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Punctuation

The rules of punctuation are stricter in French than they are in English. The most straightforward punctuation marks, such as the exclamation mark and the question mark, are used as in English. For the others, which are more complex and are sometimes used differently in French and in English, here is a list of the basic rules.

The stop

The stop is used:

  • to indicate the end of a sentence (when it is called a full stop);
  • after some abbreviations (for example, c.v. for curriculum vitae, etc. for et cetera, p.j. for pièce jointe).
It should be noted that if an abbreviation comes at the end of a sentence, the abbreviation stop is merged with the full stop:
Veuillez joindre un c.v. à votre lettre.
Veuillez joindre un c.v.
One common fault to be avoided: etc. is never followed by suspension points (...)!
Il y avait des chats, des chiens, des oiseaux, etc.
and not Il y avait des chats, des chiens, des oiseaux, etc...

Watch out! Abbreviations which end with the last letter of the full word are not followed by a stop, unless they come at the end of a sentence.

For example: bd for boulevard.

Suspension points

Suspension points are mainly used:

  • to leave a sentence, a paragraph, etc. in suspense, inviting the reader to dream or reflect:
    Elle fixa l'horizon et se mit à rêver...
  • to show that a list could be continued:
    Elle avait rangé dans son tiroir les crayons, les gommes, les stylos...
  • to show thought, hesitation, emotion:
    Elle irait lui parler dès ce soir.. ou peut-être attendrait-elle demain... non, il fallait qu'il sache tout de suite.
  • to create the effect of anticipation in the reader:
    Il essaya de la rattraper...mais en vain. À suivre...
  • to show that some words have been left out of a quotation.

Watch out! There are always three suspension points. They are merged with the full stop and the abbreviation stop. They can be used with other punctuation marks, such as the comma, the question mark, the exclamation mark or the semi-colon.

Suspension points are also used in the form.../... in the bottom right-hand corner of a page to show that the text continues on the next page.
Suspension points are only followed by a capital if they come at the end of a sentence. One should write:

Il lui fallait des carottes, des tomates, des haricots... Il alla donc au marché.
but:
Il avait marché des kilomètres... pour rien.

The colon

The colon is used:

  • to introduce a quotation, a proverb, or dialogue:
    Comme on dit souvent : tel père, tel fils.
    Elle a ajouté : «Ça m'est égal!»
  • to introduce an explanation or a summary of what has just been said:
    Les arbres commençaient à roussir, les premières feuilles tombaient : l'automne était là.
  • to introduce a list:
    Il vous faudra :
      un cahier;un classeur;du papier à dessin.
or
Elle avait choisi ce qu'elle porterait ce soir : une robe noire, une veste rouge et des escarpins noirs.
Note that in French there is a space both before and after the colon.

Watch out! After a colon and opening quotation marks, a capital letter is always used.

The semi-colon

The semi-colon is used to distinguish the subclauses in a complex sentence.

Elle savait que seul le résultat comptait; qu'il faille faire des sacrifices lui importait peu.
It is also used between clauses of similar construction when some of them contain an ellipsis.
Il était secrétaire; sa sœur, infirmière; et son jeune frère, instituteur.
The semi-colon is used to separate the different elements in a list:
Il vous faudra :

un cahier;
– un classeur;
– du papier à dessin.
It should be noted that the different items do not require a capital letter.

The comma

The comma is used between independent clauses which have a certain continuity between them:

Il s'arrêta devant la boutique, il jeta un coup d'œil dans la vitrine, il entra.
When the two clauses are joined by a co-ordinating conjunction ( et / ou), the comma usually disappears:
Il traversa la rue et il entra dans la boutique.
The comma is, however, used in front of et / ou if one of the two clauses already contains a conjunction:
La rue était sombre et silencieuse, et elle prit peur.
With the conjunctions mais, car, donc, or, the comma is not obligatory. Watch out when using the comma with the conjunction ni:
Il ne parle ni anglais ni espagnol.
but
Il ne parle aucune langue étrangère, ni l'anglais, ni l'espagnol.
and
Il ne parle ni l'anglais, ni l'espagnol, ni l'allemand.
A comma is used:
  • when part of a sentence is displaced:
    Je lui ai écrit hier but Hier, je lui ai écrit.
  • when a comment clause is inserted or when calling out to someone:
    Les jeux vidéos font, paraît-il, beaucoup de tort à la lecture. Attends, Laurence!
  • on either side of an apposition (an apposition adds details but can be removed without the sentence becoming grammatically incorrect):
    Sa collègue, une petite brune aux yeux verts, entra dans le bureau.
    Son père, lui, n'a jamais quitté le village.
When the apposition is a subordinate clause, the comma is also used:
Qu'il veuille partir, je l'admets.
But watch out, because if this clause is the subject then a comma is not used:
Qu'il veuille partir est compréhensible.
Relative clauses are separated by a comma when the pronoun ( qui / que) is too far from the noun it relates to.One should write:
La femme que j'ai rencontrée ce matin m'a parlé de toi.

but
J'aime beaucoup le chat de la voisine, qui a de grands yeux verts.
Without the comma, one would think that it is the neighbour who has green eyes and not the cat.

In independent clauses, the comma separates items in lists. There is no comma before et.

Il acheta des roses, des tulipes, des lys et des œillets.

Elle m'a montré les cadeaux de son père, de sa mère, de son frère et de sa sœur.

Les dictionnaires, les classeurs, les cahiers, étaient rangés sur les étagères.

Watch out when writing sums in numbers, the comma is not used in the same way in French as it is in English.

French English
1 000 1,000 one thousand
2,5 2.5 two point five

 

The dash

Dashes are used:

  • to introduce replies in a dialogue:
    «Tu as vu ce film?
    - Non, jamais».
  • to distinguish between the elements of a list;
  • to isolate a comment clause, including one inside a parenthesis:
    Cette hypothèse - à laquelle je ne crois pas du tout - est l'œuvre d'un journaliste.
    Le rapport donne les derniers chiffres du chômage (chômage qui sévit à travers l'Europe - même dans les pays les plus riches - et qui ne semble pas près de régresser).

Quotation marks and the presentation of dialogue

French quotation marks (« ») are used in preference to English ones("").
Quotation marks are used:

  • to emphasize a word which is going to be explained or which is being used in an improper, humorous or ironic way;
  • to show the beginning and the end of a quotation;
  • for the titles of poems;
  • to show the beginning and the end of a dialogue or to introduce direct speech.
    Il l'interrogea :
    «Vous êtes arrivé quand?
    - Pourquoi cette question? Je n'ai rien fait de mal!
    - C'est ce que nous allons voir!»
Here the use of the quotation marks is not obligatory. They could have been left out. In such a case a dash would have been used in front of the first question.
Il l'interrogea
- Vous êtes arrivé quand?
- Pourquoi cette question? Je n'ai rien fait de mal!
- CV'est ce que nous allons coir!
Inverted commas are not used on either side of a break in direct speech.
«Tiens, dit-elle en ouvrant les rideaux, les voilà!»