Using TU And VOUS in Quebec French

French verbs are conjugated with two subject pronouns TU and VOUS where English uses only one, YOU. Simply put, TU is singular and used for casual and informal situations. On the other hand, VOUS is used for more formal singular and for all plurals.

The real problem stems from the fact that TU and VOUS can both refer to singular subjects. When do you use one or the other? This is a constant source of problems for English-speakers learning French. Most grammar books cover the distinction quite well. To make matters even more complicated, however, there are regional differences in the usage of these pronouns.

If you are in contact with a lot of spoken Quebec French, you may have noticed that TU is more widespread when compared to European French or the French taught in schools. Linguists say that in Quebec the “tutoiement” is more common than the “vouvoiement”. There is more to this than meets the eye, however.

First of all, this high usage of the TU form probably reflects less rigid attitudes towards social distinctions. People in Quebec tend to quickly switch to TU after an initial phase of VOUS, especially if the speakers are of the same age group. My advice here is to always let the other person take the initiative of switching from VOUS to TU.

Since TU is by far the most common spoken form, many people, particularly teenagers and young adults, are not always accustomed to using the VOUS form and will spontaneously use the TU with everybody. This is often seen in stores with young staff. They might start off with VOUS and quickly switch to TU because the VOUS isn’t as natural. Stores may even have to remind the employees to use VOUS with all customers.

If you feel that the usage of TU is inappropriate-typically from a young salesperson-just stand your ground and keep on using VOUS. The other person should quickly take a hint.

While listening to a lot of informal spoken Quebec French, you will notice a very common TU that has nothing to do with pronouns. This can be very confusing because it sounds exactly like the pronoun. In reality this is simply a tag added to the verb to indicate a question. Here are some examples:

Il vient-tu avec nous? (Is he coming with us?)

Je peux-tu poser une question? (Can I ask a question?)

Je le sais-tu? (How would I know?)

La rue Ste-Catherine, c’est-tu loin? (Is St. Catherine Street far?)

Vous avez-tu fini de faire du bruit? (Have you finished making noise?)

Tu dors-tu? (Are you sleeping?)

On y va-tu? (Shall we get going?)

This form is also used in Quebec slang to add emphasis to the verb, as in:

Ils l’ont-tu l’affaire! (They know how to do it!)

C’est-tu stupide, cet accident! (Isn’t that accident stupid!)

Another interesting usage of TU in Quebec French, and to a lesser extent in France, is to express an abstract or generic subject. Here are some examples.

Les prix augmentent si vite que tu ne peux plus rien acheter. (Prices are going up so quickly that you can’t buy anything anymore.)

Avec la technologie actuelle, tu peux pratiquement tout faire. (With today’s technology, you can do just about anything.)

In these examples, the speaker is not really referring to the opposite person. He or she is actually talking in an abstract sense.

Just a word of caution when using these informal Quebec French usages. They are viewed as non-standard in many circles although they are very popular. Make sure you feel comfortable in the social setting before using forms that may be considered slang. When in doubt, stick with VOUS.