all things tú and usted!

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Difference Between Tú and Usted

In English, we use the pronoun “you” to address a person, regardless of how old they are, or how familiar we are with them. Thus, if we want to ask someone how they are, the correct phrase, in any case, will be the same: “How are you?” However, in Spanish, you address certain people differently depending on certain characteristics, for example, our relationship with them.

The main difference between and usted is formality. While tutear (that is, the act of using the pronoun ) is used in informal contexts, the pronoun usted is used in formal contexts. Remember this rule and you will not have problems!

Tú vs Usted at a Glance

Tú: Used in Informal settings

  • Children
  • Animals
  • Young people
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Work colleagues who you know well

Usted: Used in formal settings

  • Elder
  • Boss
  • Professor
  • Superior
  • Stranger
  • Business colleague / Professional

How to Use Tú

The pronoun is pronounced as too, and it should be used when speaking to people we know well or our peers. Within that category, we can include friends, family, young people, and, in general, people with whom we have a casual relationship. Let’s take a look at the example below with María and Juan who are good friends asking “How are you?“.

Spanish

English

María

Juan

Hola, Juan, ¿Cómo estás?
Hola, María. Bien, ¿y ?

María

Juan

Hi, Juan, how are you?

Hi, María. I’m fine, and you?

As you have probably noticed, we have conjugated the verb estar (“to be”) with the second person present indicative, which is estás. But this conjugation changes when we use the form usted, as we’ll see next.  

How to Use Usted

As we mentioned, usted (pronounced oos-ted) must be used in formal contexts. We can use it to address older people or people with whom we need to create some formality, either because they are in a position of power – such as a teacher, a boss, a police officer, a politician – or simply because we don’t know them well.

So, what if the dialogue we saw a moment ago took place in a formal context? Let’s imagine that Juan and María do not really know each other, but have a purely professional relationship. The dialogue, in that case, would look like the following:

Spanish

English

María

Juan

Hola, Juan, ¿Cómo está?
Hola, María. Bien, ¿y usted?

María

Juan

Hi, Juan, how are you?

Hi, María. I’m fine, and you?

As you have probably noticed, despite the English part being identical to the previous example, the Spanish dialogue is slightly different. In this case the verb estar (“to be”) has been conjugated to está and María has been addressed as used.

Not Sure Which to Use (Tú or Usted)

In most cases, the decision to use usted or is pretty clear cut. However, there will be times where you may be unsure.

A common example of this happening is if you meet a new person, and you have an engaging and friendly conversation with them. Halfway through, it almost sounds awkward continuing to use usted as it sounds too formal, but you don’t want to start using randomly as it could offend them. Yes, this sounds like #oddlyspecific, but it is quite common!

In this case, the best thing to do is just to ask – ¿Nos podemos tutear? which means “Can we use tú?”

Using the Plural Form of Tú and Usted

We have good news: if you are going to address more than one person or a group of people, it doesn’t really matter what your level of familiarity is. The plural form of and usted is exactly the same: ustedes – at least in Latin America.

However, this is not the case in Spain. While ustedes is the plural of usted, vosotros is the plural form of . But learning to conjugate verbs with the form vosotros is a bit complicated, even for Spanish-Latin American Speakers! So, we recommend that, if your Spanish is not very advanced yet, you use the plural ustedes in all cases. Everyone will understand you perfectly well in both Latin America and Spain.

A Note on Using Vos

Depending on where you’re learning Spanish or where you’ve travelled, you may have heard the pronoun vos being used in place of the , especially if you traveled to Argentina or Uruguay. Indeed, the pronoun , although it’s widely used in Spain and most of Latin America, is not used in every Spanish-speaking country.

The voseo is the linguistic phenomenon in which the vos is used instead of the . Along with this grammatical modification, the conjugation is different. Let’s see how “What are you doing?” changes when using , vos and usted.

Tú (informal)Vos (informal, only in some countries)Usted (formal)
¿Qué haces?¿Qué hacés?¿Qué hace?

Voseo is not exclusive to Argentina and Uruguay, although these are the only countries that maintain it in a generalized way in the speech of their entire Spanish-speaking population. However, other Latin American countries use vos regionally, such as Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Using Usted in Informal Situations

We have established that usted is used in formal situations, such as in an academic or professional space, or maybe when we refer to older people. However, as you surely know, there are lots of Spanish dialects (more than 10!)

For example, in some countries, such as Colombia, usted is the generalized pronoun also in informal contexts. Therefore, it is common for people to use usted to address friends, family or even boyfriends and girlfriends!

Possessive Pronouns of Tú and Usted

You may have guessed, and usted have their own possessive pronouns. Possessive pronouns show ownership of something. So in this case, the possessive pronoun would be “your”. The possessive pronoun of is tu (no accent on the “u”) and the possessive pronoun of usted is su. Here is an example.


Usted

Spanish

Tu computadora tiene un virus.

Su computadora tiene un virus

English

Your computer has a virus.

Your computer has a virus.

Direct Object Pronouns of Tú and Usted

Direct object pronouns are pronouns that replace the subject in the sentence. Direct object pronouns are used in the verb gustar, which means “to like”. It is a verb that you’ll use often so this is a good one to know! For the corresponding pronoun is te and for usted, the pronoun is le.


Usted

Spanish

¿Te gustan las papas fritas?

¿Le gustan las papas fritas?

English

Do you like French fries


Do you like French fries?

Conclusion

As we have seen, in Spanish there are two ways to translate the pronoun “you”: vs usted. Learning to use these two words is not difficult if you keep in mind the magic word: formality! Use in informal situations, and use usted in formal situations. It can be difficult to learn the correct conjugations but with some practice, it will come to you naturally in no time! ¡Mucha suerte!

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