The hardest concepts to grasp in a new language are the ones that don’t have an equivalent in your native language. English doesn’t have a difference between the formal and informal second-person singular pronoun (“you”), but certain languages, including Spanish, do. This just adds a little extra hurdle to your understanding. Fortunately, learning when to use tú and usted isn’t too difficult, and a few guidelines will have you well on your way.
Usted is the formal “you.” The plural is ustedes, which is used in both formal and informal situations. The object pronoun for usted is lo or la (used to simplify sentences like “I called you,” so that llamado a usted becomes lo llamado or la llamado, depending on the gender of the person being addressed).
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
- a person speaking to a police officer
- a person speaking to a prospective business partner
As these examples show, usted is a form of respect to others. And as a general rule, if you’re unsure which to use, you should go with usted. It’s much less of a faux pas to be a little more formal than to be not formal enough.
Tú is the informal counterpart to usted. The plural of tú is vosotros and vosotras, but that’s mainly used in Spain. The object pronoun for tú is te (used to simplify sentences like “I called you,” so that llamado a tú becomes te llamado.).
There are a few situations where using tú is accepted no matter what:
- an elder speaking to someone young
- a person speaking to their pet
- friends and family of roughly the same age speaking to one another
- a person insulting another person
But tú can be tricky. You never want to make the mistake of calling someone tú when they expect more respect. When you’re getting to know someone, it might be difficult to know when to make the switch from formal to informal. A good rule of thumb for the Spanish learner is to simply wait for the other person to start calling you tú. Assuming there’s no power imbalance in the relationship (a teacher calling you tú is not permission to do the same to them), you should be good.
Spanish speakers, especially today, don’t always go around addressing every stranger as usted, however. In some Latin American countries, strangers might even think it’s a little odd for you to use usted when there’s no clear power imbalance. As always, we err on the side of caution because the Spanish-speaking world is vast and cultures vary, but if you keep getting a tú in response to your usted, you might want to consider loosening up a bit.
Think you know the basics of when to use tú and usted? See how you do on this quick quiz.