French vs English punctuation: Master punctuation française with Our Simple Guideline

Your French orthography is impressive. Your vocabulary is unmatched. You juggle three different tenses in one sentence without making mistakes. So how come you never get top marks in your writing assignments?

Could it be you are disregarding French punctuation?

“French punctuation? But isn’t punctuation the same here, there, and everywhere?”

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I’m afraid not. Though most Western languages share some core punctuation rules (commas are used to introduce pauses; quotation marks are used to represent a citation) there are a few tricky differences between English and French punctuation rules that may be getting in the way of a perfect grade or a congratulation from your boss on your otherwise impressive writing skills. 

So, do you want your French punctuation to catch up with your grammar and vocabulary expertise? Keep reading to find out what you’re doing wrong!

The Complete List of French Punctuation Marks

Before we can talk about the specificities of French punctuation, we need to go over the names of some common symbols and punctuation marks you will see in this language: 

Symbol English French
. period le point
, comma la virgule
: colon les/le deux-points
; semicolon le point-virgule
apostrophe l’apostrophe (f)
! exclamation point le point d’exclamation
? question mark le point d’interrogation
« » quotation marks les guillemets (m)
( ) parentheses les parentèses (f)
ellipsis les points de suspension (m)
dash, hyphen

minus sign

le trait d’union

le moins

em dash le tiret
* asterisk l’astérisque (m)
# pound sign, number sign le dièse

le carré (French Canadian term)

euro sign le symbole euro
$ dollar sign le signe du dollar

le dollar

% percent sign le signe de pour-cent

le pour-cent

+ plus sign le signe plus
= equal sign le signe égal
/ forward slash la barre oblique

le slash

\ backslash la barre oblique inverse

l’anti-slash (m)

@ at sign l’arobase (f)

le a commercial

The Differences in Punctuation: French vs. English

Now that you know how to name punctuation marks in French, let’s delve into the most important differences between French and English. At the end of the article, you will find an exercise to put into practice everything you’ve learnt!

Spacing 

Have you ever received an email in French? If you have, you may have noticed something looked weird. In fact, you may have been left with the impression that the sender was not a particularly good writer!

One of the main particularities of French punctuation is that it tends to use spaces much more often than other languages. While English does not require any spaces between question marks and phrases, certain French symbols do prefer to keep a safe social distancing every time they are forced to aid you in your emails or reports. 

Getting your spacings right might seem like a small detail to you, but it will make a big difference for your audience. Failing to use the right amount of spaces will give French people the impression of a crowded, busy style, and might affect the overall effect of your message.

Punctuation marks to which spaces are added before and after a word or phrase include:

: (les deux-points)

; (le point-virgule)

? (le point d’interrogation)

! (le point d’exclamation)

% (le signe de pour-cent)

$ (le signe du dollar)

# (le dièse)

« » (les guillemets)

Commas

Just like English, French uses commas to introduce pauses, separate units of meaning, and list items. However, there are two minor differences between English and French punctuation rules when it comes to the use of this symbol:

  1. In English, we use a stop as a decimal point. French, on the other hand, uses commas: 1.5 (English) = 1,5 (French).
  2. In English, the serial comma (the one before the last item in a list) is optional. In French, we should never have a comma before “and”.

    Dans cette pièce, je conserve des livres de droit,
    des dossiers et de vieux documents.
    In this room, I keep law books, files, and old documents.

Quotation Marks

Whether we are writing a fictional story or just sharing a piece of gossip while texting a friend, we use quotation marks to represent exact language as spoken or written by someone else. But while English uses the double apostrophe (“ ”) to make a citation or represent a quote, French uses guillemets (« »). 

These are two angled brackets that allow people to indicate direct speech, but they are not the only marks that writers use when writing dialogue. In literary texts, authors usually use guillemets at the beginning and at the end of a long exchange to encompass the whole dialogue, and dashes before every new line to indicate that the speaker has changed.

For example, in the beloved short novel Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes: 

« C’est tout à fait comme ça que je le voulais ! Crois-tu qu’il

faille beaucoup d’herbe à ce mouton ?

– Pourquoi ?

– Parce que chez moi c’est tout petit…

– Ça suffira sûrement. Je t’ai donné un tout petit mouton. »

“That is exactly the way I wanted it! Do you think that this sheep will have to have a great deal of grass?”

“Why?”

“Because where I live everything is very small…”

“There will surely be enough grass for him. It is a very small sheep that I have given you.”

Picture of a man studying French punctuation

Let’s Practise!

Are you ready to put your knowledge about French punctuation into practice? Spot and correct the mistakes in the following sentences. 

  1. 38% des enfants souffrent d’anxiété.
  2. J’ai apporté du pain, du lait, et des biscuits.
  3. J’ai gagné 1.5 million d’euros au casino.
  4. “Quel froid affreux”, a dit Jean Claude.
  5. Quel est ton problème avec moi? Dites-moi tout de suite.

*Find the answer key at the end of the article.

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Send us a message now and we’ll put you in contact with a native French teacher for a tailor-made course. Whether you need to master French punctuation for work, studies, or any other purpose, our native tutors can give you specific instructions for you to exercise your writing skills and improve your French punctuation in no time. Get a free trial lesson now!

Answer key:

  1. 38 % des enfants souffrent d’anxiété. (spacing)
  2. J’ai apporté du pain, du lait et des biscuits. (no comma)
  3. J’ai gagné 1,5 million d’euros au casino. (decimals) 
  4. « Quel froid affreux », a dit Jean Claude. (guillemets)
  5. Quel est ton problème avec moi ? Dites-moi tout de suite. (spacing)