Starting basic French really can be as easy as ABC.
But once you begin writing in French, there’s a whole new set of basics to learn.
Just dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s will no longer cut it.
As kids, proper punctuation was one of the first things we learned at school, and in French, it’s just as important as learning to count or any of the other fundamentals of the language.
Although French and English do use a lot of the same punctuation, there are some noteworthy differences between the languages which, as a learner, you really need to pay attention to.
Making the effort to focus on proper punctuation will have you on the road to perfect writing in no time at all.
Let’s get started!
So, What’s Up with Punctuation in French, Anyway?
Below, we’ll look at a few easy ways you can get up to speed on the main parts of French punctuation.
Make a quotation…the French way
Putting things in air quotes just doesn’t cut it in France, and if you want to make a reference to another text or statement in writing, you’ll need to go about it in a different way.
While English typically uses either the double or the single apostrophe to make a quotation, French goes about it in an entirely different manner, using guillemets to reference a third party.
Two angled brackets, guillemets, reference quotations or speech within a text. While not all authors choose to use guillemets within sections of dialogue, those who do typically use them to indicate segments of direct speech.
For example, in the short story “Bel Ami” by Guy de Maupassant, the author presents the dialogue as follows:
« Ah ! mon vieux ! comment vas-tu ?
– Très bien et toi ?
– Oh ! moi, pas trop ; figure-toi que j’ai une poitrine de papier mâché maintenant ; je tousse six mois sur douze, à la suite d’une bronchite que j’ai attrapée à Bougival, l’année de mon retour à Paris, voici quatre ans maintenant.
– Tiens ! tu as l’air solide, pourtant. »
(“Ah! My old man! How are you?”
“Very well, and you?”
“Oh! I’m not very good. Imagine that I have a chest made from papier mâché now; I cough six months out of twelve after having caught bronchitis at Bougival, the year after I returned to Paris four years ago now.”
“Wow! Still, you look solid.”)
In French texts with dialogue, you might actually find many variations on the guillemet, italics and indentation. The important thing when you’re writing is to pick a method of quotation and stick to it throughout the entirety of the text.
Adopting the guillemets to indicate fragments of direct speech can be the easiest way to get your head around that particular punctuation mark, and will clearly mark the difference between speech and other types of writing.
Quotations from third parties, however, will appear with the guillemets at either end of the complete statement, indicating when the source text has finished. When you read French books and newspapers, you’ll come across many quotation marks used in the correct way. The more you read, the easier the correct way will be to remember!
Take care when spacing your punctuation marks
If you’ve ever received a French text message, you may have noticed that something looked a little different. While English leaves no space between punctuation marks and words, certain French marks require a space before and after they’re written. Getting your spacings right according to the punctuation mark is very important when writing correct French.
Two-part punctuation marks are exactly what they sound like: Made up of two or more parts, they’re different from commas and periods, and tend to be used less frequently. When writing punctuation marks such as these, a space is required after the word they modify. Marks to which this applies include:
: (the colon)
; (the semicolon)
? (the question mark)
! (the exclamation mark)
% (the percentage mark)
$ (money symbols)
# (the number symbol)
« (the guillemet)
If you’re writing on a French device, then it likely will have already been programmed to put in the spacing required with the punctuation mark. Using English language devices or writing by hand, however, you need to make sure you use the spacings required for the punctuation you use, especially if you’re writing formal or official documents; grammar and accuracy are very important!
Practice your numbers with the French decimal
It’s not unusual for an English speaker to come across a list of long numbers written in French and scratch their head in confusion.
In English, decimal points are communicated by the presence of a period in between the numbers. “One point five,” for example, is written as 1.5. In French, however, une virgule (a comma) is used to stand in for the decimal point. “One point five” in English would be 1,5 in French, or un virgule cinq.
So far, so simple, right? It’s only when you get to larger numbers that things might become a little more confusing. While English uses commas to separate larger numbers into thousands and hundreds, the French language uses spaces. The number “three thousand, three hundred” would appear as 3,300 in English but 3 300 in French.
So in French, you simply need to use spaces to separate a number into thousands and hundreds, as appropriate. “Ten thousand, five hundred” is written as 10 500, for example.
Get basic punctuation terminology under your belt
Of course, one of the most important things you can do when learning about French punctuation is to pick up the new vocabulary along the way. If you encounter any issues in your writing, knowing what the terms are in French will help you to no end with seeking advice. Similarly, practicing dictation challenges will be much easier if you know what punctuation marks your teacher or the recording is referring to!
While there are many punctuation marks to learn, the most common and important are as follows:
Le point (period)
La virgule (comma)
Le deux-points (colon)
Le point-virgule (semicolon)
Le point d’exclamation (exclamation mark)
Le point d’interrogation (question mark)
Les guillemets (quotation marks)
Adding this new terminology to your vocabulary routine can help you to learn essential punctuation differences much more quickly than you think. Plus, if you practice constructing sentences using it in the correct way, you’ll get both the vocabulary and the punctuation usage down!
How to Practice Your New French Punctuation Knowledge
Speaking of practice, while establishing the essential differences between French and English punctuation is all well and good, it also helps to think about how you’re going to really get to grips with these concepts. Here are a few different ways you can test and strengthen your knowledge of French punctuation.
Translate an English text into French
Translating an English text into French could be a great challenge to start off with.
Typically, novels work best for this type of task, as they contain a huge variation of punctuation marks and patterns.
Try to select a passage that includes both speech and narrative; that way, you’ll hopefully be able to practice quotation marks, commas, periods and exclamations.
Typing your French translation on a computer is the best way to go about it, as you’ll be able to see the differences in punctuation much more easily.
When you’ve finished, you can look at your translation alongside a French book to see how you’ve used punctuation by comparison.
Focus on a new punctuation point each week in writing
Taking on everything at once can sometimes seem tempting, but when learning a new language, slow and steady really does win the race. When you’re just starting out, tackling punctuation marks and their rules one at a time can be the best thing to do; this will give you the chance to learn each mark thoroughly, and to pick up other language rules at the same time.
At first, try focusing on simple punctuation marks, such as two-point punctuation, and getting your spacing right. Once you’ve completed a number of translation tasks with no mistakes, you can move on to more complex challenges, like writing out your own stories with dialogue using guillemets.
Taking punctuation in baby steps will help you to understand how you’re using it much better, and also enable you to better switch between English and French punctuation with ease. Pretty soon, you’ll be writing out French numbers with commas and spaces and inserting guillemets without even thinking about it!
Set yourself letter challenges and write entirely in French
After you’ve become more familiar with French, you can begin to test your command of the language out on other learners and native speakers, even incorporating this into your learning routine. Typing out letters entirely in French will not only enable you to practice your punctuation, but also your spelling, grammar and vocabulary.
Imagine you have a pen pal who lives in France and you want to tell them about a particular incident. Whether or not you actually do have a pen pal and an opportunity to write a letter like this, try concocting a narrative that requires you to use as many types of punctuation as you can; sections of speech, intrigue and exclamation will all help you to vary your punctuation!
After you’ve finished, you can ask your pen pal or another learner to check for mistakes, or have it checked over online. Alternatively, check your punctuation using a French text for comparison.
Try writing short emails and texts using correct French punctuation
When it comes to practicing any language, the best way to do it is to be interactive. If you’re learning alongside other people, or know any French speakers, you can try to communicate with them entirely in French. Using your phone and computer, try writing short messages using correct French punctuation. If you keep your device in its English language setting, you can really test your knowledge!
Alternatively, posting on French forums online can be a great way to practice writing digitally when you don’t have someone specific to write to. There are really a whole range of ways to get comfortable with French pronunciation.
While French punctuation might seem very far removed from English, it’s actually pretty easy to pick up.
Although some common punctuation marks might be used a little differently in different situations, they serve consistent purposes in French, and learning how to use them is just a matter of practice.
In its own way, French punctuation really is as easy as ABC, and once you learn it by heart, you’ll be writing like a native!