How To Know When to Use the Familiar Forms of ‘You’ in Spanish

Noting the difference can help you come across as more polite

Family sculpture in Madrid
Sculpture in Madrid. Jacinta Lluch Valero

Spanish has two sets of pronouns that mean "you"—the familiar informal "you," which is in the singular and vosotros in the plural, and the formal "you," which is usted in the singular and ustedes in the plural. They are often a source of confusion for Spanish students. While there are not any rules that are always valid for determining which one to use, the guide below will help steer you in the right direction when you are deciding on which pronoun to go with.

Formal vs. Informal

First, while there are exceptions, the basic difference between the familiar and the formal pronouns is that the former is typically used for friends and family members, while the formal is for use in other situations. You might think of the distinction as something like the difference, at least in the United States, between addressing someone by a first name or something more formal.

The danger of using the familiar form when you should not is that you may come across as insulting or condescending to the person you are speaking to, even if you do not intend to. And if you may come across as distancing if you stick to the formal when the informal would be appropriate.

In general, you should use the formal forms of "you" unless there is a reason to use the familiar form. That way, you are safely coming across as polite rather than risking being rude.

Situations to Apply Formal Forms

There are two situations where the formal form is almost always used:

  • In most of Latin America, the plural familiar form (vosotros) is nearly extinct for everyday conversation. Parents will address even their children as ustedes, something that sounds overly conservative to most Spaniards.
  • There are a few regions, notably in parts of Colombia, where the informal singular forms also are seldom used.

Using the Familiar Form Safely

Here is where it is generally safe to use the familiar form:

  • When speaking with family members or good friends.
  • When speaking to children.
  • When talking to your pets.
  • Usually, when someone starts addressing you as . Generally, however, you should not respond in the familiar form if the person who addresses you as is someone in a position of authority over you (such as a police officer).
  • When someone lets you know it's OK to address him or her in familiar terms. The verb for "to speak to someone in familiar terms" is tutear.
  • When meeting peers, if is the custom in the region for your age group and social status. Take your cues from those around you and the person you're speaking with.
  • In most Christian traditions, when praying to God.

In some regions, another singular familiar pronoun, vos, is used with varying degrees of acceptance. In some areas, it has its own accompanying verb conjugations. Your use of , however, will be understood in those areas.

Other Familiar and Formal Forms

The same rules that apply to and vosotros that apply to other familiar forms:

  • The singular te and the plural os are used as the familiar objects of verbs. The formal pronouns are more complicated: In standard Spanish, the formal singular forms are lo (masculine) and la (feminine) as direct objects but le as an indirect object. The corresponding plural forms are los (masculine or mixed-gender direct object), las (feminine direct object), and les (indirect object).
  • The singular familiar possessive determiners are tu and tus, depending on whether the accompanying noun is singular or plural. (Note the lack of a written accent.) The plural determiners also vary depending on the number of the noun: vuestro, vuestra, vuestros, vuestras.
  • The familiar long-form possessives are tuyo, tuya, tuyos, and tuyas in the singular. The plural forms are suyo, suya, suyos, and suyas.

Familiar Forms in English

Although distinctions between the formal and familiar may sound foreign to English speakers, English used to make similar distinctions. In fact, these distinctions can still be found in older literature, such as the writings of Shakespeare.

In particular, the informal forms of Early Modern English are "thou" as a subject, "thee" as an object, and "thy" and "thine" as possessive forms. During that period, "you" was used as a plural instead of both singular and plural as it is today. Both and "thou" come from the same Indo-European source, as do corresponding words in some other languages, such as du in German.

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish speakers uses formal and informal variations of their words for "you" and "your" that depend on the relationship between the speakers.
  • In Spanish, the distinctions are made for both singular and plural forms of "you," while in Latin America the distinctions exist only in the singular.
  • Among other uses, the informal forms are used when speaking with family members, close friends, and children.