When learning a foreign language, people often tend to disregard punctuation. However, it is also an important aspect of a language. And particular attention is needed when it differs quite a lot from your native language.
While French punctuation is in many ways similar to English or other Indo-European languages, there are some important differences that you need to know to master the language.
The major French punctuation marks are familiar and easily recognizable: there’s le point (period), la virgule (comma), les deux-points (colon), le point-virgule (semicolon), le point d’exclamation (exclamation point), and le point d’interrogation (question mark).
One of the main distinguishing features of French punctuation is the use of the space between the words and other punctuation marks.
Generally, in the French language, colons, semicolons, exclamation points, and question marks are all preceded by a space. However, outside of France, this rule is often ignored.
- Lesquelles préférez-vous : les pommes ou les oranges ? – Les pommes !
- Which do you prefer: apples or oranges? – Apples!
The French do not use quotation marks (” “) common in many other languages to denote speech. Instead, they use les guillemets (« »). These are used in mostly the same way that, for instance, English quotation marks are employed, although with the addition of an extra space after the opening guillemet and before the closing guillemet. For example:
- Sarah a dit : « Je vais au cinéma. »
- Sarah said: “I am going to the movie theatre.”
Longer dialogues are also presented differently in French. Guillemets are usually used only at the beginning and end of an entire conversation.
Unlike, for instance, in English, where any non-speech is found outside of the quotation marks, in French guillemets do not end when an incidental clause (he said, she smiled, etc.) is added. To indicate that a new person is speaking, atiret (m-dash or em-dash) is added.
Compare the punctuation of these two dialogues:
|« Salut Jeanne ! dit Pierre. Comment vas-tu ?||“Hi, Jean!” Pierre says. “How are you?”|
|— Ah, salut Pierre ! crie Jeanne.||“Oh, hi, Pierre!” shouts Jeanne.|
|— As-tu passé un bon weekend ?||“Did you have a nice weekend?”|
|— Oui, merci, répond-elle. Mais…||“Yes, thanks,” she responds. “But—”|
|— Attends, je dois te dire quelque chose d’important ».||“Wait, I have to tell you something important.”|
Depending on your native language and the peculiarities of its punctuation, there may be other differences between your native punctuation and French. Make sure to pay attention to such differences to be able to write in French correctly.