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French Class: Pointers For Formal Letter Writing

written by: Audrey Alleyne • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 12/31/2013

There are certain basic guidelines in composing a formal letter in French. The style, layout, and closing all are different.

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    French Style Is Different

    In your teaching methods for writing a formal letter in French, impress upon your students that there are several types of formal letters, French Beret and that they differ in style from their American counterparts. Provide them with examples of different types of formal letters for different situations. You will want to include letters of application for jobs, letters to banks and hotels, letters of congratulations, condolences and many others.

    Divide your students into teams and have each team work on a different type of formal letter. Emphasize that first they must concentrate on the purpose of the letter. Next, they must consider the style, word selection and tone; and third, that there is a vocabulary of certain set expressions in standard correspondence.

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    Laying Out the Letter

    The student writes his name without title above his address on the left hand side of the page. He must be made aware that punctuation at the end of lines in the heading is not the norm in France. The addressee’s title should never be abbreviated. For formal letters in French, the full forms of Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle should be used. Abbreviations can be made on the envelope if necessary. These are M. for Monsieur, Mme for Madame and Mlle for Mademoiselle The abbreviation M. for Monsieur is the only one which has a period or full stop after the M.

    The students should place the place and date below the addressee’s name on the right hand side of the sheet. They should take care to place le before the date and write the name of the month in lower case, for example: Paris, le 12 février 2014

    If the student is writing to a woman and does not know if she is married, it is safer to use Madame instead of Mademoiselle. The greeting should be followed by a comma. When it is not known to whom the letter will be addressed; for example, an official certificate, or an attestation of employment, the equivalent to the English ‘To Whom It may Concern’ is 'À qui de droit.’

    In slightly less formal letters, the student can invent a name and write for example: ‘Cher monsieur Laval’ or ‘Cher madame Pierre’ It is appropriate in French, to follow the style of the informal letter and address the person by first name after a good relationship with the addressee has been established. For example ‘Cher Georges’ or Chère Marie’.

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    Closing the Letter

    The endings of French letters tend to be elaborate and flowery to simply express ‘Yours Sincerely’ or ‘Yours Truly" or ‘Yours faithfully’. In addition there are quite a number of endings or ‘formules de politesse’ in French, and they should coordinate with the form of address in the greeting. For example, if the student started the letter with ‘Madame,’ in teaching methods for writing a formal letter in French, have him end his letter with, ‘Veuillez agréer Madame, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées, or ‘Je vous prie de croire, Madame, en mes sentiments dévoués’.

    The ending for a greeting to a man could be “Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués’, or ‘Je vous adresse Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées’

    Less formal endings in teaching methods for writing a formal letter in French, can be simply ‘Salutations distinguées ‘or ‘Cordialement’.

    You can find models of formal French letters here.