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Today, I'm going to tell you about writing letters in French. Everything written in French tends to be more formal than in English; business letters, emails... and there are some quite archaic formulas that are still very much used nowadays. The spaces used with punctuation are different in French from English.

1- What title should you start your letter with?

  • If you don’t know who you are writing to, start your letters by “Messieurs”.
  • If you are addressing your letter to “le Responsable des livraisons” but you still don’t know his/her name, start your letter with “Monsieur,” (even if you don’t know wether the person is a man or a woman).
  • If you know the name of the person, start your letter by “Monsieur X, or Madame X,”.
  • If it is someone you know, you met, or if you are answering to someone who wrote you first, then you can start with “Cher Monsieur X,” or “Chère Madame X,” if you feel like being a bit more friendly, not if you write to complain!
  • If it’s a friend, start with “Cher Pierre,” ” Chère Anne,” 

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Never write (Cher) Monsieur Pierre, nor (Cher) Monsieur Pierre X.

Watch out with “chéri(e)” (do say the final “i”), we use it only with very close family and people you are in love with. Never with friends, although we did about 50 years ago. But is has changed.

2- Finishing a letter properly in French can be tricky

A typical way to introduce the ending greeting for a business letter is “dans l’attente de vous lire, je vous….”

a – Business or quite formal relation

  • If it’s VERY formal, write: “Je vous prie d’agréer, repeat the title as you started your letter, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées.”
  • If it’s VERY formal, but you are the one providing the service or the good, write: “Je vous prie d’agréer, repeat the title as you started your letter, l’expression de mes salutations dévouées.”
  • A bit less formal: “Je vous prie d’agréer, repeat the title as you started your letter, l’expression de mes meilleures salutations.”
  • Still formal but you know the person – not a friend, but it’s a personal relationship, not business: “Je vous prie d’agréer, repeat the title as you started your letter, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.” For exemple, you are writing to the oncle of your friend, to thank him for giving you the name of a plumber. And they are a very formal family: “Je vous prie d’agréer, Cher Monsieur Dupont (or even Cher Frank if you are on a first name basis), l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.”
  • One step less formal, but still quite business like, good for emails for example (note these end on the comma): “Meilleures salutations,” – “Salutations distinguées,” both kind of “regards”.
  •  If it’s a not too formal situation, even for a professional relationship, you can write: “Cordialement,” this is kind of like “regards” to “warm regards” or “Bien à vous”, yours truly.

b – With acquaintances, friends or family

With acquaintances, or friends who are quite formal – or older, you write: “Amicalement,” or “Je vous adresse toute mon amitié,” kind of like “warmest regards”.
With closer friends and family your write:

  • More formal : “Affectueusement”, “affectueuses pensées” kind of like “Fondly”, or “Je vous embrasse” which is “hug and kisses” but using the formal “vous”,
  • Less formal: “Je t’ embrasse (bien fort),” or “Gros bisous,” , “Grosses bises,” or “Bisous,” , the equivalent of “hugs and kisses”
  • Absolutely not formal: “Bizoux”, “bizoudou”… kind of like xoxo

Note that for all these expressions, the “vous” can also be used as a plural, and in this case may, or may not be as formal.

3 – If you are typing, watch out for the punctuation

 

Some rules of punctuation used when typing out a text are different in French.

  • Un point d’exclamation ! Un poin d’interrogation ? Space BEFORE and after
  • Les deux points : un point virgule ; space BEFORE and after
  • Une virgule,  a comma – no space before, space after
  • Un point. A period – no space before, space after
  • Trois petits points (also called les points de suspension)… – no space before, space after
  • ” les guillemets ”  ouvrez les guillemets – fermez les guillemets – space after/before
  • (les parenthèses) no space

Check my audio lesson for more French expressions of politeness.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy my article on “la bonne éducation and la bourgeoisie française

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 19 years in the US, France, and to people around the world over the phone and by Skype . My method is proven and unique, and, based on my students' goals and needs, I've developed high quality French audiobooks and French audio lessons for all levels. Good luck with your studies and remember, repetition is the key!

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