Once, I was in a little café in Barcelona. As I was making my order to the elderly waitress, she said something in an annoyed tone of voice that left me confused—¿Y desde cuándo nos conocemos? "Since when do we know each other?"
This baffled me until I told one of my Barcelonian friends about it and they explained it to me. When ordering, I had used the informal form without realizing it, and the old-fashioned woman took offense at this. By simply taking the time to learn about Spanish formal commands, you can avoid such gaffes.
How to Use Formal Commands
Whereas informal commands are used in a casual setting, with people you know well, and with children, formal commands are used when you don't know somebody very well or if you intend to be polite.
If you're unsure whether you should use an informal or formal command, use the formal one to avoid offense. If the person you're speaking to would prefer that you speak to them informally, they'll say "Tutéame" or "Puedes tutearme" —"Use the tú form with me".
Who to Use Formal Commands With:
Strangers, the elderly, waiters and other employees, doctors, priests, teachers, and your boss
Conjugating Formal Commands
Formal commands correspond to the usted and ustedes forms of verbs, as usted and ustedes are the formal pronouns. If you already have been using tú with someone, using formal commands will sound a little strange.
Formal commands are exactly the same as the present subjunctive. The easiest way to remember what this conjugation is is to form it based off of the yo indicative present. If you know the conjugation for the present subjunctive, then you already know how to conjugate a formal command.
Yo coma becomes coma for a singular formal command, and coman for a plural formal command.
Yo nade becomes nade for a singular formal command, and naden for a plural formal command.
This also applies to irregular verbs. If the yo indicative present is irregular, so will be the formal command.
Yo haga becomes haga for a singular formal command, and hagan for a plural formal command.
Don't! (Using Negative Commands)
An affirmative command asks to do something. A negative command asks not to do something. Whereas with informal commands, the verb conjugations for affirmative and negative commands are different, with formal commands, the two are the same. The only difference is adding the word No before the verb.
Por favor, venga.—Please come.
Por favor, no venga.—Please don't come.
Speaking to Multiple People
When using formal commands, be sure to use the correct form depending on whether you're speaking to one person or multiple people. The singular form is for one person, and the plural is for more than one person. Creating the plural form is quite simple: Just add -n to the end of the singular form.
Let's say you wanted to make a request for someone not to eat the cake, you would say "Por favor, no coma el pastel" when speaking to one person, and "Por favor, no coman el pastel" when speaking to more than one.
Using Pronouns With Commands
Using pronouns with commands can get a little confusing. There are different rules for affirmative and negative commands.
For affirmative commands, the pronouns are placed after the verb. In fact, they are joined with the verb, creating one word.
Tráigamelo.—Bring it to me. (Traiga + me + lo)
Póngaselas.—Put them on. (Ponga + se +las)
Olvídelo.—Forget it. (Olivde + lo)
Ayúdeles.—Help them. (Ayude + les)
For negative commands, the pronouns are not joined with the verb, and they are placed before it.
No me lo tráiga.—Do not bring it to me.
No se las pónga.—Don't put them on.
No lo olvíde.—Don't forget it.
No les ayúde.—Do not help them.
Spanish formal commands are easy to create, and easy to use once you get the hang of it. Mastering formal commands will leave you better equipped to gracefully handle social situations with native speakers, and a new level of politeness will be available to you.
Leave a comment if you have any questions!