French writing conventions

This article talks about French writing conventions in comparison with American writing conventions. It focuses on mechanisms, which are writing conventions such as capitalization, quotation marks and spacings.

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Learning these French typography rules will greatly improve the quality of your writing.

French writing conventions: spacing

One writing difference that can go undetected at first is that French writing conventions call for extra white spaces.

Spacing and punctuation in French

In French, there is a space before the following punctuation marks:

  • colon
  • semicolon
  • exclamation point
  • interrogation mark

Elle regarda par la fenêtre avec admiration : il y avait de la neige partout.
She looked out the window with awe: There was snow everywhere.

J’aime la Californie ; mes racines sont en France.
I love California; my roots are in France.

Regarde, il neige !
Look, it’s snowing!

Tu veux aller dehors ?
Do you want to go outside?

Spacing and symbols

Unit abbreviations and symbols are always preceded by a space in French, with the exception of angular units.

Je mesure 1,55 m.
I am 5’1″.

Notice how French use a comma instead of a decimal point. Read more about writing numbers in How to write numbers in French.

J’ai acheté ce pull à 40 % du prix.
I bought this sweater for 40% off the regular price.

Mon train arrive à 7 h 30.
My train arrives at 7:30 AM.

La température corporelle normale est comprise entre 36 °C et 37,2 °C.
A normal body temperature is between 36°C and 37.2°C.

Cette bouteille de vin coûte autour de 15 €.
This bottle of wine costs around €15.

Elle habite au no 23 de cette rue.
She lives at #23 in this street.

French do not use the pound sign to indicate a number but they use the abbreviation no, which is short for numéro (number).

Son nouvel appartement fait 90 m2.
Her new apartment’s size is 90m2.

Il faut 450 g de beurre pour cette recette de brownies (brownie in French).
This brownies recipe calls for 450g of butter.

French use grams instead of sticks or tablespoons for butter in recipes. Read French measurements to learn how to convert French metrics into American metrics.

Use non-breaking spaces in French

Since you don’t want a French expression such as “10 €” to be cut in the middle, you need to use non-breaking spaces. Using a non-breaking space will preserve the whole expression as one single item, preventing the text from flowing to a new line or a new page.

Use non-breaking spaces in French to keep expressions on the same line.
Use non-breaking spaces to keep expressions on the same line in French.

A non-breaking space looks like a regular space and there is no way to visually tell what type of space character has been used.

Some non-breaking spaces are managed by French text editors. For instance, French text editors automatically add non-breaking space after a colon, a French opening quotation mark, and a French closing quotation mark.

How to type a non-breaking space?

On a PC, press Ctrl, Shift and Space Bar simultaneously to insert a non-breaking space. On a Mac, press Option and Space Bar simultaneously to insert a non-breaking space.

French writing conventions: quotation marks

French don’t use regular English quotes but they use double angle brackets in place of quotation marks to denote speech. Double brackets are called “guillemets” in French and there are two kinds: opening quotes (guillemets ouvrants) and closing quotes (guillemets fermants).

French quotation marks and spacing

A space is mandatory before a guillemet and an extra nonbreaking space is mandatory after an opening guillemet.

Elle regarda par la fenêtre et elle s’exclama : « comme c’est beau ! ».
She looked out the window and cried out: “how beautiful!”.

If you’re using an American QWERTY keyboard, learn how to type French quotation marks with a qwerty keyboard.

For embedded quotes, use English quotes inside French quotes, without adding extra spaces inside the English quotes.

Elle a dit : « le mot char est encore utilisé au Québec ».
She said: “The word charis still used in Quebec”.

Parenthesis and square brackets don’t require extra spaces as they follow the same rules in both French and English.

Céline (ma voisine), ne travaille pas le lundi.
Céline (my neighbor), doesn’t work on Mondays.

Usage of French quotation marks

Quotation marks are used differently in french and in American English. Unlike in English where you put quotes around elements of a spoken discussion, French quotes surround the entire conversation. Inside a conversation, an em dash (tiret long) indicates when a new person is speaking.

« Il faut que tu ranges ta chambre ! dit-elle en entrant.
— Oui, deux secondes, répondit-il.
— C’est déjà la troisième fois que je te le dis.
— Bon d’accord, je vais le faire ! »


“You have to clean up your room!” she said as she came in.
“Yes, two seconds,” he replied.
“I’ve asked you three times already.”
“Alright, I’ll do it now!”

In French, a conversation can also be written without any quotation mark. The above conversation would be as follow.

Il faut que tu ranges ta chambre ! dit-elle en entrant.
— Oui, deux secondes, répondit-il.
— C’est déjà la troisième fois que je te le dis.
— Bon d’accord, je vais le faire !

Good to know
In typography the word “espace” (space) is of female gender whereas it’s of male gender in other usages. We talk about “une espace insécable” (non-breaking space).

French writing conventions: capitalization

French writing conventions for capitalization are different than American conventions.

Proper names

Like in English, proper names are capitalized in French but they don’t get an “s” at the plural form.

Les Dupont [no “s”] dînent à Paris ce soir.
The Duponts are having dinner in Paris tonight.

Holiday names

Single-word holiday names are capitalized.

Noël est la fête préférée des enfants.
Christmas is children’s favorite holiday.

The noun that goes with the holiday name is not capitalized, contrary to the word “day” in English when it goes with a holiday.

Mes parents arrivent le jour [no capital] de Noël.
My parents are coming on Christmas Day.

In multiple-word holiday names, only the distinctive one is capitalized in French.

la fête [no capital] du Travail
Labor Day

la fête [no capital] des Mères
Mother’s Day

le jour [no capital] de l’An
New Year’s Eve

Compass directions

Nord (north), sud (south), Est (East) and Ouest (west) are capitalized in French when they are part of a proper noun or when they indicate a region. They are not capitalized whenever they indicate compass directions. This is actually the same rule as in English writing.

Le soleil se couche à l’ouest. [compass directions]
The sun always sets in the west.

J’aimerais aller en Afrique du Sud. [proper noun]
I’d like to go to South Africa.

Les gens du Nord sont très accueillants. [region]
People from the North are very welcoming.

Months

Unlike in American, you do not capitalize months in French.

Je pars en Corse en juillet. [no capital]
I’m going to Corsica in July.

French rules always having their exceptions, months are capitalized when they’re part of a religious or civil holiday name.

le 1er Mai
Labor Day

le 14 Juillet
Bastille Day

le 11 Novembre
Remembrance Day

Days of the week

Following the same writing rule as the months, the days of the week are not capitalized in French.

Je vais au marché tous les dimanches matin.
I’m going to the farmer’s market every Sunday morning.

Les magasins sont ouverts du lundi au samedi en France.
Stores are open Monday through Saturday in France.

Nationalities

In French, nationalities are capitalized only when they are used as a noun.

C’est bien connu que les Français se plaignent tout le temps. [noun]
It’s a well-known fact that French always complain.

Tout le monde aime la baguette française. [not a noun]
Everybody loves French baguette.

Il parle anglais comme une vache espagnole. [not a noun]
He speaks English like a Spanish cow.

“Parler anglais comme une vache espagnole” is a French expression that means someone’s English is pretty bad. Learn more expressions in French expressions.

French writing conventions: punctuation

French and Americans use punctuation in pretty much the same way. There is a minor difference though, which is the usage of the Oxford comma that is incorrect in French.

Oxford comma

In American, the last two items within a list are separated by “and” or “or” and they can be preceded by a comma called the Oxford comma. The use of an Oxford comma is a matter of choice in American English. In French, you can never use a comma before the last “and” or “or” at the end of an enumeration.

Toute sa famille est venue : son frère, sa mère, son père et sa sœur. [no comma]
His entire family came over: his brother, his mother, his dad, and his sister.

I hope you’ll make good use of extra spaces when writing in French. If you’re curious about anglicisms in French, read English words used incorrectly in French.

Nathalie Nahmani

About Nathalie Nahmani

Nathalie is the creator of ma French Life. She moved back to France after living in Los Angeles for 20 years. She writes practical articles to help expats in France. Nathalie lives with her family in the French Alps near Grenoble.

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