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Tú Versus Usted: The Different Ways to Say “You” in Spanish

Guest Author

The following article is a guest post by one of the resident translators at Drops. You can find more information about the writer at the end of the article.

Nowadays, over 572 million people speak Spanish worldwide, of which 477 million people are native speakers according to a new report from the Spanish government’s Cervantes Institute. Spanish is the main language in a total of 21 different countries!

I now live in Mexico, but when I was around 9 years old, I lived in Colombia. Later on, I spent many years in Spain. It might surprise you, but even though I am a native Spanish-speaker, I had to learn a few important variations in Spanish when moving from one country to another!

It is said that Colombian Spanish is one of the purest forms of the Spanish language, even purer than the what’s currently in Spain. This means its form is the closest to the ancient Spanish used back in the day in Castilla, Spain--which is, by the way, the reason why Spanish is known as español and also as Castellano!

With Spanish spoken by so many people in a wide range of places around the world, there are important differences in the ways the language is used in these different locations. One important difference is the use of the personal pronoun you.

In Spanish, we have two levels of formality when addressing others. We use and usted, both meaning you, to convey the formality of a relationship.

is less formal than usted.

In this sense, we use when talking to someone we’re close to, to someone our age, to a child, to a coworker, to a friend, to a lover, etc. Usted, in contrast, is used to address someone we want to show respect to like our boss, an elderly person, someone we have just met, or someone we want to keep a certain distance with.

There is also the plural form of you which is ustedes. The differences among how "you" is used in different countries, however, needs attention to be well understood so we don’t get mixed up.

Here’s a table below for the different forms of you, single and plural, formal and informal, depending on the country you are in:

Latin AmericaArgentinaSpainFORMAL   SingleUstedUstedUstedPluralUstedesUstedesUstedes    INFORMAL   SingleTúVosTúPluralUstedesUstedesVosotros

A fun fact I learned in my younger years in Colombia is that young boys and girls normally talk to each other using the formal address usted. This was shocking to me because normally, in Spanish, when you talk to someone your age, a friend or someone close to you, you normally employ the informal form . But there was a hidden value to this I soon discovered. When a boy would address a girl using the informal tone , it would mean he was declaring his love to her and breaking the distance that was previously marked by the use of the formal usted to address the girl.

I still remember this as the cutest way to use language in order to express a feeling or create a romantic feeling!

So when deciding which version of “you” you’d like to use when speaking Spanish, choose wisely. Your choice reflects the tone and has many other subtle implications you may want to be aware of when speaking Spanish.

And remember: when in doubt, it’s always best to go with usted first. It is much more polite and you’re less likely to commit a social faux pas. But don’t worry--chances are the person you are talking to will quickly ask you to please treat them as equals and change to the informal address. “Tutéame, por favor,” is normally the phrase meaning “please use to talk to me” which marks the beginning of a more comfortable exchange.

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About the Author: Berenice Font is a Creative Translator and Writer and the Founder of Transcreare.

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