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.
In this lesson, I will focus on how to start and end your French letter: you will find many precise expressions used right at the beginning and at the end of a letter in French.
French people (or rather French business relations) will be more forgiving if you make mistakes in the core of the text, but for example writing “ma chérie” to a friend could send the wrong message. And choosing an unapropriate letter ending like “bisous” for a business partner would be a big faux-pas!
So let’s study some French letter vocabulary.
1- Starting Your French Letter
Before you even start writing your French letter, you need to select the correct title.
- 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 whether 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,”
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- How to End Your French Letter
A typical way to introduce the ending greeting for a business letter is “dans l’attente de vous lire, je vous….”
a – French Business Letters (or Very Formal Letters)
- 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 example, 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.
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b – French Letters For 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 (which by the way, would be totally foreign to a French person who doesn’t know ‘hugs and kisses’ and could very much get confused by this symbol).
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
L5 + L6
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Some rules of punctuation used when typing out a text are different in French than in English.
- Un point d’exclamation ! Un point 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
4 – Cultural Remark About French Letters
I found that writing thank you notes is less frequent in France than in the US.
We also have a much smaller market for greeting/special occasion cards and don’t send out these too often.
In very posh families, it’s not uncommon to have a special pad made out with your name at the top, and you use that to answer invitations or send thank you notes. But it’s disappearing nowadays.
5 – How To Write the Name on Your French Letter
You’ll write the address in the front of the letter, pretty much the same way you’d do anywhere in the US or Europe.
For the name, you have plenty of options: so let’s take my name for example.
My first name is Camille.
My maiden name is Chevalier.
My married name is Chevalier-Karfis (hyphenated names are not common for French people: most wives would just take their husband’s last name).
My husband’s first name is Olivier.
His last name is Karfis.
So you could write:
- Camille Chevalier-Karfis – straight and to the point – that’s the one I would use for a business kind of letter
- Madame Camille Chevalier-Karfis – pretty common in standard automated business letters
- Madame Chevalier-Karfis – that’s the one I would use if I wrote a personal letter
- Madame Olivier Karfis – very very old-fashioned and a tad snob. Using my husband’s first name and last name to define me… That’s the one my Mom would use.
6 – How to Write the Address on Your French Letter
Then you’d go from the smaller to the bigger entity: start with the name (if it’s the business letter, then maybe the title, department, certainly the name of the company), Apartment number, po box, street number and address, zip code, town (sometimes followed by Cedex + a number in French).
63 rue de Goas Plat
It’s my actual address: feel free to write me a letter, a postcard, send me gifts :-)
7 – Where to Write Your Return Address on Your French Letter
In France, the return address is written in the back of the letter, at the very top, across the width of the letter. However that can be confusing for your home country.
So, as a precaution, when sending a letter internationally, I always write “from” and then cross the return address, just in case (as shown on the picture of the envelope featured above)
This “from” in French would be “de:”, or “de la part de:”, or “expéditeur:”.
Voilà, I hope this article will help you next time you write a letter in French. I post new articles every week, so make sure you subscribe to the French Today newsletter – or follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
Check my audio lesson for more French expressions of politeness.
You may also find this link about writing condolences letters in French.
Good luck with your French studies and I’m looking forward to talking to you on Facebook/FrenchToday.