Tú vs Usted (informal vs formal)

In Spanish, unlike in English, we have two personal pronouns for "you" singular: tú  and usted.

We use  to say "you" informally, i.e when talking to a friend, a person we know well, a child, and young people in general. For example:

Daniel, ¿ vas al parque los sábados?Daniel, do you go to the park on Saturdays?

Yo no como nunca pescado, ¿y ?I never eat fish, and you?

Mamá, ¿tú cuándo tienes tu cita?Mum, when do you have your appointment?

All these above are informal situations where the speakers know each other well. 

Note that when using pronoun , the verb must be conjugated in the 2nd person singular, e.g. vas, tienes.

Usted

We use usted to say "you" in a formal way, i.e when talking to a person you do not know or elderly people. It is also a way to show respect. For example:

Señor, ¿puede usted firmar aquí, por favor?Sir, could you sign here please?

Señora, ¿usted tiene nietos?Madam, do you have grandchildren?

The first example above is a formal situation, e.g. in a bank, with a lawyer. The second example expresses the way one normally talks to elderly people. 

Note that when using the pronoun usted, the verb must be conjugated in the 3rd person singular, e.g. está, tiene, puede.

Special note on usted

In some parts of Spain and Latin America, generally rural areas, people speak to their own elderly mother or father referring to them as "usted" despite being family members. This is due to family traditions as a way of showing respect. In some parts of Latin America, the pronoun usted may even be used among young people, but this is not the general rule. 

Madre, ¿está usted cómoda en esa silla?Mother, are you comfortable on that chair?

compared to 

Mamá, ¿ estás cómoda en esa silla?Mum, are you comfortable on that chair?

This is a custom that doesn't reflect the general usage but it still happens in some places, although nowadays it's rare.

 

This is the general rule

  • Use for informal situations such as with friends, children, young people, people you know very well.
  • Use usted (Ud.) for formal situations such as in a job interview, in a bank, with elderly people, with someone you don't know or somone you have just met.

Also remember to conjugate the verb in the right form!

Bear in mind that while this is the general rule, it may vary depending on the speaker's preferences. Some people are more inclined to switch to the  form instead of usted than others, and vice versa.

 

In writing you will sometimes see the abbreviated form of the word usted which becomes "Ud.", for example:
¿De dónde es Ud.?

Interesting note:

Both in Spain and Latin America we use the verb "tutear" meaning to address someone more informally using the  form instead of using usted. It's very common to ask someone if you can do this when you feel there is no need for formality and thereby make the conversation more "relaxed":

-¿Le puedo tutear? -Por supuesto.-Do you mind if I address you as tú? -Please do so [lit: Of course].

 

Want to make sure your Spanish sounds confident? We’ll map your knowledge and give you free lessons to focus on your gaps and mistakes. Start your Braimap today »

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Yo no como nunca pescado, ¿y ?I never eat fish, and you?
Madre, ¿está usted cómoda en esa silla?Mother, are you comfortable on that chair?
Daniel, ¿ vas al parque los sábados?Daniel, do you go to the park on Saturdays?
Mamá, ¿ estás cómoda en esa silla?Mum, are you comfortable on that chair?
Señora, ¿usted tiene nietos?Madam, do you have grandchildren?
-¿Le puedo tutear? -Por supuesto.-Do you mind if I address you as tú? -Please do so [lit: Of course].
Señor, ¿puede usted firmar aquí, por favor?Sir, could you sign here please?
Mamá, ¿tú cuándo tienes tu cita?Mum, when do you have your appointment?
I'll be right with you...