French Punctuation: The Curious Case of the Space

French Punctuation: The Curious Case of the Space

If you are learning French, punctuation may not be the first thing you think you need to focus on.

In fact, no matter which language you are learning, punctuation is likely far down your list of things to learn.

You probably prefer to focus instead on learning vocabulary and grammar.

After all, punctuation is only really necessary for reading and writing. You just have to learn a few rules, and you’re done, right?

Well, perhaps.

But sometimes, languages that may seem quite close to English may actually have rather different punctuation conventions.

As you’ve learnt French, you probably didn’t think punctuation was very different from English.

And you almost certainly didn’t notice the curious case of the space!

In fact, in researching this piece, I discovered that many native French speakers aren’t aware of this either!

So let’s get into it…

English Punctuation

Since we are tackling this issue in English, let’s start here.

English has 14 punctuation marks which are used in writing.

They are essential in English because, at the most basic level, they show where our sentences start (with a capital letter) and where they end (with a full stop).

The others (exclamation marks, question marks, colons, etc.) enable us to show emotion, introduce information, join ideas or sentences, and demarcate direct speech and quotes – just to name a few uses.

There are numerous mistakes that English speakers make when utilising English punctuation – the confusion between its and it’s being one of the most common and annoying to linguists.

I also see people increasingly confusing there and their, and your and you’re

So it should come as no surprise that punctuation can be problematic when learning too!

The Space In French Punctuation

“What space?”

In English, there is no space between the word preceding the punctuation mark and the punctuation mark itself.

For example, this sentence just looks plain wrong:

  • Jenny said , “ That’s unbelievable ! ”

The correct punctuation would be:

  • Jenny said, “That’s unbelievable!”

While the incorrect version will look slightly odd to English-speakers, any French-speakers reading this may not have picked up on the peculiarity.

With French punctuation, the rule is slightly different.

In French…

  • exclamation marks
  • question marks
  • semicolons
  • colons
  • the percentage mark
  • currency symbols
  • the hash
  • the guillemet

…all require a space before and after the punctuation mark.

(Technically, it’s not the same space that we use in English; it is, “une espace insécable,” or a non-breaking space, but that’s beside the point).

This is because these marks are considered double punctuation marks, in that the symbols consist of two different parts. (This does not apply to Canadian French, though.)

For example:

  • Je t’aime ; m’aimes-tu ?
  • Au secours !

Some blame the typewriter for differences in French punctuation.As for the reasons why this is the case, nobody can really say!

The origins of this practice are not clear, though popular belief is that it is a hangover from the days of typewriters.

When using a typewriter, certain characters were made by printing two or three symbols on top of each other.

The semi-colon, for example, was produced by printing a comma on top of a colon.

Because this was quite a common occurrence, the typewriter was designed so that if necessary the space bar could be held in place while typing a few symbols and the typewriter carriage would not move forward.

When the symbol had been produced, the space bar could be released and the carriage would move forward.

This would then result in a space both before and after these complex symbols.

Why this convention seems to have disappeared from English but not from French punctuation is also unknown.

Any Other Differences In French and English Punctuation?

Well, yes.

Quotation marks are another aspect which differs between English and French punctuation.

French quotation marks are sometimes not the ones we might be used to (“ ”), but instead guillemets (« ») are used.

Guillemets are used at the beginning and end of an entire dialogue, while inside the dialogue, em-dashes
show the changes in speaker, which would usually be denoted by the lack of quotation marks in English.

For example:

« Salut Jeanne ! dit Pierre. Comment vas-tu ?

— Ah, salut Pierre ! crie Jeanne.

— As-tu passé un bon weekend ?

— Oui, merci, répond-elle. Mais…

— Attends, je dois te dire quelque chose d’important ».

“Hi Jean!” Pierre says. “How are you?”

“Oh, hi Pierre!” shouts Jeanne.

“Did you have a nice weekend?”

“Yes, thanks,” she responds. “But—”

“Wait, I have to tell you something important.”

Numbers in French

Numbers, too, can cause confusion.

In English, decimals are written with a point and thousands with a comma, but in French punctuation, it is the opposite: decimals are written with a comma and thousands with a point or a space.

For example:

English

1,000,000

3.75

French

1.000.000 or 1 000 000

3,75

Even if you think these are nit-picky details, people can get surprisingly upset with incorrect punctuation, and that’s the case in French just as much as English!

Now that you know about the space in French punctuation, you’ll probably end up seeing it everywhere now, and wonder why you’d never noticed it before!

Do you know someone learning French? Please share this article with them! Have you noticed any differences in punctuation in the language you are learning? Share them below!

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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