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.
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.
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.