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Writing Letters in French

The following advice about writing letters in French is not exhaustive, but should be regarded as information which will make your letters more "French" and very importantly may avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Being familiar with some of the conventions of French letter writing will also be of interest when you receive letters in French or English from French native speakers.

Laying out the letter

In formal letters if you are writing on a plain sheet of paper, it is normal to write your name, without title, above your address at the top of the page, on the left-hand side of the sheet. When writing your own address at the top of the letter, it is of course quite correct to place commas at the ends of lines, if you wish. However, when writing the address of your French addressee in a formal letter or on the envelope, it is worth remembering that end-of-line punctuation is not the norm in France and may even be regarded as a mistake or something which may cause a letter to be misdirected.

The addressee’s name and address should be inserted below your address on the right-hand side of the sheet. In a letter to someone with a title, in a business for instance, the title is placed after the addressee’s full name.

The full forms should always be used. Abbreviations can be used on the envelope if the full form doesn’t fit (M. for Monsieur; Mme for Madame and Mlle for Mademoiselle). Note that the full stop is only used after M.

The date comes after the addressee’s name and is usually also on the right-hand side of the sheet.

When writing an informal letter it is customary not to include either your own or the addressee’s address. In this type of letter, people often write the name of the place they are in, followed by the date at the top of the page. The place is the town, city, village or other recognizable location.

Bordeaux, le 12 juillet 2002

In writing the date, the day number is preceded by le. Note also that in French, unlike in English, names of the month are not capitalized. The convention is to write dates: day-month-year. More informally you can write this information in numerals: 12-07-02.

Greetings

In formal letters whether you know the name of the person you are writing to or not:

To a man: Monsieur,

To a woman: Madame, Mademoiselle,

When you don’t know if your letter will be read by a man or a woman: Madame, Monsieur, Messieurs,

To a lawyer: Maître,

This opening appears on the left-hand side. Note the use of the comma, which is obligatory. Note: when writing to a woman and when in doubt about her marital status, it is always better to use Madame rather than Mademoiselle.

For official certificates, such as attestations of employment, the opening usually is: À qui de droit (to whom it may concern).

In slightly less formal letters if you know the name of the addressee, you can also write:

Cher monsieur Dupont,

Chère madame Durand,

which is slightly less formal.

In a business letter when you have established a good relationship with the addressee, cher/chère followed by the addressee’s given name is appropriate:

Cher Antoine,

Chère Elisa,

In informal letters or when you know the addressee well, an opening following cher/chère or mon cher/ma chère is appropriate:

Cher Matthieu,

Chère Béatrice,

Chers Béatrice et Matthieu,

Chers tous,

Ma chère Béatrice,

Mon cher Papa,

Closing the Letter

If you read correspondence manuals in French you will probably be surprised at how many potential letter endings there are for formal correspondence. Modern practice is to use a limited number of endings and to keep them shorter and less formal than was formerly the case. The following are should be adequate for most situations.

Formal endings:

In formal letters, the form of address chosen for the opening formula should be reflected in the closing formula, i.e. if you’ve started your letter with Madame, it should end with something like: Veuillez agréer, Madame, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées. All of the examples below should be immediately followed by your signature.

Dans l’attente de vous lire, je vous prie d’agréer, Messieurs, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.

Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.

Je vous adresse, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées.

Je vous prie de croire, Madame, en nos sentiments dévoués.

Less formal endings:

Salutations distinguées.

Cordialement,

In friendly personal letters, the following are often used:

Amicalement,

Bien à vous,

A bientôt,

Avec toute mon affection,

Grosses bises,

In letters to family members, endings are obviously freer, but some typical ones are:

Grosses bises,

Affectueusement,

Je t’embrasse très fort,

Bisous,

Addressing the envelope

The address should be carefully written taking account of the comments about laying out the letter made above. If you want to include your return address on the envelope, this should be written on the back of the envelope after the word: Exp. (short for Expéditeur/-trice). An example would be along the lines of:

Exp.: Mary O’Reilly, 867 Fifth Avenue, New York NY10022, USA.

Street names

The full street name is often abbreviated in correspondence, especially on the envelope. For example,

Avenue can be written Av. and Boulevard Bd.

e.g. 180 Av. du Gal Leclerc (180 Avenue du Général Leclerc)

Applying for a job

Job application forms are not the general practice. When applying for a job, and unless otherwise stated, it is customary to send, along with your Curriculum Vitae, a letter of application, which should follow the general letter-writing conventions. This letter is your opportunity to give more details about what you do or have done.

The CV itself should be one or two pages long, no more. It should present all information in a very clear and accessible manner. A badly structured CV, or one which is too long and detailed, probably won’t be read right through. Contact details should come first. Personal information such as marital status are optional, although the date of birth is usually expected.

CVs are usually organized according to the chronological order, either starting from the earliest date to the present day or vice versa.The latter is usually preferred as your most recent position is more likely to be relevant to the position you’re applying for. If this is the option you go for, it is more logical to start your CV with ‘Expérience professionnelle’ (previous employment) rather than with ‘Formation’ (education), although both are acceptable. Other types of information such as hobbies are given last. Referees are not usually listed on French CVs.

Download Specimen letters of formal and informal correspondence

Oxford University Press