Subject pronouns are essentially the equivalents of English I, he etc.
The first thing to note about Spanish subject pronouns is that:
Subject pronouns are generally not used in Spanish except to mark a contrast
or change of reference, or occasionally to resolve an otherwise ambiguous verb form.
Some varieties of Spanish, notably varieties spoken in Argentina, have another subject
pronoun vos. In general:
vos can indicate more intimacy that tú;
the corresponding verb form varies from region to region.
As a Spanish learner, there's no need to learn the vos forms unless you are
going to live in a region that has those forms. And in that case, the best advice is to learn
the verb forms spoken in that particular region. (As a starting point, use the vosotros
verb forms minus the i, e.g. (vos) cantás.)
For more information, see Stewart, M. (1999),
The Spanish Language Today,
pp. 124-126. The authors give a summary of the verb forms and a map showing which regions use vos
and which use both tú and vos.
So as a rough guide:
subject pronouns are used in Spanish
where the corresponding pronoun in English would be stressed;
they are generally ungrammatical where it would not be possible to stress the corresponding pronoun in English1.
A notable exception to the last point is that there also a couple of prepositions that commonly take the subject pronoun (he does it like me = lo hace como yo).
When they are used, these are the basic Spanish subject pronouns:
nosotros, -as we
tú you (familiar)
vosotros, -as you (familiar)
él he ella she usted you (honorific)
ellos, -as they ustedes you (see below)
The forms nosotros, vosotros and ellos thus become
nosotras, vosotras and ellas
when the whole group of people they refer to is female2.
Familiar vs honorific
Like many languages, Spanish makes a distinction between familiar and
honorific forms of address: roughly similar to tu and vous
As a rule of thumb, the tú form of address indicates
solidarity, whilst usted indicates social distance
or "respect" for the other person's status.
But the issue of precisely when the honorific forms of address are used varies from country to
country (and doubtless from region to region). It can depend on factors such as:
Whether the speakers are in a 'socially similar' situation (in terms of age,
hierarchy within a company, social standing...): generally speaking,
tú is used between speakers in a "socially similar position";
whether there is a particular reason for a speaker to be 'polite' or
'elevate' the other speaker's position;
whether the speakers are face to face (if you're speaking to somebody on the telephone,
you can't tell so easily if they're of similar age, smartly dressed...);
how comfortable a speaker feels personally with addressing the other as tú.
Generally speaking, however, the familiar tú form of address appears
to be used more readily in Spanish than tu is in French3.
(Here in Mexico, for example, it is common to address shopkeepers and
waiters/waitresses as tú, whereas vous would virtually
always be used in such cases in French.)
Spain vs Latin America
The vosotros form (and its feminine vosotras) are not
generally used in Latin America. Instead, ustedes is always used as a
plural you, both familiar and honorific4. This means that in Latin America, the
2nd person plural verb forms are generally not used. In Spain, usted
and ustedes are often capitalised and/or written as
Ud and Uds respectively5.
How do you say it?
In Spanish, there is generally no word for it when it is the subject of the verb.
For example, to say where is it? you simply say ¿dónde está?.
1. It is sometimes (mis-)stated that subject pronouns are "optional" in Spanish, but in fact
it is generally ungrammatical to use a subject pronoun in Spanish except
under these 'stressed' or 'marked' cases.
2. If the speaker is not conscious of the fact that all people referred to are female, it may
happen that they inadvertently use the masculine forms to refer to an all-female group.
3. It is interesting to note the adoption of a single form of address in the Facebook Translations Spanish Style Guide to avoid the issue of geographic variation: of the choices available,
they fall on the side of tú.
4. See the box for information about the vos form used in some regions of
5. These abbreviations are not generally used in Latin America, although
they are understood and occasionally seen in imported signs. In older texts, the
abbreviations Vd and Vds are used (usted derives
from the expression vuestra merced).