Formal or informal: Which one do I use?

Good advice

Good advice

One of the trickiest things for native English speakers when first learning a new language is mastering the often blurry line between formal and informal pronouns.  Many world languages make the distinction, including Arabic, German, Hindi, and Mandarin Chinese.  Interestingly, the English language used to make the distinction in Elizabethan times (thou/you), but its usage has since died out—so how are we supposed to know when it’s necessary to be formal, and when it’s  OK to be familiar?

The rules governing when to use which pronoun depend on many factors: regional customs, local development of the language, and general rules of social etiquette.  Luckily, the countries where Romance languages are spoken today share a common history, so while it’s impossible to create one definitive rule for pronoun usage, there are a few general ideas you can keep in mind.  Consider the following when trying to navigate the sometimes-murky social waters:

  • Use the informal pronoun ( in Spanish, tu in French, or tu/voi in Italian) when speaking with someone who has the same social standing as you have.  This form indicates a close relationship,
    Asking very nicely to please slow down!

    A formal request: please slow down!

    so if you would feel comfortable addressing the other person by their first name here in the States, you can address them in the informal.  This includes family members, close friends, pets, and even God (in the Christian tradition).

  • Remember that many other factors besides age dictate a person’s social standing.  Do they have kids, a full time job, any kind of authority over you? You can certainly be informal with peers who may be a few years older than you, even if meeting them for the first time (in fact, they would probably prefer it)!  In certain families, children can even address their older grandparents informally.
  • Use the formal pronoun usted in Spanish, vous in French, or Lei/Loro in Italian) when addressing an acquaintance, a stranger of whom you are asking a favor (such as directions), person of authority (this can include a police officer, a teacher, even a shopkeeper), or an older person in general.  If you would address them as Mr., Mrs., Sir or Ma’am in English, then this is probably the safest bet.
  • Err on the polite side: in situations where you’re unsure, it’s best to use the formal pronoun.  You certainly don’t want to come off as disrespectful, insulting or condescending, which can be implied if you use the informal pronoun with the wrong person.  On the other hand, using the formal pronoun with someone who doesn’t warrant it may make you sound a bit stuffy or uncomfortable, but it’s better to be safe than sorry in this situation.
  • Once you initiate conversation with a native speaker, you can leave it up to them to tell you when it is appropriate for the both of you to address each other in a familiar fashion.

An informal ad can be more appealing to certain customers

Knowing when to use which pronoun is just like any other kind of cultural learning: as long as you make an effort to immerse yourself, you’ll get it eventually.  When speaking with someone from your host country, try not to become too preoccupied with the formalities—they’ll know that you’re learning, and that you’re bound to make a few mistakes here and there.  Soon enough, it will all come so easily to you that you won’t even have to think about it anymore.

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