Writing conventions are essential to communication. For example, a simple comma can change the meaning of a sentence entirely; whether or not a word is capitalized can completely transform the message.
When you’re writing a text in your second or third language, how can you avoid mistakes that might misrepresent what you’re trying to say? In this post, I present four differences in English and French punctuation and typography—four differences that can change everything!
Commas and lists
English and French usage differs when it comes to the comma before the “and” that precedes the last item of a list.
In English, this comma is still widely used, even if, according to some sources, it’s becoming increasingly less recommended. It can be used to emphasize the last item of a list, but it doesn’t necessarily have a specific function.
In French, this comma isn’t frequently used, but when it is, it’s used primarily to emphasize the last item of a list.
|They’re bringing bread comma, cheese and a cake.||Ils apportent du pain comma, du fromage et un gâteau.|
|They’re bringing bread comma, cheese comma, and a cake.||Ils apportent du pain comma, du fromage comma, et un gâteau. (emphasis on un gâteau)|
Commas and numbers
Where numbers are concerned, the comma is used in completely different ways in the two languages.
In English, the comma separates triads, and the period is used as a decimal marker.
In French, the comma is used as the decimal marker.
|The number nine million one hundred and twenty-three thousand four hundred and fifty-six point seventy-eight is written “nine comma one two three comma four five six period seven eight.”||The same number is written “nine space one two three space four five six comma seven eight.”|
This means that the following items represent different numbers, depending on whether they’re being read in English or French:
- Two comma one nine seven km (two thousand one hundred and ninety-seven km in English and around 2 km in French)
- Fifty-six comma six eight seven $ (fifty-six thousand six hundred and eighty-seven dollars in English and around fifty-seven dollars in French)
- Nine comma two six four s (nine thousand two hundred sixty-four seconds in English and around 9 seconds in French)
Didn’t I say that a simple comma could change everything?!
Ah, dashes. So versatile in English, but much less so in French. Simply put, in French the dash is used mainly to highlight a passage. In nearly all other cases, French prefers another punctuation mark.
|I thought he would bring peanuts unspaced em dash but no.||Je pensais qu’il apporterait des arachides spaced en dash mais non.|
|He is spaced en dash – as I recall spaced en dash – allergic.||Il est spaced en dash si j’ai bonne mémoire spaced en dash allergique.|
|I did not see her unspaced em dash —I left before she arrived.||Je ne l’ai pas vue colon je suis partie avant qu’elle arrive.|
|But then guess what spaced en dash – the sun came out!||Mais alors devinez quoi ellipsis points il s’est mis à faire soleil!|
I’d like to point out that, in English, the spaced en dash can be used in place of the unspaced em dash.
The use of capital letters in proper nouns and in official names is much more common in English than in French. Here’s the rule in a nutshell:
In English, every word is capitalized (except for certain articles, prepositions and conjunctions).
In French, the first noun (and, if needed, its preceding adjective) is capitalized.
|Let’s celebrate National Child Day, with capitals on “National,” “Child” and “Day.”||Soulignons la Journée nationale de l’enfant, with a capital on only the word “Journée. ”|
|I’m reading the book Friend of My Youth, with capitals on “Friend,” “My” and “Youth.”||Je lis le livre Amie de ma jeunesse, with a capital on only the word “Amie. ”|
|The First World War is also know as the Great War, with capitals on “First,” “World” and “War,” as well as on “Great” and “War.”||La Première Guerre mondiale est surnommée la Grande Guerre, with capitals on “Première” and “Guerre,” as well as on “Grande” and “Guerre.”|
To illustrate the importance of this convention, compare the following two sentences in English:
- Many people work for Gaspé Shipbuilders (here, “ Gaspé Shipbuilders, with a capital “S”” refers to the name of a shipyard company).
- Many people work for Gaspé shipbuilders (here, “ Gaspé shipbuilders, with a lowercase “s”” refers to all shipyards in Gaspé).
The Language Portal site contains a series of quizzes on punctuation and typography in both official languages (see quizzes on punctuation (opens in new tab) and quizzes on style and writing conventions (opens in new tab)).
If you’re interested in learning about other differences between Canada’s official languages, you might like this post: 3 stylistic differences between English and French (opens in new tab).
I invite you to continue the discussion in the comments: What other differences have you noticed between the writing conventions of your first language and those of your second or third language?
View sources consulted
- Canada. Translation Bureau. Clés de la rédaction (opens in new tab) (in French only).
- Canada. Translation Bureau. Peck’s English Pointers (opens in new tab).
- Canada. Translation Bureau. Writing Tips Plus (opens in new tab).
- Quebec. Office québécois de la langue française. Vitrine linguistique (opens in new tab) (in French only).
The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.
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