Knowing When to Use the Familiar Forms of 'You'

Knowing the Difference Can Help You Come Across As More Polite

Family 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 — and is 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. Here are at least nine reasons for using the familiar and formal pronouns of "you" in Spanish:

When to Use the Familiar and Formal

First, while there are exceptions, the basic difference between the familiar and the formal pronoun 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. 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 people in Spain.
  • There are a few regions, notably in parts of Colombia, where the informal forms 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.