Formal vs. informal Spanish

Formal vs. informal Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated March 30, 2023

You can tell if a sentence is formal vs. informal in Spanish by the types of words being used. This is especially true when looking at the form for the word “you.” In Spanish, there are two different forms of “you”: usted and tú. Usted is formal. It is used when addressing strangers, customers, older people and superiors. The informal is used to talk to your friends, family and other close acquaintances. 

Using formal or informal Spanish will determine how you conjugate verbs, as well as which subjects and articles you use. This guide will help you better understand the grammar of formal vs. informal Spanish and give you plenty of examples typical of everyday situations.

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Formal ‘you’ in Spanish

Let’s start with the formal version of “you” in Spanish. Use the formal usted to speak to strangers or people you aren’t on friendly, intimate terms with. This is also the appropriate form to use with older people or superiors at work.

SubjectRegular verb, present-tense endingExamples
usted (you, formal)-a, -e¿Cómo está? (How are you?)¿Puede ayudarme? (Can you help me?)
(you, informal)-as, -es¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)¿Puedes ayudarme? (Can you help me?)

Notice from the examples above that the informal and the formal usted don’t need to be said aloud or even written. In Spanish, it’s common to omit the subject from a sentence. In many cases, you will not see or hear the words or usted. Instead, you will be able to infer which is being used from the verb ending. 

Here are some examples of the different verb conjugations for and usted in present tense:

tomar (to drink)escribir (to write)comer (to eat)
(you, informal)tomasescribescomes
usted (you, formal)tomaescribecome

Usted is conjugated just like él/ella (he/she) in Spanish. To avoid confusion, Spanish speakers will sometimes include usted in a sentence, like so:

  • ¿Puede usted ayudarme? (Can you help me?)
  • ¿Es usted de Alemania? (Are you from Germany?)

Without usted explicitly written out in these sentences, they could be easily mistaken as referencing a third-person — “Can he help me?” or “Is she from Germany?”.

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As mentioned above, the informal is used to talk to your friends, family and other close acquaintances. 

Will you always know which version of “you” to use? Probably not. But as a Spanish language learner, it’s important to be polite. In general, default to formal Spanish until you know someone really well. Don’t be surprised if somebody tells you to use with them. This is called tutearto speak to someone informally in Spanish. It will sound like this:

  • Somos amigos, me puedes tutear. (We’re friends, you can speak to me informally.)

‘Vosotros’ vs. ‘ustedes’ in Spanish

In the Spanish spoken in Spain, there is also a plural “you” for formal and informal Spanish. The plural “you” in English translates to “you all/y’all” and is used to address a group. For example: Are you all going to the party? 

Vosotros is an informal plural “you,” while ustedes is formal.

SubjectRegular verb, present-tense endingExamples
vosotros (you all, informal)-áis, -éis, -ís¿Cómo estáis? (How are you all?)¿Podéis ayudarme? (Can you all help me?)
ustedes (you all, formal)-an, -en¿Cómo están? (How are you all?)¿Pueden ayudarme? (Can you all help me?)

Only Spain uses vosotros in this way. In Latin America, only ustedes is used.

Formal vs. informal Spanish greetings

In the examples above we can see that ¿Cómo estas? (How are you?) is an informal greeting to be used with friends and family. Start out on the right foot by greeting strangers formally. Here are some examples of formal vs. informal Spanish greetings:

¿Cómo está?¿Cómo estás?How are you?
Hace tiempo que no la/lo veo.Hace tiempo que no te veo.It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.
¿Cómo ha estado?¿Cómo has estado?How have you been?
¿De dónde es usted?¿De dónde eres?Where are you from?
¿Cómo se llama usted?¿Cómo te llamas?What’s your name?
Encantado/a de conocerle.Encantado/a de conocerte.Nice to meet you.

Formal vs. informal commands in Spanish

Telling people what to do politely can be challenging. Let’s focus on some common Spanish verbs used for commands: decir (to say), dar (to give), poner (to put), hacer (to do/make), tener (to have), ir (to go) and venir (to come).

Diga la verdad.Di la verdad.Tell the truth.
Démelo.Dámelo.Give it to me.
Póngalo en la mesa.Ponlo en la mesa.Put it on the table.
Hágalo su mismo.Hazlo tu mismo.Do it yourself.
¡Tenga!¡Ten!Here! (when giving something to someone)
¡Váyase!¡Vete!Go (away)!
¡Venga aquí!¡Ven aqui!Come here.

Informal vs. Formal in Spanish: ‘Dígale de forma formal’

Sometimes the difference between formal and. informal in Spanish can be as small as one letter. That single letter can change the meaning and tone significantly. If you listen carefully, Spanish speakers will default to speaking formally in most everyday situations: at the shop, while dining at a restaurant or when meeting someone for the first time. Make a good first impression by starting out formally. ¡Hágalo!

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

Alison Maciejewski Cortez

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