Usted in spanish: when to use formal and informal language in Spain

Usted is the keyword. Whereas in english language being formal or polite has to do with the use of certain words and verbs, using usted in spanish (you) changes verbs in the sentence and makes the communication formal. Let’s see all this in detail.

Usted y Ustedes

First of all, two things you need to know:

Usted is used for second-person singular. Here is an example:

  • Are you waiting for the bus? / ¿Está usted esperando al autobús?

Ustedes is used for second-person plural. Another example:

  • Are you waiting for the bus? / ¿Están ustedes esperando al autobús?

As you can see, in spanish language the use of second-person singular or second-person plural changes the verb: está for están. Also, «you« in english becomes «usted» y «ustedes» at the same time.

Another important thing on this matter is that informal language also changes verbs for second-person singular or second-person plural. Lets see the two previous phrases in formal way turned into informal way (only in spanish):

  • Formal: ¿Está usted esperando al autobús? / Informal: ¿Estás (tú) esperando el autobús?
  • Formal: ¿Están ustedes esperando al autobús? / Informal: ¿Estáis (vosotros) esperando el autobús?

Notice that when you use informal language, you may not need to use the pronoun: «tú» and «vosotros» (you).

General rules to switch from informal to formal

Now, apart from the use of «usted» or «ustedes», is there any general rule to know how to pronounce or write verbs when using formal language?

One important rule that apply to most regular verbs: take the last «s» in second-person singular to switch from informal to formal. Again, a few examples:

  • Do you know Spain? / Informal: ¿Conoces (tú) España? / Formal: ¿Conoce usted España?
  • Do you live in Barcelona? / Informal: ¿Vives (tú) en Barcelona? / Formal: ¿Vive usted en Barcelona?
  • Do you drink beer? / Informal: ¿Bebes (tú) cerveza? / Formal: ¿Bebe usted cerveza?
  • Do you speak spanish? / Informal: ¿Hablas (tú) español? / Formal: ¿Habla usted español?

When to use «usted» or «tú»?

If your visit Spain for the first time, it is recommended to use the formal way. However, after a while living in the country or new visits you will realize that using formal o informal language may vary depending on a few factors:

  • Spanish young people generally use informal language, even if they don’t know eachother.
  • Family and friends also use informal language, and no matter the age among them.
  • On the other hand, it’s better to use formal way to talk to elderly people.
  • At work, in the begining, formal language is recommended, specially when you talk to managers o direct bosses.

Besides the terms «usted» and «ustedes», when talking or refering to people at work, some workers still use señor/señora or don/doña instead their christians names. «Señor» (male) or «señora» (female) can be used alone like:

  • How are you, sir/madam? / ¿Cómo está usted, señor/señora?

And also along with surnames:

  • How are you Mr/Mrs. Alonso? / ¿Cómo está Señor/Señora Alonso?

Regarding to don/doña, it is always used along with christian names:

  • Buenos días, doña María / Buenos días, don Antonio.

Latin América and formal and informal language

Whereas in Spain informal language is more and more common everyday, in Latin América the used of formal language is still most used, even among young people, friends and family.

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