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Since there just one form for both cases and context is one way to get the idea which one is used, is there a way to understand it out of context?

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    In modern English, there aren't formal and informal you, there is just you. Oct 2, 2021 at 19:06

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When you ask whether formal "you" or informal "you" is being used by an English speaker, that's a sign that you're not thinking in English yet. Clearly, neither formal "you" nor informal "you" is being used, since neither exists. It's just "you".

It would be like if someone's language had a three-way distinction (informal/semi-formal/formal) and they asked you how they could tell (when you were speaking your language with a two-way distinction) which one of the three you were using.

To see whether the person is being formal, you'd have to look at their sentences as a whole.

If someone addresses someone as "David", that's informal, while if they address them as "Mr Smith", that's formal. And saying "hi" is generally considered informal, while "good afternoon" is formal.

However, you can't do a direct translation from that back to your native language and culture and conclude from this that someone is being impolite if they say "hi" where you would use the formal "you" in your country.

Americans tend to move to familiar and informal forms of address more readily than Brits, who tend to do so more readily than the French and Germans. These are just cultural differences, and norms have also changed over time, with a tendency to progressively less formality in English-speaking countries since about 1960.

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