Yesterday, after months (!!!) of puzzling over it, and finding what I suspected was incomplete information about it, I finally found a concise article that explains the distinction between the French pronouns tu and vous and toi.
Vous and tu are second person French singular pronouns meaning you, and I already knew that the main distinction between them is in which social-cultural settings they’re appropriate (more about that distinction below).
But every so often I ran into toi, and I didn’t quite understand how that pronoun fit in. Clearly, I understood, toi ALSO is a second person singular pronoun, but also, clearly, toi is not interchangeable with tu and vous any more than tu and vous are interchangeable.
Toi is basically an object pronoun, the second-person singular pronoun which follows a preposition: avec toi, de toi, a toi, dans toi, pour toi, etc. It also can be used for emphasis the way the second “you” is used in “you idiot you,” for instance.
Seems simple enough. So why do nearly all of the dictionaries and phrase books I’ve seen not make this distinction clear? Pimsleur, for instance, has been drilling me in avec vous, when, in fact, avec toi is more common.
Similarly, my Oxford Beginner’s French Dictionary (an excellent resource for someone learning the language) was oddly vague about any distinction between toi and tu/vous in its entry:
Another odd thing that I’ve noticed in the Oxford Beginner’s dictionary: in all of its verb conjugation tables, the Oxford shows tu as the default second-person singular pronoun. In a sense, that’s correct: tu is, indeed, a second person singular pronoun.
But then in the English-to-French listing for you, we get this caution:
The usual word to use when you are speaking to anyone you do not know very well is vous… As a general rule, when talking to a French person use vous, wait to see how they address you and follow suit. It is safer to wait for the French person to suggest using tu.
This is what I’ve read elsewhere: tu is a FAMILIAR pronoun. It’s not the pronoun you’d use with, say, a waiter or a clerk in a store or hotel, or a total stranger or even casual acquaintance. In those cases, the pronoun should be vous.
I’ve read that this convention and distinction is more relaxed with younger French people, who almost exclusively use tu even with casual acquaintances. But nearly everything I’ve read thus far in my limited and halting study of French has cautioned that in most situations, a speaker should default to vous.
Further, not doing so can make a person appear too forward or inappropriately familiar.
It’s just odd to me that the verb conjugation tables would default to tu instead of vous (or even both vous and tu).
Again, though, this just shows how much nuance any language contains, and, as with the phrase bon jour, how so much of that nuance is not strictly grammatical, but cultural and contextual, and further, how a misunderstanding of those contexts can lead to major faux pas.