One thing English speakers have to quickly get used to when learning Spanish is the difference between formal and informal language.
This might seem slightly daunting at first, but don’t panic just yet.
You can still be understood if you aren’t aware of these differences, though you might use the incorrect tone of voice when speaking to someone in Spanish — which creates a sort of awkward moment.
If you speak to someone you don’t know informally, it’s as if you’re addressing an elderly stranger with the word “dude” in English. It can be taken as a lack of respect sometimes, and that’s why knowing the differences between formal and informal Spanish is important.
That’s what this guide is here for.
Learn all the main differences between formal and informal verbs and tones of voice below.
When do we use an informal tone of voice and greeting in Spanish?
We use an informal tone of voice in Spanish when speaking with a child or with friends and family.
For example, say you’re greeting someone in Spanish and you already know them well, you should use the phrase ¿qué tal? which translates to English as “How’s everything going?” or “What’s up?”
And if you’re greeting a friend of a friend for the first time, you can still use the phrase ¿qué tal? Simple, right?
These greetings are different for formal situations.
When should we use the formal mode and which formal greetings are used in Spanish?
A formal tone of voice should be used in Spanish when speaking with people you don’t know, such as a stranger or when greeting a work colleague.
In situations like this, you should use the phrase ¿cómo estás? which means “How are you?” in English.
You could simply say hola, which is fine for any circumstance. But if you want to be extra formal, use ¿cómo estás?
Subject pronouns: When to use tú vs. when to use usted
Okay, here’s the slightly more complicated part. In Spanish, there are two different subject pronouns to choose between when addressing someone as “you”; these subject pronouns are tú and usted. We use tú when addressing someone we know well, like a family member or a friend, and we use usted when addressing a stranger or work colleague.
Verb conjugation using the tú form and the usted forms
Now, when we speak or write in Spanish, the verb forms that we use contain the subject pronouns, meaning that the pronouns are not separate from the verb. This applies to conjugated verbs that have the subject pronouns tú and usted as the subject.
So, it’s a bit different from English where we have to separate the pronoun from the verb and say, for instance, “You eat too much sugar!”
Instead, to conjugate a verb in Spanish, we would remove the AR, ER or IR verb endings that we find at the end of an infinitive verb and replace them with the correct terminations. For the informal tú form, we need to use the suffix -es for the verbs whose infinitive forms end in ER or IR or -as for the verbs whose infinitive forms end in AR.
The only situation where we separate the verb from the pronoun is when we’re emphasising or using a stronger intonation, which is similar to using italics in English.
Here’s the difference between the tú form and the usted form of the verb cantar:
- English: You sing
- Spanish tú form: Cantas
- Spanish usted form: Canta
If you want to say “you sing very well” in an informal tone of voice and address someone you know well, you must use the tú verb form of cantar:
Cantas muy bien. Me gusta la canción.
For emphasis, we might say:
Tú cantas muy bien. Me gusta la canción.
If you want to say “you sing very well” in a formal tone of voice, and address someone you don’t know well, you must use the usted verb form of cantar:
Canta muy bien. Me gusta la canción.
For emphasis, we might say:
Canta usted muy bien. Me gusta la canción.
Usted vs ustedes: Addressing one person formally vs. addressing several people formally
If you’re talking to one person formally, you’d use the usted version. But there’s also another pronoun and verb form that you should use when addressing several people formally, which is ustedes.
For example, if you wanted to ask if someone will be joining your Spanish business conference meeting, you would say:
¿Va a venir usted a la conferencia de negocios?
Whereas if you’re addressing more than one business colleague and want to ask the question above, you should say:
¿Van a venir ustedes a la conferencia de negocios?
Present perfect: Informal ways of describing situations
The present perfect follows a particular formula that will help you create sentences and express ideas or address people formally. Here is the formula:
Tú form of the verb haber+ participle of the main verb.
The tú form of the verb haber is, simply, has.
The participle of the main verb is formed with AR verbs by removing the infinitive verb ending and replacing it with the ending -ado, and with ER and IR verbs by removing the ending and replacing it with -ido.
For example, if you wanted to mention that your family member or friend cleaned their house quickly, you would say:
Has limpiado la casa muy rápido.
Present perfect: Formal ways of describing situations
Alternatively, if you wanted to address someone formally, though you’d use the same formula above, you’d need to use a different conjugated verb for the verb haber. The verb you’ll need is ha.
Here’s an example of how to address someone formally with the present perfect tense:
Usted ha limpiado la casa muy rápido.
Past tense: Informal and formal ways to talk about others in Spanish
If you want to describe others informally in a past tense situation, a new set of conjugation rules will apply to the past tense verb you choose. There are several different past tenses to choose from, and for all of them you would use the tú form of the verb for informal situations, but the endings are different for the many different past tenses.
Informal sentences in the simple past tense
The informal simple past describes events that occurred in the past and have finished, and these actions will have been carried out by someone you know.
For verbs with an infinitive AR ending, when conjugating them using the informal tú form you would use the ending -aste in the simple past tense. For verbs with an infinitive ER or IR ending, when you conjugate them using the informal tú form, you would use the ending -iste.
Let’s stick with our example above. If you wanted to compliment someone and mention that they sang very well yesterday, you would change the verb ending to -aste:
Cantaste muy bien ayer. Me gustó la canción.
Formal sentences in the simple past tense (singular and plural usted and ustedes)
For verbs with an infinitive AR ending, when you conjugate them using the formal usted form in the simple past tense, you would use the ending -o. For verbs with an infinitive ER or IR ending you would use the ending -io.
Here’s how the example would change when using the usted simple past verb conjugation:
Cantó usted muy bien ayer. Me gustó la canción.
If you wanted to use the plural usted version (which is always ustedes) in the simple past tense, which is used to talk about a group of people who you don’t know personally, the endings of the AR verbs would change to -aron.
Cantaron ustedes muy bien ayer. Me gustó la canción.
Here’s an example of the IR infinitive verb vivir in its formal, plural ustedes mode:
Vivieron ustedes en las afueras. Ahora viven en la ciudad.
And here’s an example of the ER infinitive verb beber being used in its formal, plural ustedes mode:
Bebieron ustedes mucho anoche, ¿no?
Informal sentences in the imperfect past tense
Informal sentences in the imperfect past tense are used to describe an action that repeatedly occurred in the past, and these actions will have been done by someone you know.
To write or say an informal sentence using the imperfect past tense, if the infinitive verb we want to use has an AR ending, we must replace this with the ending -abas for the tú form. And if the infinitive verb we choose has an IR or ER ending, we must replace this with the ending -ías.
For example, if someone you know always used to drink coffee when you were studying at university, you would say:
Cuando estudiabas en la universidad de Barcelona, bebías café todos los días.
Here’s an example of an IR verb conjugated in the tú form being used in the imperfect past tense:
Vivías en el centro de la ciudad toda tu vida.
And here’s an example of an ER verb conjugated in the tú form, also in the imperfect past tense:
Cuando estudiabas en la universidad, comías mucho pastel todos los días.
Formal sentences in the imperfect past tense (singular and plural usted and ustedes)
When using the usted and ustedes modes in the imperfect past keep in mind the differences between these two.
For the usted version, you’ll need to replace the AR infinitive verb endings with -aba, while for IR and ER infinitive verbs, these endings should be replaced with -ía. For the ustedes version of AR infinitive verbs, you’ll need the ending -aban, and for the IR and ER infinitive verbs, their endings should be replaced with -ian.
Take a look at the example below for how to conjugate AR infinitive verbs in the formal usted form:
Hablaba usted por teléfono con su madre todos los meses. Ahora, habla mucho menos.
Here is an example of the imperfect past tense being used for an IR verb (escribir) when it takes the usted version (which uses the same conjugation rules as the ER):
Escribía usted a tus amigos todos los días.
So now let’s take a look at the plural, ustedes version for AR verbs:
Llamaban ustedes la recepcionista por la noche.
And here’s an example of the plural ustedes version being used for ER verbs:
Bebían ustedes mucho zumo de naranja.
Informal sentences in the past perfect tense
The past perfect tense is used to describe an event that started in the past but affects and continues into the present. Again, this verb tense can be conjugated with the tú form; you can do it by using the following formula:
Second person, imperfect tense haber+ verb in past participle form
To conjugate the verb haber in the second person imperfect tense, the ending you’ll need is -ías. And to use the past participle, just remove the infinitive AR, ER or IR ending and replace these with -ado (for AR verbs) or -ido (for ER/IR verbs).
Here’s an example of this formula being used to create a sentence in the informal tú form:
Habías cenado en la casa de Luis antes de que llegara.
Formal sentences in the past perfect tense
For the usted version, replace the ending of verb haber with -ía, while still applying the above formula. Here’s an example of a sentence that uses the formal usted version in the past perfect tense:
Usted había caminado por aquí antes de nosotros.
Now, if you wanted to use ustedes in the past perfect tense to create a formal sentence, you should use the same formula, but change the verb conjugation of haber. You’ll need the ending -ían to conjugate it correctly.
Take a look at the example just below:
Ustedes habían corrido por la misma ruta antes que ellos.
Informal and formal conditional tenses
The same sort of principle applies to conditional tenses when using formal and informal sentences.
You can use either the tú form, the usted form, or the ustedes form to address someone formally and informally.
How can you form an informal conditional sentence?
To use the informal conditional tense (with the tú form), all you need to do is add the ending -ías to the verb – (there’s no need to remove the infinitive AR, ER, or IR in these cases). Take a look at the sentence below as examples:
Deberías hacer más trabajo en casa.
Cantarías mejor si practicaras más.
How can you form a formal conditional sentence using usted and ustedes?
On the other hand, if you wanted to use the formal conditional tense (with the usted form), you need to use a different verb ending, which is -ía. Again, no need to remove the infinitive verb endings for this. Just add -ía to the end.
Here are a couple of examples:
Usted debería hablar en voz alta si tiene una opinión de esto.
Usted debería callarse si no tienes nada bueno que decir.
And if you want to address a group of people who you don’t know formally and want to use the ustedes form, the ending you’ll need is -ían. Check the following examples to help you understand this:
Señores, serían más felices si ayudaran a todos sus amigos.
Informal and formal future tenses
We use the future tense to describe what is going to happen in the future or what will occur.
Forming the informal and formal future tenses also relies on the pronouns tú and usted/ustedes, which cause the verb endings to change.
How can you form the informal future tense?
To form and use the informal future tense, just add the verb ending -ás to the end of the verb. With this verb ending, you’re using the tú verb form, which is informal.
Here’s an example of how to use the informal future tense:
Hablarás con ella mañana por la mañana para descubrir más de la boda.
How can you form the formal future tense using usted and ustedes?
When you use the usted verb form to conjugate the future tense, you’ll need to use a different verb ending.
The ending you’ll need is -á. Take a look at the example below to see how the conjugated usted version of the verb cantar:
Usted cantará mejor mañana cuando recupere su voz.
Study hard to learn the differences between formal and informal Spanish
You can see that there are many different verb tenses to get used to when you practice.
But study little by little. If you’re studying a Spanish course, your teacher will guide you through each of these tenses.
If you’re studying independently, there are plenty of Spanish resources available. These include verb tables, fill-in-the-blank exercises, listening exercises (such as audio recordings, YouTube channels and films) and even short lessons that will make practising simpler.
Since it’s important to keep learning, boost your studies with a variety of tasks and exercises.
Have you got any other tips for learning the differences between formal and informal verbs and tones of voice in Spanish?
Add your contribution below to the comments section!