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How to use “usted” in Spanish

Usted vs tú: Why are there two words for “you” in Spanish? Today we’ll learn how to use usted and practice it in a bunch of Spanish sentence contexts.

Full Podcast Episode


Let’s practice using usted.

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

This week we’re going to learn the verb Estar. But for today, we need to learn a new subject pronoun, a new way to say “you” in Spanish. Basically, unlike all the subject pronouns that we learned last week, this is a person that exists in Spanish but doesn’t exist in English!

Here’s what I mean. Let’s review which subject pronoun goes with which conjugation of Ser. For the most part, these verb forms are more or less clear which person they’re talking about.

For soy we have yo. It’s the only option. Yo soy.

For eres we have . Tú eres.

For somos we have nosotros (sometimes nosotras).

And for son we have either ellos or ellas.

For es, we could use él OR ella. And actually, there’s yet another subject pronoun that could be used with es (which is yet another reason that es is the most-used verb form in the Spanish language).

Here’s the thing. When you’re talking to a single person in standard Spanish, there are actually two ways to say “you”. We’ve already learned , but the other word for this is usted (spelled U-S-T-E-D.

Usted means you, but in a formal context. Let's say you walk into a store and you want to speak with the store owner. It’s considered very informal to use the normal way of saying you in Spanish. In a situation like this, you may be more likely to say usted.

AND… we don't say usted eres; that's actually improper Spanish. Instead, you would say, usted es.

So this takes a lot of getting used to, because even though when you use usted you’re speaking to someone as “you”, you’ll be using third-person verb conjugations.

One way to remember this based on our memory palace is that you’re nervous to talk with the snake, who represents es, so instead of talking to it, you choose to talk about it in the third person. On the other hand, when talking with the shepherd in the countryside or with your friend on the hovercraft, you’re not afraid to use words like or te or eres.

So as some examples you could say, “you are my friend” by saying tú eres my friend, or simply eres my friend. But to say “you are my professor”, you're more likely to state the subject pronoun usted, and then say, es, which is third person.

This is also very dependent on what region of Spanish you’re dealing with. For example, in Argentina, the usted form is very rarely used, but there are also regional dialects in some other parts of South America where the form is rarely used and most people speak in usted most of the time except with very intimate acquaintances.

For us English speakers, this feels like a whole new thing to worry about, because we don't really separate formal from informal ways of talking to somebody in a grammatical sense. I mean, there are SOME ways we’ll change our speech based on how well we know the person. But this is a situation where the grammar itself changes based on your relationship with the person you’re talking to.

Let’s practice a few sentences that use usted. In all three of the examples I’m about to present, use a formal voice.

You are a teacher.

Usted es a teacher.

Usted es profesor.

He isn’t my friend, you are.

Él no es my amigo, usted lo es.

Él no es mi amigo, usted lo es.

You weren’t his friend(f)?

¿Usted no era his amiga?

¿Usted no era su amiga?

In that last example, the person you were talking to was feminine, and you still used usted; when it’s a subject pronoun, it doesn’t look different based on the gender of the person you’re talking with.

However, there will also be situations where you’re speaking with someone in a formal voice, and they end up being the direct object in the sentence. In this case, you won’t use te, you’ll instead use lo or la. This is another thing that may seem odd, because for example, “they know you” might be translated as “ellos lo know”, which seems to be “they know him”. So it might feel weird to use the words for “him” or “her” to refer to the person you’re talking with. But again, this is considered very polite and formal, so it’s definitely something worth practicing a bit.

So here are some more sentences to practice this. In each case, use a formal voice.

In this first example, everyone is feminine:

They(f) don’t know you(f).

Ellas no la know.

Ellas no la conocen.

In this next one, everyone is masculine:

I knew you when you were my teacher.

Yo lo knew when usted era my teacher.

Yo lo conocía cuando usted era mi profesor.

In that last example, it’s maybe a little weird that we named usted in the second half of the sentence. It would actually be considered quite clear who we’re talking about if we phrased it like this:

Yo lo knew when era my teacher.

Yo lo conocía cuando era mi profesor.

And so in many cases, Spanish uses the usted form without naming usted at all. This is going to happen a lot when you encounter the word es; it might be referring to an it, a he, or a she… or it might be referring to an unnamed usted.

For example, check out this sentence.

Es un amigo.

Es un amigo.

This might mean “he is a friend”, or it might mean “you are a friend” in a formal voice. This is the kind of thing that has to be picked up from context.

This week as we explore Ser and Estar, we’re going to be using both and usted quite a bit. It’s really important to be able to use either one fluently if you want to be prepared for real-life Spanish. So for today’s final quiz, let’s get a lot of practice switching back and forth between the two. In each case, I’m going to use the following rules to try to be clear: By default, when a sentence example uses some sort of “you”, the default answer will be (or one of its associated words, such as eres or te). But if I say to use a formal voice, you’ll use usted or one of its associated words (such as es, lo, or la).

Oh, you’re(formal) from Bolivia?

Oh, ¿es de Bolivia?

Oh, ¿es de Bolivia?

I am not the girl that saw you(f, formal).

Yo no soy la chica que la saw.

Yo no soy la chica que la vio.

She knows you(f, formal), because of being your student.

Ella la knows, por ser your student.

Ella la conoce, por ser su estudiante.

He said that you’re(formal) his favorite teacher.

Él said que es his favorite teacher.

Él dijo que es su profesor favorito.

The problem is that they(m) are further away than he.

The problem es que ellos are further away que él.

El problema es que ellos están más lejos que él.

Are you the girl’s friend(f)?

¿Eres tú la amiga de la chica?

¿Eres tú la amiga de la chica?

I didn’t know that you(formal) were the same guy!

¡Yo no knew que era el same chico!

¡Yo no sabía que era el mismo chico!

If they(f) are my friends, you(m, formal) are my friend.

If ellas son my amigas, usted es my amigo.

Si ellas son mis amigas, usted es mi amigo.

We are the lady’s daughters.

Somos las daughters de la lady.

Somos las hijas de la señora.

What he saw was that you were my friend(m).

What él saw era que eras my amigo.

Lo que él vio era que eras mi amigo.

¿Why are we(f) the chosen ones?

¿Por qué somos nosotras las chosen ones?

¿Por qué somos nosotras las elegidas?

Being a wooden boy was a unique experience.

Ser un boy de wood era a unique experience.

Ser un niño de madera era una experiencia única.

They’re my friends(m) in order to be your friends(m).

Son my amigos para ser your amigos.

Son mis amigos para ser tus amigos.

We(m) weren’t customers, but you(m, formal) were.

Nosotros no éramos customers, but usted lo era.

Nosotros no éramos clientes, pero usted lo era.

They(m) said they saw you(m, formal) at the theater.

Ellos said que lo saw en the theater.

Ellos dijeron que lo vieron en el teatro.

For more practice with usted and everything else we’ve learned on this show, go to LCSPodcast.com/21 to practice with the free materials.

I’m super excited about tomorrow’s episode; we’ll get to start practicing the verb Estar, which is another way to translate “to be” in Spanish!

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach [...]. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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