Formal and Informal ‘You’ in Spanish

Spanish has more than a dozen pronouns meaning ‘you’

Here's talking to you
In Spanish, two friends talking may use a different for "you" than they would when talking to strangers. PeopleImages/Getty Images

How do you say "you" in Spanish? The answer isn't as simple as it may appear: That's because Spanish has 13 pronouns you can use to address other people, all of which can be translated by "you."

Distinguishing Between Types of ‘You’

First and most obviously, there are singular and plural forms, which aren't distinguished in the English word except through context. (In other words, you can use "you" when talking to one person or to more than one.) Learning these should be straightforward for most English speakers, since we're already used to singular and plural forms for other pronouns.

But Spanish also has formal and informal (also called "familiar") ways of saying "you," the usage depending on the person you're talking to and/or the circumstances. Again, the difference doesn't come across in translating to English, but if you use the informal "you" where the formal is required, you run the risk of sounding presumptuous or even arrogant.

Also, the English "you" can be used not only the subject of a sentence, but also as a object of a verb or preposition. In Spanish, the corresponding word used can vary among those functions as shown in this chart:

Formal singular Informal singular Formal plural Informal plural
Subject usted ustedes vosotros
Object of preposition usted ti ustedes vosotros
Direct object of verb lo (masculine), la (feminine) te los (masculine), las (feminine) os
Indirect object of verb le te les os

Formal or Informal ‘You’?

An easy-to-understand way of looking at formal-vs.-informal forms—although keep in mind that there are exceptions—is that when speaking with one person you can use the informal forms under roughly the same circumstances where you can use a person's first name in English. Of course, when that is can vary with age, social status, and the country or culture you are in.

More specifically, the singular informal (as the subject of a sentence) is used when speaking with family members, children, pets, friends, or close acquaintances, while usted is used when speaking with others. In Christianity, also is used when addressing God in prayer. When speaking to anyone else, use usted.

can also be used contemptuously when speaking to a stranger; for example, a criminal may use the informal in addressing a victim as a way of belittling. An authority figure might also use as a way of reinforcing the idea of who is in charge.

Obviously, the common uses of suggest a certain amount of intimacy. But the degree of intimacy varies with region. In some places, people of similar social status will start using upon meeting, while in other areas doing so might seem presumptuous. If you're uncertain which to use, it is usually better to use usted unless or until the person starts speaking to you using , in which case it is usually OK to reciprocate. Spanish even has a verb, tutear, meaning to address someone using . The verb for speaking to someone formally is ustedear.

The plural forms (for sentence subjects) are the informal vosotros and the formal ustedes. Generally, in most of Spain the difference between formal and informal when speaking to more than one person is the same as specified above. However, in most of Latin America, the formal ustedes is used regardless of the persons you're speaking to. In other words, vosotros is seldom used in everyday life for most Latin Americans.

Here are simple examples of how these pronouns might be used:

  • Katrina, ¿quieres comer? (Katrina, do you want to eat?)
  • Señora Miller, ¿quiere usted comer? (Mrs. Miller, do you want to eat?)
  • Spain: Katrina y Pablo, ¿queréis vosotros comer? (Katrina and Pablo, do you want to eat?)
  • Latin America: Katrina y Pablo, ¿quieren ustedes comer? (Katrina and Pablo, do you want to eat?)
  • Señora Miller y señor Delgado, ¿quieren ustedes comer? (Mrs. Miller and Mr. Delgado, do you want to eat?)

In the above sentences, the pronouns have been included for clarity. In real life, the pronouns are often omitted because the context would make clear who the subject of each sentence is.

Translating ‘You’ As an Object

As shown in the chart above usted, vosotros, and ustedes are used as objects of prepositions as well as subjects. In the singular familiar form, however, ti (not ) is used. Note that there is no accent mark on ti.

  • Voy a andar desde aquí hasta usted. (I'm going to walk from here toward you. "You" is singular and formal.)
  • Voy a votar por ti. (I'm going to vote for you, singular informal.)
  • El libro está ante ustedes. (The book is in front of you, plural formal.)
  • Este es para vosotros. (This is for you, singular informal.)

Direct objects meaning "you" are differentiated by gender when "you" is formal but not when informal:

  • Lo veo. (I see you, singular masculine formal.)
  • La encontré. (I found you, singular feminine formal.)
  • Te quiero. (I love you, singular informal.)
  • Los veo. (I see you, plural masculine formal.)
  • Las encontré. (I found you, plural feminine formal.)
  • Os quiero. (I love you, plural informal.)

The informal indirect objects are the same as the informal indirect objects. Le and les are used for the formal indirect objects.

  • Te compré un regalo. (I bought you a gift, singular informal.)
  • Le hice una galleta. (I made you a cookie, singular formal.)
  • Les compró dos boletos. (I bought you two tickets, plural informal.)
  • Os doy un coche. (I am giving you a car, plural formal.)

Using Vos

In some parts of Latin America, particularly Argentina and parts of Central America, the pronoun vos replaces or partly replaces . In some areas, vos implies greater intimacy than does, and in some areas it has its own verb forms. As a foreigner, however, you'll be understood using even where vos is common.

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish has formal and informal equivalents of "you," the choice varying with the nature of the relationship with the person or persons being spoken to.
  • Spanish distinguishes between singular and plural forms of "you."
  • In the plural form, Latin Americans normally use the formal ustedes where Spaniards would use the informal vosotros.