What to watch for if you translate from French to English

The Comma

Commas set off a series of adverbial clauses:
Il y avait, dans le premier quart de ce siècle, à Montfermeuil, près de Paris, une façon de gargote qui n’existe plus aujourd’hui.


Remove the commas:
In the first quarter of this century in Montfermeuil near Paris stood an eatery of sorts that no longer exists today.


The comma marks a decimal point:
Le journal se vend 2,50 $.


Change to a period:
The newspaper costs $2.50.


The comma follows the salutation of a business letter:
Madame, Monsieur,


If you wish to follow traditional North American style, switch to a colon:
Dear Sir or Madam:
Note: Commas are used in personal correspondence in North America and in all correspondence in Great Britain. This distinction is, however, blurring.


Commas set off a parenthetical explanation:
Johnson, celui-là même qui lui a fait chavirer le
cœur il y a 20 ans, est de retour en ville.


Consider switching to em dashes for theatrical effect:
Johnson—the man who stole her heart 20
years ago—is back in town.


The comma is in addition to some other punctuation mark:

Il est parti chez lui — avec raison, d’ailleurs —, mais il est revenu le lendemain.
« Pourquoi ce refus? », demanda-t-il.


Remove the commas to avoid double 
He went home—and so he should have—but came back the next day.
“Why this refusal?” he asked.


A comma separates two clauses joined by the word “donc”:

Il arrive, donc je pars.


Use a semicolon if you join the two clauses in English with the word “therefore”:

He has arrived; therefore I will leave.


Straight translation of the French creates ambiguity in English:

Elle a pris son bain et a habillé le bébé.


Add a comma to avoid confusion:

She bathed, and dressed the baby.


The comma follows a relatively short adverbial clause at the start of the sentence:

Depuis trente ans, la veuve refuse de déménager.
Après le dîner, le comte a tiré sa révérence.


Remove the commas:

For thirty years the widow has refused to move.
After dinner the count took his leave.
Note: Keep the comma if ambiguity may arise. (Before eating, the members of the committee met in the assembly room.)


The comma follows a street number:
45, rue Principale


Remove the comma:
45 Main Street
Note: If the street name is itself a number, you may replace the comma with an en dash if you wish
(45–8th Street).


The comma falls outside a quotation mark:

Elle cria « aide-moi », mais il s’y refusa.


If you wish to follow North American style, put the comma inside the quotation mark even if it is not part of the actual quote:
She cried, “Help me,” but he wouldn’t.


A nonrestrictive subordinate clause is not set off by commas:
Malgré Élizabeth qui interrompait d’une voix placide : « Laisse-le, Gérard, il est grotesque… », Gérard se fâcha.


Put the nonrestrictive clause between commas:
Despite Elizabeth, who calmly interjected, “Leave him, Gerard, he’s being ridiculous,” Gerard grew angry.


In a list of three or more things, the French does not include punctuation before the final “and” or “or”:

Elle a acheté des souliers, un sac à main et une robe.


If you prefer to use the “serial” (Oxford) comma, insert a comma before the “and” or “or”:

She bought shoes, a purse, and a dress.


The French sentence has two main clauses with no dividing punctuation:

Des coups retentirent et les gens coururent dans tous les sens.


Insert a comma between the clauses:

Shots rang out, and people ran in all directions.
Note: You may drop the comma if the clauses are short and closely related (You wash and I’ll dry).


Two adjectives modify a noun:

L’été fut long et chaud.


If it is theoretically possible to place the word “and” between the adjectives in English, insert a comma:

It was a long, hot summer.


The French text lists the month, date, and year without punctuation:

Une panne électrique a semé le chaos à New York le 14 août 2003.


If you wish to follow North American style, set the year between commas unless only the month and year are given:

A blackout in New York on August 14, 2003, caused chaos.


The sentence starts with a long explanatory clause set off from the main clause by a comma:

Label d’origine du grand designer et fabricant de maillots de bain montréalais Maillot Baltex et immense succès depuis 23 ans, la marque Baltex présente cette année une collection exclusivement destinée aux jeunes femmes en quête de style, de confort et de choix.


Consider shifting the clause to the middle of the sentence and putting it between em dashes:
This year, Baltex—the original label of Montreal swimsuit designer and manufacturer Maillot Baltex, which has enjoyed immense success for 23 years—presents a collection aimed exclusively at young women seeking style, comfort, and selection.


Commas are used within a quotation to set off who is talking:

« Il vous faut, dit-il, manger plus de fruits et légumes. »


Close and reopen the quotation marks instead:

“You must,” he said, “eat more fruits and vegetables.”


The Period or Full Stop

A title or subtitle is followed on the same line by a period and the start of the body copy:

Formation du terrain. – Avant d’entreprendre l’étude de…


Omit the period:

Field Training — Before undertaking the study of…


A period follows each point in a displayed list:

Voici nos priorités pour cette année :
• Accroître les ventes.
• Contribuer davantage à la formation professionnelle du personnel.
• Augmenter nos parts de marché.


Omit the periods:

These are our priorities for the year:
• Increase sales
• Contribute more to employee professional development
• Expand our market share


The period falls outside a quotation mark:

On lui a décerné le prix de « Meilleur jeune espoir ».


If you wish to follow North American style, put the period inside the quotation mark even if it is not part of the actual quote:

He received the title of “Best Young Talent.”


A period and dash follow each name in the minutes of a meeting:

Odile Bérubé. — Nous n’aurons pas les ressources nécessaires pour mener ce projet à bien.
Simon Ladéroute. — Je ne vois qu’une solution : l’abandonner.


Switch to a colon:

Odile Bérubé: We don’t have the resources to carry out this project.
Simon Ladéroute: I see only one solution—abandon it.


No period follows an abbreviation:

J’ai dit bonjour au Dr Thompson.


Add a period:

I said hello to Dr. Thompson.
Note: U.K. style is to drop the period if the last letter of the abbreviation is also the last letter of the abbreviated word.


The Colon

A space precedes the colon:

Voici ce que vous devez faire :


Omit the space:

This is what you have to do:


A list of items at the start of the sentence is separated from the main clause by a colon:

Du fromage, du vin, un peu de pâté : voilà un pique-nique réussi.


Switch to an em dash:

Cheese, wine, a little pâté—such are the ingredients of a successful picnic.


A colon separates two nouns in apposition that are dramatically related to each other:

Holmes connaissait enfin l’auteur du meurtre : le majordome.


Use an em dash to add drama:

At last, Holmes knew who had committed the murder—the butler.


The colon introduces a quotation:

Le majordome a répondu posément : « Je ne suis pas coupable. »
Tout d’un coup il s’est demandé : pourquoi ne le ferais-je pas?


Replace with a comma unless the quotation is long and formal:

The butler calmly replied, “I am not guilty.”
Suddenly he asked himself, why shouldn’t I?
But: After an agonizing wait, official word finally arrived: “The trapped miners have been located in a pocket of air.”


The Semicolon

A semicolon follows each point in a displayed list but the last:

Voici nos priorités pour cette année :
• accroître les ventes;
• contribuer davantage à la formation professionnelle du personnel;
• augmenter nos parts de marché.


Omit the semicolons and the final period:

These are our priorities for the year:
• Increase sales
• Contribute more to employee professional development
• Expand our market share


The Exclamation Mark

An exclamation mark follows an interjection at the start of a sentence:

Oh! quel spectacle de désolation!


Replace the exclamation mark with a comma and leave only the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence:

Oh, what a dreadful sight!


There is a space before the exclamation mark:

Que je suis content de te voir !


Omit the space:

I’m so happy to see you!


The Ellipsis

The ellipsis is used to mark an interruption in dialog:

« Je crois savoir qui a tué…
— Non, ne le dites pas! Je ne veux pas le savoir! »


Use an em dash instead:

“I think I know who killed—”
“No, don’t say it! I don’t want to know!”


An ellipsis is used to convey the notion of “et cetera”:

J’y ai vu toutes sortes de bateaux (yachts, chaloupes, voiliers, kayaks…).


Replace with “etc.” or an equivalent expression:

I saw all sorts of boats there (yachts, rowboats, sailboats, kayaks, and so forth).


An ellipsis draws attention to an amusing or unexpected conclusion:

Devant toutes ces possibilités, il décida… de ne rien faire.


Use an em dash instead:

With all these possibilities, he decided—to do nothing.


The Dash

A dash is used to mark a change in speaker:

— Le crois-tu vraiment?
— Non, il ment sûrement.


Open and close quotation marks instead:

“Do you really believe him?”
“No, I’m sure he’s lying.”


Spaces and/or other punctuation are included with a dash:

Après avoir remis de l’ordre dans la cuisine — tout est sens dessus dessous —, faites disparaître, de grâce, le résultat de vos expériences culinaires.


Remove the double punctuation and consider removing spaces:

After you clean up the kitchen—everything is a mess—please have the good grace to conceal the results of your culinary experimentations.


Dashes are used to set off the items in a displayed list:

A. — La pauvreté en Amérique du Nord
1. — Dans les milieux urbains
2. — Dans les milieux ruraux


Remove the dashes:

A. Poverty in North America
1. In urban areas
2. In rural areas


An em dash can be used as a translation for a French word:

Nous avons tous un magasin préféré et c’est celui-là qu’il faut visiter pour acheter son maillot.


Use an em dash:

We all have a favorite store—that’s where you should buy your swimsuit.


The Hyphen

A hyphen is used to connect continuing or inclusive numbers (dates, times, reference numbers):

mai-juin 1967
p. 38-45


Use an en dash instead:

May–June 1967
pp. 38–45


A hyphen connects a word to another that is itself hyphenated:



Use a solidus (slash) to allay confusion:




A hyphen indicates a dual occupation:
Il est propriétaire-exploitant.



Use a solidus:
He is an owner/operator.


A hyphen conveys the notion of “from…to” or “versus”:

La liaison Québec-Montréal
Le match Canadiens-Bruins
La guerre franco-prusse
Le lien médecin-patient


Use an en dash:

Montreal–Quebec City service
The Canadiens–Bruins game
The Franco–Prussian War
The doctor–patient relationship


The Quotation Mark

Chevrons are used to mark a quotation:

« Ça va? » s’est-il enquis


Switch to double inverted commas for North American style, single inverted commas for U.K. style:

“Are you OK?” he inquired.
‘Are you OK?’ he enquired.


Double inverted commas are used for quotes within quotes:

« Le concours s’appelle “Gagnez un voyage de rêve” » m’a-t-il expliqué.


For North American style, switch to single inverted commas:

“The contest is called ‘Win a Dream Trip’,” he explained.


The Question Mark

There is a space before the question mark:

Avez-vous su la réponse ?


Omit the space:

Did you find out the answer?


The Parentheses

Parentheses are used to set off the province or state:

Elle demeure à Toronto (Ontario) et son frère à Denver (Colorado).


Switch to commas:

She lives in Toronto, Ontario, and her brother in Denver, Colorado.


The Space

A space separates the thousands in a figure:

La population de la ville est de 550 000 habitants.


Switch to a comma:

The city’s population is 550,000.