Can you even say you’ve learned French if you’ve never spiraled into a state of utter despair and experienced a break from reality in trying to figure out the ins-and-outs of ‘tu’ vs ‘vous’? I didn’t think so!
If you dread choosing between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ with your interlocuteuror stress over slipping into ‘tu’ on accident with a professor or boss, you’re not alone.
One of my professors in Paris explained that his younger neighbor in his class one year. Students are, of course, required to vousvoyer– use vous– with professors. The professor and his neighbor, however, used tuwith one another in everyday life! How to rectify this awkward situation? It’s forbidden for them to use tu with one another in class due to formality, but they cannot comfortably revert back to vousonce they’ve crossed the infamous tuthreshold.
So, how might one go about avoiding ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ without compromising a respectable register of expression or coming off as casual or incorrect?
‘On’ is a classic marker of spoken French and is much more malleable that it’s literal English equivalent, ‘one’. Although it’s mostly known as being a replacement for ‘nous’, ‘on’ is practically used to cover ‘je,’ ‘tu,’ and ‘nous.’ Note that you will have to change the structure of what you’re saying to properly include ‘on’ and avoid ‘tu’ or ‘vous.’
(Professor to student)
Je veux que tu viennes me voir aujourd’hui pendant mes heures de permanence.
Il faut qu’on se retrouve aujourd’hui pendant mes heures de permanence.
(Discussing a meeting at work with your boss)
Est-ce que je pourrais vous parler demain matin après la réunion ?
Est-ce qu’on peut se parler demain matin après la réunion ?
The impersonal subject pronoun ‘il’ is a great substitute for having to choose between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ as it allows you to hold a similar sentence structure (il being able to carry action in the same way ‘tu’ or ‘vous’ would). There are certain verbs or verbal phrases that are impersonal in nature and therefore cater best to this work around: ‘falloir’ and then any adjective that fits into the ‘il est ____’ construction (ie ‘Il est important de…’).
Tu vas devoir terminer la dissertation d’ici mardi prochain.
Il va falloir que la dissertation soit terminée d’ici mardi prochain.
Pourriez-vous m’envoyer ce document au plus vite ?
Il est important de m’envoyer ce document au plus vite !
Je veux que ce document soit envoyé au plus vite.
INFINITIVE / NOMINALISATION
Nominalizing verbs (or turning them into nouns) is a very French way of making sentences more concise and avoiding having to choose between ‘tu’ or ‘vous.’ ‘Être prudent,’ for example, can be transformed as ‘la prudence’ in an effort to escape choosing a subject pronoun for the verb phrase.
Je te conseille d’être plus prudent.
La prudence est conseillée dans une telle situation.
Tu devrais faire attention à ce que tu arrives à l’heure.
Faire attention pour arriver à l’heure.
Mastering this type of rhetoric is a great tool, but not one that should replace a thorough understanding and practical mastery over the nuanced application of ‘tu’ and ‘vous.’
Certain situations will always require the formal ‘vous’ – interactions with a boss or professor, for example. But as we talked about in the introduction, sometimes you know someone outside of a formal professional context and therefore hesitate to commit to either ‘tu’ or ‘vous.’
I tend to use the above techniques to avoid ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ when interacting with native French speakers who are in the US – being abroad tends to relax people’s normal inclinations towards formality so the boundaries become more uncertain. Avoiding any time of distinction in formality can therefore work to your favor before the person with whom you’re speaking indicates that you can finally slip into ‘tu.’
Interested in learning more French?