Addressing Others in Russian: The Distinction between Ты and Вы

For many beginners learning Russian, one of the confusing aspects may be the use of the pronouns “ты” and “вы” (meaning “you” in English). That’s why I have dedicated a separate article to address this matter. It is advisable to understand this right from the start before progressing further in language learning.

Using ты and вы in Russian

Ты (ti)

Ты” is the singular informal pronoun for “you.” It is employed when addressing individuals with whom you share a close relationship, such as friends, family members, or those of the same age or social status. Additionally, it is commonly used when speaking to children and peers.


Мама, ты пойдёшь со мной? – Mom, will you come with me?

Коля, как ты себя чувствуешь? – Kolya, how are you feeling?

This pronoun is easy to remember because it is only used informally.

See Also: Personal Pronouns in Russian

Вы (vi)

Ah, the fascinating pronoun “вы” (vi) in Russian! It’s like a chameleon with not just one, but two distinct “faces” – the formal and the informal. Let’s unravel the intriguing nature of this pronoun and why learners of Russian should pay attention to its nuances.

First of all, “вы” is the plural form of “you”, which allows for addressing multiple individuals, whether in formal or informal contexts.

When addressing a group of friends, family members, colleagues, or any gathering of people, using “вы” ensures that everyone feels included.

For instance, imagine you are speaking to a group of friends at a casual get-together. You might say, “Как вам новая песня Адель?” (What do you think of Adele’s new song?), addressing the whole group at once to get their opinions.

In its formal guise, “вы” is the default choice when addressing individuals in formal situations. Whether it’s a professional setting, talking to your professor, engaging with elders, or encountering strangers, “вы” is your trusty companion. It serves as a shield of politeness, keeping a respectful distance between speakers. Imagine it as a gentle nod of reverence, emphasizing the importance of maintaining etiquette.

Как вы себя чувствуете? – How are you feeling?

Извините, вы не могли бы мне помочь? – Excuse me, could you help me?

It’s important to note that the choice between “ты” and “вы” depends on the context, the relationship between the speaker and the listener(s), and the level of formality or respect desired in the conversation. When in doubt, it is safer to use “вы” as a sign of politeness and respect, especially when interacting with unfamiliar people, elders, or those in positions of authority.

Difference between ты and вы in Russian

See Also: Tips for Meeting People in Russian

Switching from вы to ты

Now, here’s where it gets even more captivating. In Russian culture, there exists a unique phenomenon – the switch from formal to informal treatment. It transforms from the respectful distance-keeper into an invitation for closeness and camaraderie. Picture a shy smile breaking through a formal façade.

This switch usually occurs when a relationship reaches a certain level of familiarity and comfort. Maybe you’ve been colleagues for a while or have spent countless hours bonding over shared interests. It’s in these magical moments that the speaker initiates the delightful transition – “Можно на «ты»?” (Can we switch to “ты”?) or “Давайте перейдем на «ты»?” (Let’s switch to “ты”?). It’s an invitation to shed the formalities and embrace a more intimate connection.

But wait, there’s a catch! This transition is not a one-sided decision. It’s an agreement uniting individuals, blurring the lines of formality, and forging a bond built on trust and friendship. If one person offers to switch to “ты,” the other can accept by saying “Да, давай на «ты»” (Yes, let’s switch to “ты”) or decline politely by saying “Давайте останемся на «вы»” (Let’s stick to “вы”).

IMPORTANT: When using the pronoun “вы” in Russian, regardless of whether it is addressing multiple individuals or a single person as a form of respect or formality, the accompanying verb must always be in the plural form.

Address to a Group:

Вы говорите по-русски? (Do you all speak Russian?)

Formal Address to a Single Person:

Correct: Вы говорите по-русски? (Do you speak Russian?)

Incorrect: Вы говоришь по-русски? (using the singular form of the verb)

In both cases, the verb “говорить” (to speak) is conjugated in the plural form to match the pronoun “вы.”

The reason for this lies in the grammatical agreement between the subject pronoun and the verb. Even though “вы” can refer to one person as a respectful or formal address, the verb still takes the plural form. This serves as a linguistic convention in Russian, emphasizing respect and maintaining grammatical consistency.

It is used when addressing one person or a group of people who are not familiar or who require a higher level of respect, such as someone older, a superior, a stranger, or in professional contexts.
It is also used as a polite form of addressing in many situations, including business, official settings, and formal conversations. It is common to use “вы” when speaking to elderly people, teachers, bosses, and unknown individuals.

It is always advisable to follow the lead of the person you are speaking to or use “вы” when in doubt, as it’s generally considered more polite and respectful.

See Also: A Complete Guide on Being Polite in Russian

When “вы” is capitalized?

“In formal or polite writing, using a capital “В” in “Вы” emphasizes respect and distinguishes it from the informal singular pronoun “ты”. For instance, in business communications or official documents, it is customary to use the capital “В”.

Mail example in Russian
A mail from the hosting company about blocking my account. Note that “Вы” is capitalized

However, addressing people as “вы” already conveys respect, making the capital letter redundant. That is why businesses are now actively transitioning to using the lowercase letter.

There’s a lot of debate on this topic, and different companies probably have their own rules, so don’t get hung up on it. Although there are some old-school people who will tell you that “Вы” in the singular should be capitalized, and only so!

Nevertheless, it is ultimately an individual’s choice on how to write in a business/formal letter.

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