Formal and Informal in French: How to Not Insult People

by Audrey Sivadier
April 03, 2020

Here’s a tricky chapter when starting to learn a language: how not to appear too familiar or too formal? Are you afraid of creating diplomatic incidents? Then here are a few points to guide you.

French greetings and thank yous

It all starts where you have to greet the person in front of you. In French, when something is very easy, we use the expression: “C’est simple comme bonjour”. Except that saying hello in French is not quite that simple…

I advise you to ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Who? You have to take into account family, friends or professional ties, the age and status of the person. For example, you don’t say “salut” to your superior, but rather “bonjour”. You can keep “salut” for your colleagues, family and friends. And with close family or friend, you can even use “coucou”, both written and spoken.
  • How? Yes, how to thank for example? A simple “merci” is usually enough for all situations, but if you want to be very polite, you can add a “madame” or “monsieur”, or develop a little more and say “je vous remercie” and there you will be in the most formal way. 

Your interlocutor will then answer you:

→ Je vous en prie (very formal)

→ De rien (informal)

→ Y a pas de quoi (very informal)

  • How many? This question will be reserved for “la bise”. Because the French don’t just say “Salut”, or just shake hands, they kiss each other! Again, don’t kiss your boss. Or rather, wait for him/her to propose it to you. But we kiss each other a lot as colleagues. Men, it depends: they sometimes kiss when they are friends or family members, but not always. Among young people, we kiss a lot, and boys seem to be getting into it more and more. For the answer to the question “how many”, I would actually need a whole blog to answer you, but you’ll find it here, and a practical guide in this video of Paul Taylor

Tu vs Vous: How do you use the “tu” and the “vous” in French?

In general, I recommend you to use “vous” for all the people you don’t know (in the street, shops…) and your superiors. 

Use the “tu” with a child or between adults in a family or friendly context. Usually, it is also used with colleagues and with people of the same age as you. But if you have a doubt, use the “vous”. If you are too formal, your interlocutor will ask you “on peut se tutoyer ?” (can we say “tu” to each other?)

Yes, there are verbs for that: “se tutoyer” and “se vouvoyer”!

Negation disappears in informal French

You learnt at the beginning of your lessons that in order to form negation in French, you needed two words “ne” and “pas”, one positioned before and the other after the conjugated verb, as in the sentence “je ne parle pas japonais” (I don’t speak Japanese). I can reassure you that this is true for formal French and written French. But in oral French… People make life simpler!

Indeed, the negation “ne” is almost never pronounced! Orally, the sentence I wrote previously “je ne parle pas japonais” (I don’t speak Japanese) will become “je parle pas japonais” (I don’t speak Japanese).

The sentence that evolves the most is probably “je ne sais pas” (I don’t know), which will become orally “je sais pas” and even in a more relaxed way “ch’sais pas” where the sound “j” will become “ch”.

Formal and informal questions in French

There are many ways to ask questions in French. For the same question, you can vary the formal or informal style, just change the position of the words in the sentence.

For the formal question, the interrogative pronoun “où” is in front, and the subject “tu” and verb are inverted. For the informal question, everything is reversed: (From formal to informal.)

  • Où vas-tu ? → Où tu vas ? → Tu vas où ? (where are you going?) 
  • Comment t’appelles-tu ? → Comment tu t’appelles ? → Tu t’appelles comment ? (What’s your name?)

And of course, “tu” can be replaced by “vous”:

  • Où allez-vous ? → Où vous allez ? → Vous allez où ? (where are you going?)
  • Comment vous appelez-vous ? → Comment vous vous appelez ? → Vous vous comment ? (What’s your name?)

As you’ve seen, all this is not “simple comme bonjour”, but it makes French a rich language! With practice, you will easily recognise the different possible situations. And what about your next Lingoda lessons? Are you going to use “tu” or “vous”?

If you’d like to practice your French skills with a native speaker, give it a try! You could even save yourself from insulting someone. Visit the Lingoda website and sign up for your free 7-day trial today!

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