How to write an email in French: nuances & register—what you must know!

Do you know the ins and outs of emailing in French? Teaching English in France at the university level, I led countless lessons on the conventions of emailing in English. This required me to highlight for students the differences between email communication in English and in French.

Read on to understand some of the biggest differences. - How to write an email in French: nuances & register—what you must know!

How to write an email in French: how English & French differs…

First, let’s get one important point established: writing in French, in general, has more levels of register and formality than in English. 

Formality equals indirectness, that is, when we want to be more formal in writing we put more distance (i.e., words) between our statement or request and the beginning of a sentence.

Compare this to English:
Could you please (less formal) vs. I was wondering if you would be able to (very formal)

Now let’s look at the French:
French does this also but with extra layers of complexity.  I had one boss whose emails were so formal in French that sometimes I misunderstood her point because the information was so indirect!

Speaking generally about the differences:

  • the wording of French emails can come off as distant/cold to an English speaker who isn’t used to it.
  • First names are used much less in French and the language provides that formal distance we were talking about earlier.
  • On the flip side, an English email translated directly into French could come off as overfriendly or forward.

Starting & closing an email in French: important choices

The most important elements to establish the tone of your email are the greeting and closing and this is what we’ll focus on.  If you want to go further, you have some great typical email expressions here.

Here are some common email greetings: listed from least formal to most formal

Salut/Coucou + first name = Hey/Hi + name

  • Informal and to use with friends or acquaintances, or someone who addresses you in this way.

Cher/Chère + first name = Dear + name

  • Translates to Dear, but in my experience is much less used than in English. This is less common in emails and even less common in formal correspondence.

Bonjour = Hello

  • What I tend to see and use most often. Note that this is used often without a name following it, but can be used with a first name for a more friendly tone.

Bonjour Madame/Bonjour Monsieur (+ or – last name)= Hello Madam/ Sir

  • A little less formal than just Madame, Monsieur (see below). Can be used with or without a last name.

Madame, Monsieur, (+ or -last name)= equivalent of Dear Sir or Madam

  • Can be used on its own, or with a last name (ex. Madame Smith), if you know the person’s name. The order is to be respected: always Madame, followed by Monsieur if including both titles (the French consider this chivalrous).

Now let’s take a look at some common closings:

Bises/Bisous/Je t’embrasse = xoxo, Love

  • Ah, the French and their kissing! Bises/bisous/je t’embrasse all translate literally to kisses/I kiss you.  It’s completely normal for friends, acquaintances and family members to use this, meaning it’s not reserved for romantic relationships. French people who aren’t familiar with conventions in writing in English will sometimes sign off with ‘big kisses’. 

Bonne journée/Bonne soirée/Bon weekend = Have a nice day/have a good evening/have a nice weekend, etc.

  • Establish more distance than the previous closings, but still informal.

Bien à vous/Bien à toi = Yours truly

  • A friendlier tone than Cordialement (see below) but can be used with vous to keep distance.

(Bien) Cordialement = Sincerely/Best regards

  • The most common closing you will encounter in everyday email correspondence.

Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur[1], mes salutations distinguées[2] = Sincerely/Yours faithfully

Where French ups the complexity is with this last expression Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées.
-This was traditionally used in letters and is not as common in emails, but can be necessary if you need to be very formal.
-Technically there are variations and tricky subtleties, but even most French people aren’t necessarily well-versed in these.
-It can be interesting simply for linguistic curiosity to be aware of these different variations, but you would probably never need to use or be expected to use, anything different than the example above. 

Writing emails in French: let’s try to make this more simple—French emails in a nutshell

To recap, a really informal email to a friend/family member/acquaintance would start and finish this way: 
Salut x…. Bisous

An everyday email for general queries, administrative tasks, even work situations would start and finish this way:

And when you need to be really formal use:
Madame, Monsieur…Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées.

And now you’re ready to go – Ready to write an email in French! Do you often write emails in French? What vocabulary do you typically use? Let us know in the comments.

Image credits:

  1. Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
  2. Greetings in French @Jessica Sarlandie
  3. Closings in French@Jessica Sarlandie

[1]If you’re writing only to a woman, only use Madame and not Monsieur, vice versa if you’re only writing to a man. If you don’t know who you are addressing, use both.

[2]Translates roughly to “Please accept, Madam, Sir, my distinguished salutations.”

About the Contributor

Jessica Sarlandie

An American expat living in Lyon, France, I studied and taught French in the US before teaching English at the university here for nine years. I love the richness that being an expat brings to my life. I’m currently studying Art Therapy and also practice foreign languages, art, and writing.

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  1. Göran K Oct 12, 2021 at 7:18 AM - Reply

    Mais on dit “courriel” non pas “email” en tout cas, non?

    • Jessica Sarlandie Oct 21, 2021 at 5:16 AM - Reply

      Le mot plus soutenu est ‘courriel’ mais beaucoup de personnes utilisent ‘mail’ aussi, c’est plus courant.

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