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Let's analyse the French verb faire:

  • [singular] je fais, tu fais, il/elle fait

  • [plural] nous faisons, vous faites, ils/elles font

But, I was making an exercise, then I came across this phrase:

Et vous? Qu'est-ce que vous faites?

And you? What do you do? (formal/referring to a lady)

Look, it isn't plural – just the formal way. Should I use faites instead of fais to express formality? I mean, fais is when I'm using tu and faites is for vous? Am I right?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

It is called "vouvoiement". There is three different ways to talk to someone:

  • Tu, singular, second person

    Target: You are speaking to only one person.

    Context: You know this person. It is a friend, a member of your family or in some cases a colleague you work with (some people are not comfortable with it though). This isn't formal, but it is still polite to use Tu with someone you know.

    It is not polite to use Tu with someone you don't know.

    You may see some people which are clearly related (like husband and wife) that still talk to one another with Vous instead of Tu. This is rare and associated with an idea of aristocracy.

  • Vous (vouvoiement), plural, second person

    Target: You are speaking to only one person.

    Context: You know this person: you use Vous as a mark of respect. This person may be an elder, you boss, a customer etc.

    You don't know this person: this is the polite way to speak to someone you don't know.

  • Vous, plural, second person

    Target: You are speaking to several people

    Context: You know these people: you use Vous as the plural of Tu. Same rules apply.

    You don't know these people: you use Vous as the plural of Vous (vouvoiement). Same rules apply.

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Gramatically, vous is second person plural and you should aways conjugate in plural, but it's common in many languages to use the plural as a way of expressing respect or politeness towards a single person.

Even in the english phrase "And you? What do you do?" you can be plural, but as it happens, it's the same word for plural and singular in English.

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You are right. 'vous faites' can be use for plural OR to express formality to a person. If you are talking to a person and use 'vous faites', you are showing politeness.

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You are correct, a singular pronoun expects a verb in singular and a plural pronoun expects a verb in plural.


Off topic note:

This is the same rule as in English which used to have the very same distinction between casual singular and polite plural.

Nowadays, the "vouvoiement" is the only standard so you say

And you? What do you do?

regardless of who you talk to. "you" is still technically a plural here.

The "tutoiement" is now an archaism but many centuries ago, you might have said

And thee? What do thou dost?

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The topic is not English, it's French. –  Stéphane Gimenez Apr 8 at 14:35
    
@StéphaneGimenez Agreed, answer updated. –  jlliagre Apr 8 at 14:44

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