You’re just starting out on your language journey… then you Google how to say “how are you?” and realize there’s more than one way to say you in Spanish.

Fear not, in this article you’ll learn why Spanish needs two words for you, when each is used, and how to use them properly.

Tú and usted: What's the difference?

In Spanish, unlike English, we have a formal and informal way of addressing people: the second person conjugation of verbs is used in more informal situations, and the third person singular usted conjugation in more formal ones.

In English and usted both translate to “you.” The main difference between these two words is that usted is only used to address people formally.

In most Latin American countries we only use with family members, friends, or people we estimate are of a similar age and social status as us. On the contrary, usted is used to show respect to older people or even to acknowledge that the person you are talking to is of a different social status or position within a hierarchy. Students would use usted when addressing their teacher, for example.

Children in a Classroom. In the back of a classroom, are children about 11 years old with a female teacher talking about the subject - If Someone in Your Family Has Cancer. Photographer Michael Anderson
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Why do we need two words for this?

You might be wondering why Spanish speakers need this extra word when in English you get by just fine with one. The answer is mostly related to register (how formal or informal you behave in a given situation), but in other contexts usted might also be used to communicate respect and politeness.

Now, you might be surprised, but English used to have a formal form of you, too.

In Middle English thou was singular, while you was plural. In the 1400's there was a shift because aristocratic people started using plural pronouns to refer to themselves (e.g., “We are most displeased” or “We ask ourself”) — as a result, you started sounding formal and distant, whereas thou was used with people you are close with. Thou eventually started falling out of use in the first half of the 1600's, and from there would completely fall out of use in most dialects, leaving you as English’s only second-person pronoun.

History played its part in the origin of Spanish’s usted, too. There are currently two main theories as to why this distinction came to exist

  1. The first is that usted is derived from Vuestra Merced (literally: your mercy). Between the 13th and 14th centuries, the formal second person singular pronoun vos had become overburdened: It was being used to denote many different social relationships. This ambiguity called for the development of new forms of “formal” address, and as a result, in the 14th century the phrase Vuestra Merced emerged to fill this gap. It later developed into Vested, and finally Usted.
  2. The second theory states that usted was a borrowed term from farsi (Iranian), where ‘ustaadh’ used to designate professors or teachers. That term was later borrowed by Arabic, and then passed on to Spanish when Muslims ruled f the Iberian Peninsula for eight centuries (leading to Spanish adopting some 4,000 Arabic words).


When to use tú or usted

Knowing when to use or usted requires more than grammatical knowledge. As mentioned above, it can be quite subjective, as you need to determine if the person you want to talk to is older than you (and appearances can deceive!) That in mind, it’s always better to err on the safe side and use usted if you’re in doubt. The worst that could happen is you make someone feel a bit old, but at least you’re being polite!

If unsure, just ask yourself: Do I see this person as a friend or as an acquaintance? Does this person seem to be my age or are they clearly older? I’ve personally had several students who are the same age as me using usted the first time we meet, and I immediately tell them to “tutéame por favor” (address me using ). But some people may prefer that their students use usted.

Examples with usted

En el aeropuerto buscando la salida – At the airport looking for the exit

  1. Tú preguntándole al guardia: Hola, disculpe (usted), ¿me puede decir dónde está la salida por favor?
    You asking the guard: Hello, excuse me, could you tell me where the exit is, please?
  2. Guardia: Claro, siga (usted) hasta el final del pasillo y gire a la derecha.
    Guard: Of course, keep straight until the end of the hall and turn right.

Subiéndose a un taxi – Getting on a taxi

  1. : Buenos días, ¿me lleva (usted) al centro, por favor?
    You: Good morning, could you take me to the center, please?
  2. Taxista: Por supuesto, no hay problema.
    Taxi driver: Of course, no problem.

En la casa de tu amigo – At your friend’s house

  1. Tu amigo: Mira, te presento a mi mamá.
    Your friend: Look, this is my mom.
  2. : Hola, mucho gusto, ¿cómo está (usted)?
    You: Hello, nice to meet you. How are you?

Examples with tú

En la calle – On the Street

  1. Tú preguntándole a alguien que se ‘ve’ de una edad similar: Hola, perdona, ¿tienes hora?
    You asking someone who ‘looks’ about the same age: Hi, excuse me, do you have the time?
  2. Sí, son las tres.
    Yeah, it’s three.

En una fiesta – At a party

  1. Tú, (dirigiéndote a alguien que se ‘ve’ de la misma edad): Hola, ¿cómo te llamas (tú)?
    You (addressing someone who “looks” the same age): Hi, what’s your name?
  2. Ella: Sofía, ¿y tú?
    Her: Sophia, and you?

En la Universidad con compañeros – At university with classmates

  1. Tu compañero: ¿Vamos a almorzar juntos después de clase?
    Your classmate: Are we going to have lunch together after class?
  2. : Sí, vamos. ¿Invitamos a Claudia también?
    You: Yes, let’s go. Should we invite Claudia as well?
  3. Tu compañero: Sí, claro.
    Classmate: Yeah, sure.
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In a nutshell

We use tú:

  1. When speaking informally to someone who seems to be of a similar age as you (a person on the street you ask the time or directions, or the waiter at a bar)
  2. With family members and friends.
  3. With someone of the same social status as you (another student at school, or a colleague at work)

We use usted:

  1. When speaking to someone much older than you or who is in a position of power over you (such as the taxi driver or a police officer on the street)
  2. When speaking in a formal situation (As in a meeting at work, or addressing your teachers at university)
  3. When addressing multiple people (We use the plural form ‘’ustedes’’. This the preferred form in Latinamerica)

Bonus section: Other words for you

If you’ve been studying Spanish for a few weeks or months now, you might have seen the personal pronouns vos or vosotros. By this point, perhaps you’re wondering if you should be learning Spanish at all! These personal pronouns and their verb forms are yet another representation of you — vos being another form of the second person singular and and vosotros being a form of the second person plural.


Vosotros is a personal pronoun used only in Spain, serving to address more than one person with whom you are familiar  That is to say that it’s the plural you and it’s informal.

The Latin American equivalent would correspond to ustedes (plural you), and we use it both formally and informally. This doesn’t mean you can’t use ustedes in Spain, though. (In fact, you should if you are in a formal situation, and you want to be more polite.)

En una reunión - At a meeting

1.     ¿Adónde vais después de la reunión?
Where are you going after the meeting?

2.     Vamos a un bar. ¿Y vosotros?
We’re going to a bar, and (all of) you?

Note: Vosotros is used with second-person plural verb forms.



In Latin America, the vosotros form was also employed, but it disappeared completely at the end of the 19th century. Over time, the form ustedes was adopted to refer to a group of people in general, following the evolution of the form usted.

En una reunión - At a meeting

  1. ¿Adónde van después de la reunión?
    Where are you going after the meeting
  2. Vamos a un bar, ¿y ustedes?
    We’re going to a bar, and (all of) you?

Note: While ustedes is a second person plural pronoun, it takes third person plural verb forms.



Other forms such as voseo (Using vos instead of tú) were also adopted, which previously existed in Spain but have disappeared from regular usage. Nowadays the use of vos as a second person singular pronoun, along with its associated verbal forms, is used widely as a familiar (informal) way of addressing people in Rioplatense Spanish (Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), Eastern Bolivia, and Central American Spanish (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, southern parts of Chiapas and some parts of Oaxaca in Mexico) — and even Philippines.  

En un club – At a club

  1. Chico 1: ¿(Vos) querés bailar conmigo?
    Guy 1: Do you want to dance with me?
  2. Chica 2: Sí, me gustaría. ¿No tenés amigos aquí?
    Girl 1: Yes, I’d like to. You don’t have friends here?
  3. Chico 1: No, vine solo.
    Guy 1: No, I came alone.

Equivalent with tú

  1. Chico 1: ¿Quieres bailar conmigo?
    Guy 1: Do you want to dance with me?
  2. Chica 2: Sí, me gustaría. ¿No tienes amigos aquí?
    Girl 2: Yes, I’d like to, you don’t have any friends here?
  3. Chico 1: No, vine solo.
    Guy 1: No, I came alone.

Note: Notice how the vos conjugations look different than typical second person singular (tú) conjugations. That’s beyond the scope of this article, but you can read more about how vos works here.


I think it’s brilliant when a language has ways of showing us connections we never thought possible, don’t you? Even if it may seem overwhelming right now!

I think the important thing is to decide on which variety of Spanish you’d like to focus on, and then just stick to that. You can worry about learning all of the other ways to say “you” after reaching a bit higher of a level. Having said that, c becoming more aware of the diversity of Spanish will only enrich your knowledge and give you superpowers! (The ability to communicate in over 20 countries is no small feat).

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