Knowing When to Use the Spanish Tú and Usted
Spanish speakers use tú (too) and usted (oos-tehd), which both mean you, to convey the formality of a relationship. Tú is less formal than usted.
You use tú when you’re talking to someone of the same age, the same rank, or the same educational level. You can also use it when you want to express a certain level of intimacy with someone. Most adults address children using tú.
Usted signifies a more respectful way of talking to someone, such as a new acquaintance, an older person, or someone you consider to be of higher rank.
At some point in a relationship between people who speak Spanish, a shift occurs from the formal usted to the more informal and intimate tú. At this point, they use the word tú when addressing each other. In Spanish, we call this tutearse (too-tehahr-seh), that is, to talk tú. On the other hand, if you don’t want to have a closer, more intimate relationship with someone, or if you want to keep the relationship more professional and less chummy, you should stick to calling that person usted.
Following are some examples of sentences that use tú and usted:
¿Cómo se llama usted? (koh-moh seh yah-mah oos-tehd) (What’s your name? [Respectful])
¿Vas tú con Juan en el auto rojo? (bvahs too kohn Hooahn ehn ehl ahoo-toh roh-Hoh) (Do you go with Juan in the red car? [Friendly, intimate])
Usted tiene una casa muy bella. (oos-tehd teeeh-neh oo-nah kah-sah mooy bveh-yah) (You have a very beautiful house. [Respectful, formal])
When people in Spain want to address a group of people, they use the word vosotros (bvoh-soh-trohs), which is the informal you in the plural. Spanish-speaking Americans almost never use vosotros.
One of the main differences between the Spain Spanish way of addressing several people and the Spanish-speaking American one is that in Spanish America, people say ustedes (meaning you, in the plural — but they in conjugation). This ustedes can be a formal way of addressing two or more people, or it can be very informal. The situation dictates the difference. Here are some examples:
¿Adónde van ustedes dos? (ah dohn-deh bvahn oos-teh-dehs dohs) (Where are the two of you going? [Can be very informal or formal])
¿A usted le gusta el tango? (ah oos-tehd leh goos-tah ehl tahn-goh) (Do you like the tango? [Formal])
In written texts, you will find the words usted and ustedes in their abbreviated forms (Ud. for usted, and Uds. for ustedes). When you read these abbreviations aloud, you say the whole word.