French Punctuation: 12 things to know

What about French punctuation? Why does it matter so much? After all, you use it only when you write, no? Well, punctuation actually matters when you read out, because you’re expected to pause at every punctuation mark.

So, let’s review here the most common punctuation marks and how their use differs in French compared to English.

  1. Spaces
  2. Comma
  3. Semi-colon
  4. Colon
  5. Full stop
  6. Question mark
  7. Exclamation mark
  8. Quotation marks
  9. Parentheses
  10. Dashes
  11. Hyphens
  12. Suspension points

SPACES / Espaces

 Before starting this review, I’d like to start with a short introduction about the use of spaces. In French, you’d add one space before the following punctuation signs:

  • Semi-colons;
  • Colons;
  • Question marks;
  • Exclamation marks.

COMMA / Virgule

  • He’s been outside all day, but will come back tonight.
  • Il a été à l’extérieur toute la journée, mais sera de retour ce soir.

SEMI-COLON / Point-virgule

  • She’s been outside all day; I hope that she won’t be too tired when she’s back home.
  • Elle a été à l’extérieur toute la journée ; j’espère qu’elle ne sera pas trop fatiguée en rentrant.

Note: as mentioned above, you need to add a space before the semi-colon in French.

COLON / Deux-points

You’d use this punctuation sign when you need to:

  1. Outline a list of items;
  2. Quote someone’s words (and you’d add quotation marks as well);
  3. Give an explanation (in regard of the previous clause)
  • She’s done the entire inventory of the warehouse: we have 1,500 products currently available in our storage.
  • Elle a fait l’inventaire de l’entrepôt au complet : nous avons 1 500 produits actuellement disponibles dans notre espace de stockage.

Note: as mentioned above, you need to add a space before the colon sign in French.

FULL STOP / Point

Your voice should lowered down completely (and even stop) at the full-stop sign.

  • I agree with you.
  • Je suis daccord avec vous.

QUESTION MARK / Point d’interrogation

Your voice should rise at the question mark.

  • What’s the weather like?
  • Quel temps fait-il ?

Note: there’s a space before the question mark in French (and none in English)

EXCLAMATION MARK / Point d’exclamation

Same thing here: your voice should rise up a bit a the exclamation mark.

  • This weather is beautiful!
  • Ce temps est magnifique !

Note: there’s an extra space before the exclamation mark.

QUOTATION MARKS / Guillemets

You’d use quotation marks to quote someone else’s words.

  • He asked me: “ Could you take this cup away, please? ”
  • Il me demanda : «  Pourriez-vous s’il vous plaît débarrasser cette tasse ? »

Note: English (“   ”) and French («   ») quotation marks look slightly different.

PARENTHESES / Parenthèses

Thanks to parentheses, you’ll be able to include additional information to your texte. Whoever reads your text out loud, will be able to choose whether they want to mention it or not.

  • The best way to do this (eventhough there are plenty!) is by being straightforward.
  • La meilleure façon de faire (même s’il y en a plein !) est d’être direct.

DASHES / Tirets

You’d use dashes interchangeably with parentheses. They have the exact same role.

  • The best way to do this — eventhough there are plenty! — is by being straightforward.
  • La meilleure façon de faire — même s’il y en a plein ! — c’est d’être direct.

Note: beware as dashes and hyphens (see below) are slightly different (dashes are longer than hyphens) and do not play the same role. You need to press both the CTRL and minus sign (numeric pad) keys on your keyboard to get a dash sign. An hyphen is the same as the minus sign.

HYPHENS / Traits d’union

You’d use these if you were to write a compound word. The hyphens can be obtained by pressing the minus sign (numeric pad)

  • A dining-table (une table)
  • Un arc-en-ciel (a rainbow)

SUSPENSION POINTS / Points de suspension

When you use suspension points, it’s understood that you’d have more items to list, but that you want to make it shorter.

  • They had all kinds of fruits in a pantry: apples, oranges, cherries…
  • Ils avaient tout type de fruits dans leur placard : des pommes, des oranges…
French punctuation