There is a right and a wrong way to say “you” in French. Or rather, there are different ways to say it depending on who you are talking to.
Use the right form and people will be happy to talk to you and amazed by your knowledge of the language ; use the wrong form and the only thing they will remember is how rude you are.
The distinction between “vous” and “tu” indicates your relationship to the person you are talking to. Using the wrong form will lead people to think you don’t respect them. For this reason, knowing when to use “tu” and when to use “vous” is critical.
You use “vous” to say “you” in French with:
- People you don’t know (people in the street, sellers…)
- People more than 20 year older than you
Think about the people you are the closest to.
Your parents, your husband/wife, your friends, maybe some of your colleagues.
These are people you can use “tu” with.
You can also use tu with:
- Kids and teenagers
- On most internet forums
Sometimes you won’t know whether you should use “vous” or “tu”. So to be safe, you can ask:
On se tutoie ?
Do we use “tu” with each other?
or in a more formal way:
Est-ce que je peux vous tutoyer ?
May I use “tu” with you?
This is a rhetorical question though and answering no would be awkward.
In case of doubt, it’s always better to use “vous” than “tu”.
It’s much more common to use “tu” online than offline.
That said, the best way to know whether you should use “tu” or “vous” is to observe and see what people use.
If you’re on a video game forum, using “tu” will generally be okay. If you are commenting an article from Le Monde, “vous” would be much more appropriate.
Not sure whether you should use “tu” or “vous” ?
Then use “vous” until you are invited to use “tu”. You may sound overly polite, but you won’t have to worry about being rude.