French letter writing logistics

In high school French class you learned how to conjugate the obscure pluperfect-subjunctive. In college you memorized the name of every Gallic king going back to Charles the Bald. Your graduate courses included reading La Chanson de Roland and La Quête du Graal in their original Medieval idiom. BUT NO ONE TAUGHT YOU THE LOGISTICS OF WRITING A SIMPLE FRENCH LETTER-and are you going to be surprised at what you missed!

Here-to save you from wrath of civil servants, rejection by potential employers and, especially, ridicule by your mother-in-law-are the basics of French letter writing:

Letter-writingPlacement (1) 

  • This is done the opposite of the Anglo-Saxon way: Your name, professional title and address go on the top left of the page (or in a centered frame at the top of the page)…and …the recipient’s info goes on the right, slightly lower than yours. (Note that words like rue, avenue, boulevard, place, allée, etc. are not capitalized, although the name of the rue, avenue, etc. is…The practice of putting a comma after the street number is no longer universally respected…In writing, last names are usually capitalized.)
  • Special info such as dispatch method, reference number, etc. goes under the recipient’s name/title/address. Recommandé A/R means you are sending “registered return-receipt”: accusé de réception means return receipt; recommandé is spelled correctly if there is nothing preceding it, but putting the feminine lettre before it turns it into recommandée.

Date (2)

  • The date also goes on the right, and is preceded by: A [meaning “at”] + name of city in which you are writing the letter + comma. Some letter writers put this line above the recipients’ info, some below.
  • The date is written: le [small “l”] + day-number + month-word [small initial letter]-no comma-+ year. (Using numbers for months leads to misunderstandings, since in France, Britain and the Commonwealth countries the day-number goes before the month-number and in the U.S. it’s the other way around.)

Salutation (3)

  • Do not use Cher/Chère (“Dear ___”) before Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle unless you know the person very well; otherwise, this would be like saying “Hi, Liz!” when writing to the Queen of England (note that the feminine form of cher is chère).  Do not use the person’s last name after Monsieur/Madame/ Mademoiselle. When communicating with your very new landlord, for instance, you’d write, Monsieur [no last name], (more about this comma below); if he’s been your landlord for 10 years and you’ve had frequent contact and an excellent relationship, you might write Cher Monsieur [no last name],. If you wind up on first-name terms, you would write Cher [first name],.
  • There is no equivalent of “Ms,” and the fact that Americans, especially, use this title makes some French people laugh hysterically.
  • When a mademoiselle reaches the age past which most mademoiselles become madames, she usually switches to madame to avoid the shame factor.  Unless you’ve been instructed otherwise, it’s not only acceptable but also advisable to write Madame, (or, if you know the person very well, Chère Madame,) when addressing a mademoiselle “of,” as the French say, “a certain age.”
  • For an officeholder, you write Monsieur le Préfet,/Madame la Présidente, etc. (This is done for higher offices; you’d probably not write, for example, Monsieur le Sous-Sous-Secrétaire Général de la Quatrième Division de la Préfecture,-you’d write merely Monsieur,-although this is not technically wrong.)  This applies to those holding office within or outside the government: To, for instance, the director of the chamber of commerce, you’d write Madame la Directrice, and to the chairman of the Board of Peugeot you’d write Monsieur le Président.  A handful of female officeholders prefer to use the masculine version of their titles, such as Madame le Diecteur, or Madame le Ministre, (this was true of Michèle Alliot-Marie who, as Ministre de la Défense, was the first French woman to lead an army since Joan of Arc!). Some creative poking around on the Internet will usually allow you to find out who prefers what.
  • When writing to a medical doctor, write Docteur [no last name], or, if-per our landlord example, above-you know the doctor well and have a good relationship with him/her, Cher Docteur [no last name], /Chère Docteur [no last name],.
  • As screamingly sexist as this seems, when writing to an entity as opposed to a specific person (for example, a department store, a customer-relations service, your bank, the French equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles, etc.), write Messieurs, (“Sirs”). Do not even think of using Madame or Mesdames unless you are 100% certain that absolutely every person who will ever read this letter is female (for instance, when writing to the members of the French Association of University Women). And if, per above, the concept of “Ms.” occasionally tickles a French person, the equivalent of “Dear Macy’s” or “Dear Customer Service Center” sends the entire nation into uncontrollable fits of manic guffawing; a letter bearing the salutation CherMonoprix, or Chère Banque Transatlantique, would be seen as a combination of grotesque and ludicrous.
  • “To Whom it May Concern:” translates to A qui de droit, in documents such as letters of reference, recommendations, certificates (attestations), etc.
  • While Americans always use a colon after the salutation in business letters and other formal correspondence, and while the British sometimes use a comma and sometimes a colon here, the French always use a comma.

Body of the Letter (4)

  • If you’re writing a letter that has to count-to, for instance, a government official about your work permit, or to a potential employer, or in the context of your job-get it checked and, if necessary, rewritten by a native speaker. Unless you’ve been speaking and writing French all your life, your written French is probably not good enough.  Written and spoken communication-in any country-often seem divorced from each other: no matter how excellently you speak French, your written expression will likely seem “foreign.”
  • The French do a lot of “permitting themselves” in letters: Je me permets de vous contacter afin de….. (“I am permitting myself to contact you in order to…..”) To Anglophones in general and often brash Americans in particular, this seems shockingly self-effacing. And whereas Anglophones characteristically favor using as few words as possible to say as much as possible, the French are the undisputed reigning world champions of verbosity. Do not feel obligated to replicate these culturally determined practices; as long as your turn-of-phrase reads well (per above), you can feel free to cut to the epistolary chase.

Closing (5)

  • There are three phenomena that outsiders seem never to fully comprehend in France: the structure of the education system, why you can’t use tu with the nice man who’s been your neighbor for 25 years (see “Hints/Hindsights,” FUSAC #490) and which agonizingly formal, obsequious and long-winded closing to use in a given letter.  The overall name for these closings are formules de politesse (“politeness formulae”), and formulae they are: it’s easier to understand E=MC2 than to memorize such nuances as (among countless others) who merits Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de ma consideration distinguée; who won’t be shocked at Je vous prie d’accepter, Madame,mes salutations respectueuses; when to avoid mes sentiments at all cost; when you can get away with a mere Cordialement or even a familiar Amitiés. These might help:  -and-
  • One thing is easy to grasp: Whichever form of the closing you use (per the above websites), it must contain the same salutation you used at the beginning of the letter. If the opening salutation is Monsieur, the closing addresses your recipient as Monsieur: Veuillez agréer, Monsieur…  If you start with Madame le Présidente, the closing addresses your recipient as Madame la Présidente: Je vous prie d’accepter, Madame la Présidente…, etc.

Your signature (6)…..

  • …goes on the right side of the page (some people sign in the middle of the page-but signatures are rarely on the left).
  • There does not seem to be one hard-and-fast rule as to where to sign in relation to the typed signature (above or below; some people even sign in the middle of the page with the typed signature on the far right).  Many Anglophones thus choose to do what they’re used to doing: they sign above the typed signature.

Encl & CC (7) 

  • “Encl” = pj (or: PJ) = pièce(s) jointe(s)
  • cc is brilliantly translated as copie conforme (“copy conforming [to the original]”) so as to keep the letters as they are in English.
  • These are placed somewhat arbitrarily (left – middle – right) but usually at the very bottom of the page.  If you need to get specific about what is enclosed/attached and who will be receiving the cc, do as you do in English letters: add a colon + the specific info.

Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.

Editor’s note: The terms “mademoiselle”, “nom de jeune fille”, “nom patronymique”, “nom d’épouse” and “nom d’époux” are to be progressively removed from the French administration’s forms and correspondence as per the circular dated February 2012: Le choix des termes “madame” ou “mademoiselle” n’étant commandé par aucune disposition législative ou réglementaire, l’emploi de la civilité “madame” est à privilégier comme l’équivalent de “monsieur” pour les hommes, l’utilisation de ce terme ne préjugeant pas du statut marital de ces derniers. Par ailleurs, du fait notamment de la possibilité reconnue à un homme marié de prendre le nom de son épouse comme nom d’usage, l’emploi du terme “nom de jeune fille” est à éviter. Enfin, le “nom patronymique” est à remplacer par le “nom de famille” alors que le “nom d’usage” est à préférer au “nom d’épouse” et au “nom d’époux”.