Before we go into tú vs usted in Spanish, there’s one thing we need to be honest about.
There are 500 million people in the world who speak Spanish, and, thus, there are 500 million different ways to speak Spanish. This could not be more true than when it comes to tú vs usted.
You could (and this is not an exaggeration) live in a Spanish-speaking city for your whole life, move one town over, and notice quickly that the people in the neighboring town use the Spanish you completely differently.
In fact, many translators say that the hardest word to translate isn’t some complicated onomatopoeia. It’s you! That’s because the way that we address each other communicates so many complex details about the relationship between the speaker and the listener that the context is completely lost with simple translations. This is also why AI translators still struggle so much to translate things that humans can translate, even as children.
So we’re sorry to say that we can’t tell you which is the appropriate Spanish you form in every scenario. However, we can give you an overview of how to say you in Spanish, hopefully without making your brain explode.
Spanish “You” Pronouns: An Overview
There are three factors you’ll use to determine which Spanish you form to use.
- If you’re addressing a singular person or a group of two or more people
- Level of formality or social distance between you and the person you’re addressing
- The region in which you are speaking
|Personal Pronoun||Number||Level of Formality||Region|
|Tú||Singular||Informal||All Spanish-speaking countries|
|Vos||Singular||Informal or Formal||Latin America|
|Usted||Singular||Formal||All Spanish-speaking countries|
|Ustedes||Plural||Informal or formal in Latin America, formal in Spain||All Spanish-speaking countries|
In Spanish, we also have verbs that we use to talk about using each of these verb forms.
Tutear: To address someone with tú. To use the tú form.
- ¿Te puedo tutear? – Can I use tú with you?
Ustedear: To address someone with usted. To use the usted form.
- Mi papá es vieja escuela, asi que deberías ustedearlo. – My dad is old school, so you should use usted with him.
Vosear: To address someone with vos. To use the vos form.
- Aunque llegué a Argentina hace tres meses, todavía me cuesta vosear. – Even though I arrived in Argentina three months ago, it’s still hard for me to use vos.
As we said, it’s very easy to get confused and cause miscommunications with these forms, so when in doubt, use the verbs above to double-check with people what the proper form is.
- Me di cuenta que estabas tuteando a nuestra jefa. ¿Eso es normal aquí? – I noticed you were using tú with our boss. Is that normal here?
Those are perfectly normal questions, and it’s always better to check first to ensure you don’t accidentally offend someone, or express a level of closeness and intimacy that maybe you aren’t ready for yet!
Now let’s get into the usage and translation of each form.
Usted vs Tú
We pointed out above that usted is the formal version of tú.
That means that, typically, in all Spanish-speaking countries, you should opt for usted when you’re addressing a superior at work, an in-law you just met, a much older person, etc. However, that’s just playing it safe. In many countries, like in Spain, usted is almost never used except in very formal scenarios.
In much of Latin America, usted is also used to express formality, such as in customer service or with higher-ups at work. But another way to think about usted is to show distance.
For example, you might use usted with someone you’ve just met, like a stranger on the street you ask for directions. When I was a teacher in Ecuador, all my students referred to me with usted, even the ones I became good friends with. Then, a friend of a friend who I had just met also used usted with me, and I quickly corrected her, telling her that she didn’t need to be formal with me. But she explained that she wasn’t necessarily being formal. It was just that we didn’t know each other well yet, and tú in Ecuador is typically reserved for friends.
In certain areas, like in parts of Colombia, men may use usted when talking to other men, even with a brother, close friend, or father, while opting for tú when talking to women. This you formal in Spanish puts a bit of platonic distance between the two men, even if they’re besties.
You could even call your girlfriend or boyfriend usted just to be cute or funny, almost like calling your girlfriend “my queen.” (This may, of course, warrant a few eye-rolls from your friends.)
I once heard a Colombian friend get into an argument with his mother. As he got progressively angrier, he started using usted instead of tú. In doing so, he was distancing himself from her with the word. He was pushing her away just with that subtle language choice.
Another time, I was talking to someone at a party in Mexico, and I was using tú without thinking much of it. This person raised their eyebrows and said, “¿Te puedo tutear? ¿A tu pareja no le importa?” meaning “Can I use tú with you? Your significant other doesn’t mind?” Yikes! I immediately got uncomfortable, realizing that I had unintentionally communicated a certain level of intimacy or interest with someone I didn’t know. Be careful out there with your tús!
So, the official meaning is that usted is formal and distant, while tú is informal and close. But all these anecdotes are to demonstrate that everywhere is different when it comes to the Spanish usted vs tú. So, at the risk of this sounding like a cop-out, if you’re unsure, just ask.
Before we explain the grammar of these words, it might help to look at this quick refresher of Spanish personal pronouns.
Tú and usted are conjugated differently, with tú conjugated in the second person singular, and usted conjugated in the third person singular, the same as él and ella. For example:
- Tú comes mucho. – You eat a lot.
- Usted come mucho. – You eat a lot.
Just as these forms are conjugated with second person singular and third person singular, they also use the corresponding object pronouns: te or le.
- With tú: Ya te dije. – I already told you.
- With usted: Ya le dije. – I already told you.
Note that usted uses the same object pronoun as él and ella, so the sentence “Ya le dije” could mean “I already told you,” “I already told him,” or “I already told her.” You will have to use context clues to know if the person is addressing you with usted or talking about someone else.
Let’s throw another one into the mix. In certain parts of Latin America, there’s another way to say you in Spanish: vos. Vos can be both the you formal and you informal in Spanish.
The usage of vos is called voseo. For example, you could say “In Argentina, they tend to use voseo.” But voseo isn’t a pronoun itself, but rather a title for the dialect that uses vos.
Vos usually has the same meaning as tú, but in some areas of Latin America, it’s the only singular Spanish you form used, so it’s used in both formal and informal contexts.
Vos is used most extensively in Argentina and Uruguay, but it is also seen in neighboring areas like parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Chile, and also used in many parts of Central America, parts of Southern Mexico, and parts of Colombia and Venezuela.
A common mistake is confusing vos with vosotros, but they are completely different. Vos is singluar while vosotros is plural, and vos is only used in Latin America while vosotros is only used in Spain.
If you’re in a country where vos is used, you can still use tú and people will understand.
Vos is typically conjugated like tú and it uses all the same possessive adjectives (tu, tus, tuyo, tuyos, tuya, tuyas) and direct object pronoun (te) as well. Remember that tu without an accent is the possessive adjective your, while tú with an accent is the subject pronoun you. So you can use vos instead of tú, but the corresponding word for your is still tu without an accent.
- Sé que vos estás hablando, pero no te puedo escuchar. ¿Tu micrófono está apagado? – I know that you are talking, but I can’t hear you. Is your microphone off?
However, there are certain words that are conjugated differently with vos. These words are usually conjugated for vos by not changing the stem, and adding -ás to -ar verbs, -és to -er verbs, and -ís to -ir verbs. Here are a few examples.
- Yo estoy bien con comprar los pasajes hoy, pero ¿vos que pensás? – I’m okay with buying the tickets today, but what do you think?
- Espero verte allí si podés venir. – I hope to see you there if you can come.
- ¿Vos venís al gimnasio todos los días? – Do you come to the gym every day?
Vosotros vs Ustedes
Deciding to use ustedes vs vosotros in Spanish is a bit easier than some of the other you forms.
Both vosotros and ustedes are used to address a group of people or more than one person. Think of y’all or you guys. These are the only two you plural forms in Spanish.
If you’re in Latin America, you will only use ustedes to address a group, regardless of formality. Vosotros is not used at all.
In Spain, however, both vosotros and ustedes are used with the two levels of formality, similarly to tú and usted in singular. Vosotros is used to address an informal group, like a group of friends. Ustedes is their you formal in Spanish, used to address a group like an audience at a business conference, or a class in a university lecture hall.
Vosotros will change depending on the gender of the group. If you are addressing an all-female group, you can say vosotras. However, if there are one or more men in the group, you will say vosotros.
Vosotros and ustedes do conjugate differently, with ustedes conjugating in the third person plural, the same as ellos and ellas, and vosotros using its own verb form.
Vosotros is conjugated by dropping the ending and adding -áis for -ar verbs, -éis for -er verbs, or -ís for -ir verbs.
Vosotros uses the second-person plural direct object pronoun os, while ustedes uses the third-person plural pronoun les.
Let’s see some examples with usted:
- ¿Cami ya les informó que cancelamos la reunión? – Did Cami already let you guys know that we canceled the meeting?
- Quiero recordarles que el concierto es el mismo día del cumpleaños de mamá. – I want to remind you guys that the concert is the same day as mom’s birthday.
- Ustedes reciben muchos beneficios por trabajar en esta empresa. – You all receive many benefits from working for this business.
And now some examples with vosotros:
- ¿Os avisé que mañana no hay clase? – Did I let you guys know that we don’t have class tomorrow?
- Os vi ayer alimentando a los pájaros. – I saw you guys feeding the birds yesterday.
- Si vosotras no coméis puerco, os puedo preparar un plato con pollo. – If you girls don’t eat pork, I can make you a plate with chicken.
Conclusion: Tú, Vos, Usted, Ustedes, Vosotros/as
Well, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that people are very creative in the many ways we communicate with each other, and the way to translate you in Spanish can be varied and complex. But here is your cheat sheet:
Tú is singular, and it’s the official you informal in Spanish. It’s usually used in casual conversations between friends.
Usted is singular and formal, so it’s used in slightly more distant or formal relationships, such as between strangers in many Latin American countries or when speaking to a superior at work.
Vos means the same thing as tú and also replaces usted in certain parts of Latin America, so it is singular and can be used in formal and informal contexts.
Ustedes and vosotros are both used to address two or more people. However, in Spain, vosotros is for familiar contexts and ustedes is for formal contexts, while in Latin America vosotros is never used, and instead people just always use ustedes.
We hope that this guide has given you some clarity on how we use you in Spanish. Happy studying!