"You" in Spanish
The distinction between tú and Ud. is one of the most confounding aspects of Spanish, and one of the most basic. The influence it has on verb conjugations and pronouns is considerable,* but more than that, the choice of tú or Ud. is a matter of etiquette: it defines the relationship between two people and how they interact, and using the wrong pronoun can have negative consequences.
Spanish is what linguists call a "pro-drop" language, which simply means that the pronoun can be dropped. It’s not necessary for comprehension, the way it is in English, because the subject of the verb is evident from the conjugated verb. "You go" can be translated by tú vas / Ud. va or simply vas / va (from the verb ir – to go).
While there’s only one word for "you" in English, formality and familiarity are of course alive and well.
|Hello sir, how are you?||vs||Hey man, how’s it going?|
|Buenos días, Señor, ¿cómo está Ud.?||Hola muchacho, ¿qué tal?|
English makes the distinction between formal and familiar relationships with word choice, varying grammatical structures, and optional titles. Spanish does all of this too; it just adds another layer of complexity with different personal pronouns. So how do you know which one to use?
The informal, singular subject pronoun tú (listen) indicates an intimate, amicable, and/or equal relationship between two people, and as such it is used with family, friends, lovers, colleagues, and classmates. Kids always use it with one another, as do most teens, even when meeting for the first time. Likewise, adult friends of friends often use it upon being introduced. Tú is also used when talking to God, children, animals, and inanimate objects. Using tú with someone who doesn’t fit any of these categories is likely to cause offense.
In Argentina and some other Spanish-speaking countries, the pronoun vos is used in place of tú (and is conjugated differently).
The formal subject pronoun Ud. (listen) indicates a respectful and/or distant relationship. It’s used between strangers and in professional situations, such as doctor-patient and clerk-customer. It’s also used in professional and academic hierarchies, like boss-employee and professor-student. Using Ud. with someone who doesn’t fall into one of these categories demonstrates a certain distance, or worse.
Ud. can also be used when addressing an elderly person (grandmother, grandfather) to emphasize respect over family ties.
The distinction between tú and Ud. is furthered with the verb conjugation. Ud., is short for usted, . Previously, the word was vusted, abbreviated Vd., short for Vuestra merced. Roughly equivalent to "your majesty," Ud. is conjugated in the third person, grammatically showing distance between the speaker and the listener.
In additional to a familiar vs formal distinction in the Spanish equivalents for "you," there’s singular vs plural. Vosotros is the familiar plural pronoun, used for the same reasons as tú (or vos) when talking to more than one man or a mix of men and women. When talking to a group of only women, the pronoun is vosotras.
However, vosotros and vosotras are only used in Spain. All other Spanish-speaking countries use the same pronoun for familiar and formal "you":
Short for ustedes, Uds. is conjugated in the third person plural. In Spain, it’s used to show respect, distance, etc. to a group. Everywhere else, it’s just used to indicate that you’re talking to more than one person.
vosotros / vosotras (Spain)
*The choice between all the different words for "you" isn’t limited to subject pronouns and their verb conjugations; it also affects several other areas of grammar:
|Subject pronoun||tú||Ud.||vosotros, -as||Uds.|
|Direct object pronoun||te||lo, la||os||los, las|
|Indirect object pronoun||te||le||os||les|
|Reflexive prepositional pronoun||ti||sí||vosotros, -as||sí|
|Possessive adjectives||tu||su, sus||vuestro(s), -a(s)||su, sus|
|Possessive pronouns||el tuyo, la tuya||el suyo, la suya||el vuestro, la vuestra||el suyo, la suya|
"to use tú"
"to use Ud."
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