The Fascinating Importance of Formality in Spanish

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When you start your Spanish learning journey, formality in Spanish may confuse you. You will likely come across “tú” and “usted,” and may be wondering why there are two words that mean “you.” However, formality in Spanish is incredibly important to learn and understand.

Though there is a formal way of speaking English, there are not any defined grammatical rules. In Spanish, there are distinctions in the grammatical structure to show formality and respect. In this post we will delve into how formality is used in Spanish, and why it is essential to learn.

What Is Formality and How Is It Used?

There are two main ways formality in Spanish is shown. “Tú” vs “Usted,” and the use of titles. 

“Tú vs Usted”

Both of these words technically mean “you,” but have different weights attached to them. In grammar terms, “tú,” is the singular informal form of “you.” While “usted,” is the singular formal version of “you.”

In simpler terms, “tú,” is used with someone that you are friends with, or someone you know well. If you are having a casual conversation with someone around your age, you can generally skip the formalities and say “tú.” 

“Usted,” is used when you need to add a level of respect to your conversation. When you are talking to a superior at work, someone older than you, a teacher, or a stranger, make sure to use “usted.” If you are not sure which “you” to use, it is best to go with “usted.” Being overly formal will always be the safest option.

Many native speakers tend to drop the subject when speaking, so make sure to listen carefully to how the verb is conjugated. The verb’s ending will change when you use “tú,” as opposed to “usted.” The table below highlights some of the main verbs and how they change with the two different subjects. 

Ser (To be)ereses
Tener (To have)tienestiene
Ir (To go)vasva
Estar (To be)estásestá
Querer (To want)quieresquiere
A table of the verb changes with tú and usted

Some example sentences of this formality in Spanish are:

  1. “¿Usted quiere comer algo?” or “¿Quiere comer algo?”  (Formal)


     “¿Tú quieres comer algo?” or “¿Quieres comer algo?”  (Informal)

          Translation: “Do you want to eat something?” 

2. “¿De dónde es usted?” or “¿De dónde es?”   (Formal)


    “¿De dónde eres tú?” or “¿De dónde eres?”  (Informal)

           Translation: “Where are you from?” 

Usage of Title

In English, we tend to use words like “sir,” or “ma’am,” to show formality. It is a similar concept in Spanish. To show respect or formality in Spanish, it is important to add someone’s title before their name.

If you are unsure about their title, then you can use “señor” (masculine), or “señora” (feminine). But here is a list of the most used titles you will likely come across to show formality in Spanish.  Here is a smaller list of some more common titles.

Spanish TitleEnglish Title
doctoraDr. (female)
doctorDr. (male)
profesorTeacher (male)
profesoraTeacher (female)
Table showcasing titles in Spanish in English

To use these titles, it is just like English. The title goes before the person’s name. For example, “Mr. Lopez,” would be “Señor Lopez.” Easy, right? 

It may seem difficult to remember all of these titles at first, but with enough practice here at Language Atlas, you’ll get the hang of it in no time.

Why Is It Important?

Being formal in Spanish is incredibly important as it is a sign of respect. Being respectful of elders, or people in high positions is an important part of many Hispanic and Latinx cultures. It is ingrained in the culture to show politeness to those senior to you. 

Starting off a conversation without Spanish formalities can come off as disrespectful or impolite. Depending on what you are using Spanish for, being informal could have different consequences. Whenever you are not sure if you should use formality in Spanish, it is better to be overly polite than too casual. 

“What will happen if I do not use formal Spanish?” You may be wondering. Again, it may differ between circumstances. Let’s say you need to speak Spanish for work purposes. If you address the Spanish-speaking team with “tú,” they will immediately see you as unprofessional, and even rude. This could cause the business deal to fall through, or cause you to have a bad reputation with the Spanish-speaking team. 

Make sure to use formality in Spanish in corporate settings.
Make sure to use formality in Spanish in corporate settings.

If you are learning Spanish just for travel purposes, formality in Spanish is not as important. It is still important! But, you may be able to get away with slipping up every now and then. Being a tourist will always make things easier as most locals are happy with the fact that you are trying to speak their language. 

Many locals understand if you speak informally by mistake. However, there are always going to be some people who misunderstand you, and see your informality as disrespect. Although this is not as common, it is important to master formality in Spanish regardless of your planned usage of the language.


Showing respect to others is an important part of most languages, but Spanish takes it to another level by changing their grammar to show formality. Being respectful of elders, or people of high positions is a part of the culture. It is important to take the time to learn and practice formality in Spanish. Using the incorrect language could get you into hot water, or give you a bad reputation with others. Even if it is unintentional!

Formality in Spanish may seem a bit complicated, but through enough practice, you will get it down in no time. If you feel you need a bit more detail and practice on “tú” versus “usted,” or titles, check out the lessons on Language Atlas. Each lesson will provide many examples on the subject, and quizzes for you to practice with. You will get formal Spanish down in no time.

If you enjoyed reading this post on formality in Spanish, read this post Spanish Accents – Why They’re Necessary. Enjoy!

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