When learning to speak a language, we mostly focus on words. But when learning to write that language, it’s equally important to think about what goes on between the words—that is, how they’re punctuated. While there are many similarities between English and French punctuation, there are some important differences that you’ll need to know when writing your next brilliant essay in French.
The major French punctuation marks are easily recognizable: there’s le point (period), la virgule (comma), les deux-points (colon), le point-virgule (semicolon), le point d’exclamation (exclamation point), and le point d’interrogation (question mark).
Speaking of what goes on between words, one of the major differences between French and English punctuation has to do with spacing. Generally, colons, semicolons, exclamation points, and question marks are all preceded by a space:
Lesquelles préférez-vous : les pommes ou les oranges ?
Which do you prefer: apples or oranges?
-Les pommes !
There is one set of French punctuation that might not look very familiar to English readers. This sentence alludes to them using an idiom:
C'est la "morale du film", entre guillemets.
That's the quote-unquote "moral of the film."
Caption 27, Télé Grenoble - La famille MaudruPlay Caption
The phrase entre guillemets literally means "between guillemets." Guillemets are the French version of quotation marks, and they look like this: « ». So the above sentence could be more accurately written: C’est la « morale du film », entre guillemets.
Notice that the comma is placed outside the guillemets, as are all other punctuation marks. Also, there is always a space after the first guillemet and another one before the second.
Written French looks different on the page than it does in Yabla captions. Manon and Clémentine have already given us a thorough lesson on book-related vocabulary—now we’ll take an excerpt from one of their helpful skits and show you what it might look like in book form. Here’s the original, from their video on visiting the doctor:
J'ai pris un rendez-vous pour cet après-midi avec le docteur,
I made an appointment for this afternoon with Doctor,
Séléno-Gomez, mais j'ai un empêchement.
Séléno-Gomez, but I have a conflicting appointment.
-Bien. C'est à quel nom? -C'est au nom de Manon Maddie.
-Fine. It's under what name? -It's under the name Manon Maddie.
-Ah oui. Madame Maddie à dix-sept heures quarante-cinq.
Oh yes. Ms. Maddie at five forty-five.
Captions 42-45, Manon et Clémentine - Rendez-vous chez le médecinPlay Caption
And here’s how that might look as dialogue in a novel:
« Bonjour ! dit Manon. J’ai pris un rendez-vous pour cet après-midi avec le docteur Séléno-Gomez, mais j'ai un empêchement.
—Bien. C'est à quel nom ? répond Florence.
—C'est au nom de Manon Maddie.
—Ah oui. Madame Maddie à dix-sept heures quarante-cinq ».
This is certainly different from what you would find in an English-language novel! The major difference is that, unlike quotation marks, guillemets are used to mark off the entire dialogue, not a change of speaker, which is instead indicated by a dash (un tiret).
You won’t have to worry too much about punctuation here at Yabla. We use a special style tailored to work well with the Yabla Player. But it’s always good to know proper punctuation when writing in any language, whether you’re fluent in it or just learning it. If you’re looking for something to inspire you to write in French, here are the first few lines of Marcel Proust’s classic novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), as presented by Manon and Clémentine:
"Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.
"For a long time, I used to go to bed early.
Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte,
Sometimes, my candle barely put out,
mes yeux se fermaient si vite
my eyes would close so quickly
que je n'avais pas le temps de me dire: 'Je m'endors'."
that I had not even time to say to myself, 'I am falling asleep.'"
Captions 81-83, Manon et Clémentine - Vocabulaire du livrePlay Caption