Form of address


For those of us who use modern day English and are unfamiliar with other languages, we may be excused for forgetting about the importance of form of address in other languages. Early modern English had both formal and informal modes of address. ‘You’ was the singular and polite way to address someone (similar to ‘vous’ in French) and ‘thou’ was the plural and informal version. Over time the more formal ‘you’ became common place when addressing others which is ironic as many believe ‘thou’, heard it Shakespeare plays, to be archaic and formal when in fact is was informal!

What’s the big deal?

Whereas many English speakers won’t be aware our everyday mode of address was originally formal, translators for other languages (particularly the Romance languages) will be very aware that the form of address they choose during translation is very important. Selecting the right mode of address, for each project and its intended audience, can be the difference between members of the public, or your clients, understanding instructions or being highly offended.


Historically form of address has been an important topic in France. In 1793, a decree was passed banning the use of the formal word ‘vous’ in the French administration – on pain of prison!

Nowadays it is back in use by the French when addressing someone older than them or deserving of their respect, or someone in a higher position in the business world. Conversely, the more informal ‘tu’ is used for addressing family and friends and even for acquaintances when someone is on the same business level or of the same age.

Far from the decree of 1793, the standard form of address is now formal. In business situations it is up to the client to invite their suppliers to be informal with them, when they feel their relationship has reached that stage.

This changes when you have a questionnaire aimed at children or young adults – as they are likely to be younger than the ‘hidden interviewer’, so the translator would normally choose to address them with the informal ‘tu’. For content aimed at those in Italy, Brazil, Spain or Portugal this is often also the case.

Experts in action

At The Language Factory, all our Project Managers are linguists themselves and some are also qualified translators. This means we know the right questions to ask our clients, when placing a project, to ensure our translators have all the information they need before starting work.

Of course being mother-tongue translators, they have the native knowledge required to choose the most appropriate form of address for anything that needs translating such as surveys, HR documents or visitor information. If you require translations or advice on an upcoming project, give us a call on +44 1727 862722.

Look out for more examples in our next blog post which includes the anecdote of a Danish journalist who got in trouble for forgetting how to properly address his Queen! We also look at the modes of address used in Germany and Italy.


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