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U or JIJ? TU or VOUS? DU or SIE? Which one do you use?

Ever call someone sir or ma’am only to get asked, or told, not to? In America, people are sometimes offended when addressed formally as sir or ma’am as it implies they are of a certain age. Depending on where you’re from or what language(s) you speak, your connection to formal and informal language might differ from others. To make for an easy start, we’ll look at a list of formal and informal versions of the word ‘you’ in several languages.

Formal and Informal use of you in Dutch, English, French and German

Informal: 

German – ‘du’ or the plural ‘ihr’

French – tu and sometimes vous

Dutch – jij or jullie

English – you, you all, or y’all

  • Note, in French, vous is both the singular and plural version of you. When used as a singular, it is always formal. When used as a plural it is contextually dependent.

Formal:

German – Sie

French – Vous

Dutch – u

English – You

  • Note, in English, pronouns are avoided in formal situations when possible.

German and French heavily feature formal language and their cultures display that as well. English has very little formal language, instead relying on grammar to indicate when a conversation or situation is formal or not. In the United States the culture is typically informal, featuring a lot of slang and colloquial approaches to communication. Somewhere in between are the Dutch. While the language has formal structures, the culture is mostly informal. Knowing when a context calls for a formal or informal approach is key to avoiding causing offence and putting you at ease in another language.

When to use formal or informal language

One of the biggest differences between the two approaches is that formal language is much less personal than informal. This is because formal language is typically used when addressing those who are:

  • older than you
  • in a position of authority
  • a stranger or acquaintance
  • when writing a professional or legal document or message

Knowing when to use Informal language is typically clear. If you’re engaging with people who you have a close connection with, such as close friends and family, use informal language.

Formal language, however, requires a more scope of cultural knowledge. For example, In Germany and France formal language is always used in the contexts mentioned above. In the Netherlands, the use of formal language has lessened. 

Due to the liberal nature of Dutch society, it is not always clear when formal or informal language is called for. It is still quite common for seniors or those in positions of authority to be addressed formally, while a CEO might be addressed informally or even by their first name. However, a Judge or Minister would be spoken to using formal language. Someone in a service role will usually start with formal language, if you wanted to switch to informal, they would typically follow suit. Additionally, when asking a stranger for directions, the conversation would likely start formally, though the person being stopped would often direct the dialogue back to informal language. If you’re not sure if you should address someone formally or not, feel free to start formal and pay attention to if they direct the conversation the other way.

Formal language in English

In English speaking countries, such as the United States, there are no words that are specifically used for formal conversations. Instead, grammar and non-verbal cues are used when formality is called for. Formal approaches would typically be applied in situations where you want to demonstrate respect to those who are not very close to you. For example, you might speak formally in an interview, with a senior, to your boss, or depending on your view of authority, police and other officials. It is much less common for Americans to speak formally to a stranger. Sometimes British English can sound more formal than American. This can be seen in the use of verbs such as ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’ or ‘should’.  In both versions of the langage, formal English is typically made up of longer sentences with perfect grammar. Some examples on how to differentiate between the two are:

  • Abbreviations are not used in formal language, though acronyms are typically allowed when their meaning is common knowledge. For example, NASA or SCUBA would be acceptable while an abbreviation such as OMG or LOL would not.
  • Slang or other colloquial language is not used in formal settings. Words or titles such as dude or y’all are avoided, as are colloquial phrases, including idioms, such as ‘that’s water under the bridge’.
  • Contractions, such as doesn’t or won’t should be replaced with ‘does not’ or ‘will not’ in formal settings.
  • When a sentence could be shortened, through a different verb or any of the above, this is another indicator of formal language. For example: They will be attending a meeting tomorrow vs they’ll go to a meeting tomorrow.

Differences in approach to formality leads to confusion when engaging with another style. In Germany and France, it is best to be cautious, using formal language unless you’re speaking with a close friend or family member. In the Netherlands, you should also start with the formal approach, though it is quite likely that the conversation will shift to informal. In America, unless you really want to show extra respect, it is normal to speak informally. The Dutch are accepting of mistakes, so if you’re not sure if a situation calls for formal or informal it is ok to revert to informal.

Interested in learning more? Check out our language courses and work with a professional to secure your understanding of the formal and informal.

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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