Tú or Usted? Which one should I use?

If you are a student of Spanish, you have probably wondered at some point whether it is more appropriate to use “tú” or “usted” in a specific situation when addressing others. If so, don’t worry, it’s not because you’re a Spanish student – native speakers also ask themselves the same question sometimes, asking themselves: should I use “tú” or “usted” here?

This doubt implies that we are experiencing a linguistic change in the use of these two pronouns. But this is nothing new, as languages change to adapt to the social needs of each time. And learning about the history can help us understand its evolution and development.

What is the origin of Tú and Usted?

According to linguistics experts on interpersonal address, Spanish inherited from Latin the pronoun “tú” for informal contexts and “vos” for more formal, polite contexts. However, during the 16th century, the form “vos” became so generalized that it began to lose its polite meaning and started to be used in a more informal context. Hence, there was a need to create other more formal forms of address, including “vuestra merced”, which from the 17th century evolved into the pronoun “usted” that we use today.

In Latin America, these linguistic changes also happened, but some areas were less influenced that others, such as Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Colombia, among others, where “vos” was preserved as a form of familiar address. In certain regions, all three forms still exist: the “usted” form for very formal situations, “tú” for informal contexts, and “vos” for a more intimate contexts.

What does “tutear” mean?

There is no doubt that currently, in Spain, there is a strong tendency towards informal forms of address, especially in cities and among younger people. Perhaps out of a desire to appear closer, to be more direct, the desire to show ourselves as equal, or as a sign of modernity, etc., the fact is that “el tuteo” -which is what we call the act of speaking using “tú” – is gaining ground over the formality of “usted” today. This aspect is being enhanced by social networks, where there is a clear preference for the use of “tú”.

When to use Tú or Usted?

I’m sorry to say that as language is constantly evolving, there are currently certain situations in which even Spaniards ourselves are not sure which form to use. However, there are some considerations you can keep in mind to make your decision:

  • Age

If you are addressing a person older than you, it’s generally better to treat them as “usted”. Although you may meet people who do not feel comfortable being addressed this way and might say something like: “please use tú’, I am not that old.” In this case, you know how to speak to them.

  • Context

There are situations that are formal by nature, like a job interview. Opting for “usted” in those cases will be most appropriate, although we will be attentive to how form our interlocutor uses with us.

  • Your relationship with interlocutor

We use “tú” among family members and friends. That’s clear, but the less close your relationship, the more doubts arise. How do I address a taxi driver, the supermarket clerk, or the builder coming to make some repairs at my house? In those cases where we’re not sure what to do, start with “usted” and wait for the other person to use “tú” with you. It’s better to err on the side of being polite and respectful, don’t you think?

If you want to continue deepening your knowledge of Spanish and its multiple lexical varieties, do not miss our face-to-face Spanish courses in Madrid and online Spanish courses.

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