How to Use French Punctuation

Fish for sale in French market
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Although French and English use nearly all of the same punctuation marks, some of their uses in the two languages are considerably different. Rather than an explanation of the rules of French and English punctuation, this lesson is a simple summary of how French punctuation differs from English.

One-Part Punctuation Marks

These are very similar in French and English, with a few exceptions.

Period or Le Point "."

  1. In French, the period is not used after abbreviations of measurement: 25 m (mètres), 12 min (minutes), etc.
  2. It can be used to separate the elements of a date: 10 septembre 1973 = 10.9.1973.
  3. When writing numbers, either a period or a space may be used to separate every three digits (where a comma would be used in English): 1,000,000 (English) = 1.000.000 or 1 000 000.
  4. It's not used to indicate a decimal point (see virgule 1).

Commas ","

  1. In French, the comma is used as a decimal point: 2.5 (English) = 2,5 (French).
  2. It's not used to separate three digits (see point 3).
  3. Whereas in English, the serial comma (the one before "and" in a list) is optional, it cannot be used in French: J'ai acheté un livre, deux stylos et du papier. Not J'ai acheté un livre, deux stylos, et du papier.

Note: When writing numerals, the period and comma are opposites in the two languages: 

French English

2,5 (deux virgule cinq)

2.500 (deux mille cinq cents)

2.5 (two point five)

2,500 (two thousand five hundred)

Two-Part Punctuation Marks

In French, a space is required both before and after all two- (or more) part punctuation marks and symbols, including : ; « » ! ? % $ #.

Colon or Les Deux-Points ":"

The colon is much more common in French than in English. It may introduce direct speech; a citation; or the explanation, conclusion, summary, etc. of whatever precedes it.

  • Jean a dit : « Je veux le faire. » Jean said, "I want to do it."
  • Ce film est très intéressant : c'est un classique. This movie is interesting: it's a classic.

« » Les Guillemets and — Le Tiret and ... Les Points de Suspension

Quotation marks (inverted commas) " " don't exist in French; the guillemets « » are used. 

Note that these are actual symbols; they are not just two angle brackets typed together << >>. If you don't know how to type guillemets, see this page on typing accents.

Guillemets are usually used only at the beginning and end of an entire conversation. Unlike in English, where any non-speech is found outside of the quotation marks, in French guillemets do not end when an incidental clause (he said, she smiled, etc.) is added. To indicate that a new person is speaking, atiret (m-dash or em-dash) is added.

In English, an interruption or trailing off of speech can be indicated with either atiret or des points de suspension (ellipsis). In French, only the latter is used.

« Salut Jeanne ! dit Pierre. Comment vas-tu ? "Hi Jean!" Pierre says. "How are you?"
— Ah, salut Pierre ! crie Jeanne. "Oh, hi Pierre!" shouts Jeanne.
— As-tu passé un bon weekend ? "Did you have a nice weekend?"
— Oui, merci, répond-elle. Mais... "Yes, thanks," she responds. "But—"
— Attends, je dois te dire quelque chose d'important ». "Wait, I have to tell you something important."

The tiret can also be used like parentheses, to indicate or emphasize a comment:

  • Paul — mon meilleur ami — va arriver demain. Paul—my best friend—will arrive tomorrow.

Le Point-Virgule ; and Le Point d'Exclamation ! and Le Point d'Interrogation ?

The semi-colon, exclamation point, and question mark are essentially the same in French and English.

  • Je t'aime; m'aimes-tu? I love you; do you love me?
  • Au secours! Help!
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Team, ThoughtCo. "How to Use French Punctuation." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Team, ThoughtCo. (2023, April 5). How to Use French Punctuation. Retrieved from Team, ThoughtCo. "How to Use French Punctuation." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).