Tú vs Usted (informal vs formal)

In Español peninsular, 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 descansas?Mum, when do you have a rest?

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, descansas.

Usted

We use usted to say "you" formally, 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 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, generally more rural areas, people speak to their own elderly mother or father referring to them as "usted" despite being their own family. For example:

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 use but it still happens in some places.

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

 

This is the general rule

  • Use for informal situations such as with a friend, 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 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 drop the usted form than others, and vice versa.

 

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Examples and resources

Señora, ¿usted tiene nietos?Madam, do you have grandchildren?
Señor, ¿puede usted firmar aquí, por favor?Sir, could you sign here please?
Mamá, ¿tú cuándo descansas?Mum, when do you have a rest?
Madre, ¿está usted cómoda en esa silla?Mother, are you comfortable on that chair?
Yo no como nunca pescado, ¿y ?I never eat fish, and you?
Mamá, ¿ estás cómoda en esa silla?Mum, are you comfortable on that chair?
Daniel, ¿ vas al parque los sábados?Daniel, do you go to the park on Saturdays?
How has your day been?