French Punctuation

Punctuation is a set of symbols that allows for sequencing within a text. Certain marks, such as question marks [?] and exclamation points [!] indicate in writing whether the phrase is interrogative or exclamatory, e.g., “Are we there yet?” and “Yes we are!” In addition to indicating a particular type of sentence, punctuation gives cues for vocal characteristics of sentences, such as intonation, involving the rising and falling of the voice.

In the French versions for the first sentence above, we also have an inverted subject and verb that indicates an interrogative phrase: “Y sommes-nous arrivés ?” Without this inversion, we can say “Est-ce que nous y sommes arrivés ?” We could also keep the indicative sentence structure and simply say “Nous y sommes arrivés ?” with the rising of the voice at the end of the sentence indicating that it is a question rather than a statement. With or without the written cues of inversion or use of “est-ce que”, we need to add a question mark at the end of the phrase. For the second sentence, the addition of the exclamation point changes the tone of the sentence from being declarative to exclamatory.

Punctuation has been developed to specify the type of sentence that is being uttered and to clarify its different components. Imagine reading this:


That’s a bit much, although if you are used to deciphering hashtags, you might be more adept at it. #idecipherphrasesfromhashtagsallthetimethisisnobigproblemforme #idontneedpunctuation

Think about how the phrases above would look with capital letters, apostrophes, hyphens, question marks, periods, and spaces between the words.

The French language uses many of the same marks for punctuation as other languages, but uses them in a specific way that may differ from what you would see in the written text of another language. If you open a book, you may notice additional spaces in the text and symbols you would not see in another language, such as English.

A List of French Punctuation

Here is a list of punctuation that is used in French:

1. La virgule

La virgule, or the comma, is used to show a brief pause within a sentence. Commas are used for listing items within a sentence, for appositives, to isolate participle clauses, and in relative clauses.
Arrivant chez moi avec beaucoup de légumes, Hélène, ma grande amie qui adore cuisiner, a préparé une salade avec de la laitue, des carottes, des tomates, des champignons, des oignons, des noix, et un peu de fromage.

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2. Le point-virgule

Le point virgule, or semicolon, indicates a pause that is more significant than one signified by a comma. It can separate two clauses that are independent, having perhaps a weaker relationship from the point of view of sentence structure, but whose relationship is logical all the same.

Elles ont bien interprété leur rôles ; ce sont de bonnes actrices.

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3. Les deux-points

We use les deux-points, or colon, to introduce various types of phrases, such as a series of itemized components or a quotation in direct discourse.

Il a dit : « Je serais ravi de vous aider aux dates suivantes : le 5 avril, le 12 août, le 24 octobre, et le 29 décembre. »

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4. Les guillemets

You might have noticed that the words within the above quotation were enclosed by guillemets, or angle quotes. These are distinct from the curly or straight single or double quotes that are used in English, and are named for the French printer Guillaume le Bé (1525-1598) to whom their initial use is attributed. In addition to using guillemets for direct discourse, we also use them to set off a word or expression that appears unusual in context.

Je crois qu’on dit « abracadabra » pour ouvrir cette porte.

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5. Le point

We use a point, called a period or a full stop in English, to indicate the end of a sentence. As the name “full stop” indicates, the pause is significant and signals the completion of an utterance.

Nous avons complété ce travail.

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6. Le majuscule

We use majuscules, or capital letters, for the beginnings of sentences, proper nouns, such as someone’s name, common nouns used as proper nouns, streets, geographic regions, holidays, as well as terms of politeness and titles. Unlike English, we do not use them for days of week or months, and we do not use them for the personal pronoun “je”, unless this appears at the beginning of a sentence. For the word “saint”, we would use a majuscule for the name of a holiday, a location, or street name, but not for the name of a person.

Quand saint François est arrivé à la rue Saint-Honoré à Paris, il a salué Mme de Broglie, qui était venue pour fêter la Saint-Étienne.

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7. Le point d’interrogation

We use the point d’interrogation, or question mark, for interrogative phrases. While there are often other things in sentences that signal that a question is being asked, such as the inversion of subject and verb and the use of the phrases “Est-ce que” and “n’est-ce pas ?”, we still need to add a question mark at the end of any sentence that is interrogative.

Est-ce que vous êtes déjà allés à Montmartre ? Vous avez entendu parler de ce quartier, n’est-ce pas ?

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8. Le point d’exclamation

We use the point d’exclamation, exclamation point, or exclamation mark, for an exclamatory sentence. The point d’exclamation expresses surprise, exasperation, admiration, and command.

Mais comment auriez-vous pu oublier mon anniversaire ! C’est très décevant !

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9. Les points de suspension

Les points de suspension, or ellipsis, indicates hesitation when appearing in the middle of a phrase, or an interruption or change of thought. Les points de suspension can also take on the meaning of “etc.”, or et cetera, from the Latin, meaning “and the rest”, “and so on”. You can use them for quotations that do not appear in their entirety – just make sure there is enough of the quotation present to let the reader know what is going on, so that the original meaning is retained. In addition, you can use these along with the first letter of a word you would not like to write.

Il croyait que c’était une bonne idée de ne plus communiquer avec cet homme... mais en réfléchissant davantage il voulait attendre un peu avant de prendre une décision. Celui qui l’avait trahi était désagréable, pénible, déshonorable, stupide, laid... En secouant la tête il a dit: « Mais quel c... »

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As you can see, punctuation not only clarifies the text, but livens it up, signaling the way in which it would sound were it to be interpreted orally. It also facilitates reading, allowing readers’ eyes to pause and to look for certain places in the text that are of particular interest. Punctuation may seem abundant, and quite a lot to keep track of, but it eventually makes a text easier to navigate. Using punctuation thoughtfully in your own writing could even clarify the tone and register of your text. Happy reading and writing! ;)

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