Even if you speak and write French well it can still be difficult to know how best to construct more formal communications, whether by email or letter.
We look at the different formulas employed in France, and the context in which they are normally used.
My mother has been able to get her hands on Le Guide du protocole et des usages, a 1972 guide on French traditions and customs, which was owned by my grandmother and which contains a dedication to her by the author, Jacques Gandoin.
The book includes phrases to be used to open and close letters, adapted to different situations. Emails do not require quite such strict formalities, however, as they are generally more casual.
Reading the book in 2022 highlights the evolution of our increasingly technology-driven society, where emails have replaced letters and promoted forms that convey more straightforward and clear messages.
Unlike letters, emails combine both writing and speech constructions; for example, you might see someone write ‘Comment ça va ?’ which would never appear in a letter.
Email sign-offs use more relaxed phrases such as ‘Cordialement’ and the most familiar ‘Bien à vous’, in comparison to ‘Veuillez agréer…’, always used in letters to official bodies.
Emails also reflect constructions derived from English, a fact which summons up echoes of the Académie Française’s recurrent complaints about the intrusion of ‘global English’ or ‘Globish’ into French.
However, those wanting to write letters to official bodies or institutions can continue to use traditional closing phrases, which remain the norm in this context.
‘Cordialement’ is the French equivalent to ‘Regards’ with ‘Bien cordialement’ serving as ‘Best regards’.
‘Cordialement’ is the form most often used in emails. The word derives from ‘cordial’ (cordial). It is employed in a professional setting when you know the person, do not want to sound too familiar and remain…cordial.
I spoke with The Connexion’s office building concierge, who said he learned at school to only use ‘Cordialement’ when writing professional emails.
‘Cordialement’ was mentioned in Le Guide du protocole et des usages, but only as a ‘latino-anglo-saxonne’ (Latin and English-speaking) phrase, rather than a term in common use in France.
It therefore appears that it has become more popular since the emergence of email technology.
‘Amicalement’ derives from ‘ami’ (friend) and should be employed when referring to a friend or someone you know. ‘Affectueusement’ (with affection) can also be employed.
‘Bien affectueusement’ and ‘Bien amicalement’ work the same.
‘Bien à vous,’
‘Bien à vous’ is another phrase which has become popular in work settings. Several French experts on language agree it is normally a more familiar form of ‘Cordialement’.
‘Bien à vous’ ranks among the most used forms in professional emails along with ‘Cordialement.’
This form applies when writing to other professionals within your industry since it is a neologism derived from ‘confrère’ (colleague).
‘Confraternellement’ also suggests a sense of camaraderie and a show of support.
‘Musicalement’, ‘espadrillement’ and all sorts of others
Now onto the less common, bizarre and unconventional.
Some French people will employ any word and stick the suffix -ment on the end when closing an email. This is meant as a lighter and funnier way to end a message when not in a professional setting.
One Connexion journalist recently received an email signed off with ‘Espadrillement’ from the founder of an espadrille company.
I can only remember a ‘Musicalement’ – derived from ‘Musique’ (Music) – sent to me by the owner of a guitar that I intended to buy.
‘Veuillez agréer’ + insert formula
‘Veuillez agréer’ is the formula that ends most professional letters addressed to official institutions or people.
The phrase also used to be used for personal letters, but this has now fallen out of fashion.
Likewise, it would look strange in an email, both in personal and professional settings.
‘Veuillez agréer’ is always followed by something, as it only signals a polite order to accept what follows. It would technically transcribe in English as ‘Please accept.’
Formulas are often fussy and outdated. ‘Veuillez agreer’ is most often followed by ‘l’expression’ (the expression) or ‘l’assurance’ (assurance, guarantee) and then a phrase reflecting the writer’s most ‘sincere’ or ‘distinguished’ regard for the recipient.
Examples provided in Mr Gaudoin’s book - alternating between ‘assurance’ and ‘expression’ include:
- ‘Veuillez agréer l’assurancede ma parfaite considération’ (my perfect consideration)
‘de mes sentiments distingués’ (Yours sincerely or Yours faithfully)
‘de mes sentiments les plus cordiaux’ (my most cordial regards)
‘de mes sentiments les meilleurs’ (my best intentions)
- ‘Veuillez agréer l’expression:
‘de ma très respectueuse sympathie’ (my respectful sympathy)
‘de mes très sincères condoléances’ (my most sincere condolences)
‘de mes sentiments dévoués’ (my devoted regards)
My mother recently received letters from the interior ministry and they were signed by officials using ‘Je vous prie d'agréer, Madame, l’expression de ma sincère considération’ and ‘Je vous prie d'agréer, Madame, l’expression de ma considération distinguée’.
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