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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Dos and don’ts to help you cope with writing emails or letters in French

Having to write emails and letters in French can bring on migraines, rashes and itches - even for those who have mastered the spoken language. Here are some explanations and tips from an expert.

Dos and don'ts to help you cope with writing emails or letters in French

Let’s face it, writing emails and letters in French can bring on migraines, even for those who’d thought they’d mastered the language.

For a start there are all those formal archaic formulas that you can’t get your head around, then there’s the herculean challenge of making all your word endings agree and finding the accents on a keyboard.

Here French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, founder of  French Today , tells us why we don't really have a choice but to follow the rules.

The Local: Written French just seems like a totally different language to spoken French, non?

Camille Chevalier Karfis: Written French is always more formal than spoken French, except for texting (les textos, les SMS) of course. For example, we are still far from starting a French formal letter with “salut” and finishing it with “À plus…”

There is a huge gap between spoken and written French. In written French, you cannot “hide” your mistakes. What’s tricky is all the agreements which are silent in spoken French, like the s and the –ent endings .

The good thing is if you master written French, then you can really show off that you know your stuff.


READ ALSO:  The crazy French writing phrases you can't get your head aroun
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The Local: The French seem to take their written language in emails pretty seriously

Chevalier-Karfis: Mastery of written French is a way to show your wit and education, or your social class and French people like to show off their wit. It goes really deep in our culture to be able to be smart with the language, and use it to show your sense of humour and general culture.

The love story between the French and their writing is not about to end anytime soon. 

The Local: Will the recipients of our emails take pity on us? Will they see our mistakes and lack of politeness as charming? Or will they be offended/outraged/insulted/disappointed?

Chevalier-Karfis: It all depends on the context. If you are the customer or the provider of a service or if it's business or personal.

If you are the customer, then it's OK, you can be more relaxed but if you are asking for something, or if you are trying to sell something, then it's quite important not to make mistakes and to put the polite form and etiquette to it. Of course use “vous” form in business writing.

The Local: So if in doubt, be formal?

Chevalier-Karfis: Always. Friends and family are private matter. And you communicate a certain way with them. But everything else is formal. It's a way to show respect I guess in French.

If an office saw an email from an office of a foreigner typed without accents and usual politeness sentences, well, I guess they'd still be happy it's in French if they didn't speak English themselves, but if it was to offer them something, or as a first contact, it would be quite weird.

First, you should know your opening closing lines to emails. You just have to learn them off by heart.

(buzzfarmers/flickr)

The Local: But they sound and look so complicated. Is it really necessary to write: Je vous prie de bien vouloir agréer l’expression de mes salutations distinguées and all that…?

In a business letter to someone you don't know well, yes, I believe so.

In an email, it's a bit more casual, yet again, it depends on the context and the impression you want to give. This is a standard formula. We don't even think about it, nor how intricate this formula is – it's standard, we just use it.

However “Meilleures salutations” or even “Bien cordialement” are more and more used in emails with casual business relations.

The Local: What about those accents? Do we really need to put them all on?

Yes, you do because they are still very important in French. They are a pain, but if I'm reaching out to someone, then I use accents. It's really not accepted to not use them at all.

Most of the time, to my friends, family. I type without accents. The same on Facebook. This is why I use mostly English to communicate!

The Local: So basically we have to take the time to make sure it’s correct?

Yes, the problem when you write in French is that you have to spend twice the amount of time. When someone writes something important in French, they always need to double check it – read it over and check all the spelling, the agreements and so on.

First you write what you want to say, then you proofread your letter to check all the endings, the silent letters and agreements etc… Very few people can write in French without reading it over and not make mistakes

When I write something really important, I even have a third person read it over

Anything else we need to know about writing emails?

In French as in English, emails can send the wrong message because people usually write them fast, and sometimes the tone of the message may be difficult to guess. It's something to watch out for, even more so when you are not writing in your native language. With this in mind, I believe that French standard letter expressions can help: at least, it's a no-brainer.

Use them, and you'll be seen as polite and respectful for the culture/language. And this is always a good thing.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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