When speaking to people in France or writing an email to a colleague, politeness is paramount.
Knowing that formal conversations are very different from informal conversations can help you use the right register when speaking in all situations.
Likewise, understanding that formal writing is different from informal writing can help you use the correct French pronouns and vocabulary in each circumstance.
Do you know how to use formal French?
If not, get all the information on formal French in this guide.
How is formal French different from informal French?
In some languages, such as French or Spanish, the formal grammatical structure speakers use is more explicit than in the English language.
The French language has an option for people to address people they don’t know and an option for those they do know.
This distinction between addressing familiar people and unfamiliar people is known as the T-V distinction.
So, when French speakers address a person they know, they will use the tu pronoun (which means “you” in English).
When French speakers address a person they don’t know, they will use the vous pronoun (“you” in English).
We can contrast this with the English language.
These days, English doesn’t have an explicit grammatical distinction between addressing someone formally and addressing someone informally.
English did have a pronoun for formal and informal situations in the 13th century. Ye was the formal way to address someone you don’t know, and the word thou was the relaxed way to address someone you do know.
This distinction has disappeared, and now, we only use you as the second person pronoun.
There’s no vous equivalent in English.
But, to return to French, there are many other rules to consider to master its formal register. Keep reading for the main ones.
Will the French language ever lose its formal vous pronoun?
It’s unlikely that the French language will entirely lose its formal vous pronoun.
This pronoun is commonly used in writing and dialogue, and it exists in historical and modern contexts.
Tu might become more commonplace in the future; just as cultural changes, idiomatic expressions and slang phrases emerge over the centuries.
Language can evolve, but vous will probably stick around in the future.
Rules to consider for speaking formal French
Here are some important rules you must consider with formal French.
1. Tu vs vous - when should you use these pronouns?
I’ve mentioned that native French speakers use tu with people they know and vous with people they don’t know.
There are some other reasons that you should use vous and not tu.
- Use vous if you’re in a professional environment with colleagues or writing an email to your boss
- Use vous if you’re speaking to a stranger on the street
- Use vous when you’re speaking or writing to a person who is older than you
- Use vous to show respect to someone
And here are the situations where you can use tu:
- Use tu when writing or speaking to close friends, siblings, and family members
- Use tu when speaking or writing to a partner, husband, or wife
- Use tu when writing or speaking to someone younger than you
- Use tu in informal chats (such as when texting a friend)
If you’ve already learned these rules in your French course, don’t forget to revise them.
2. Using ne for formal, negative sentences
There’s a difference between negating sentences in formal French situations and negation in sentences in informal cases.
When negating a sentence in formal contexts, use ne before the verb, but when you negate a sentence in informal contexts, you can omit the word ne as a more casual way of speaking.
Consider the difference between saying
Vous n’êtes pas heureux aujourd’hui
Tu es pas heureux aujourd’hui
These examples mean “you are not happy today,” but in the first formal sentence, you can see the word ne - in the second informal sentence, the speaker doesn’t need to use ne.
Keep in mind my first rule as well.
The other difference between these two sentences is that vous is used in the formal and tu in the informal sentences.
The bottom line is that in formal situations, such as business conferences, always use ne when negating a sentence.
3. Using the conditional when making requests
When you’re in formal French situations, such as a business conference or a lunch with your colleagues, you may need to remember this rule for making requests.
Use the conditional tense when you need to ask for something.
This rule is similar to the English rule, where you sometimes say, “may I have…” or “could I have…”
Pourrais-je avoir la facture, s’il vous plaît ?
Pourrais-je avoir de l’eau, s’il vous plaît ?
Remember that using the conditional tense is better than using the present simple in formal French situations.
Avoid saying puis-je avoir la facture, s’il vous plaît ? or puis-je avoir de l’eau, s’il vous plaît ?
4. Using polite sign-off phrases in written communication, such as emails
When communicating with colleagues in writing, you should consider a few select phrases that you can use to close an email.
Some examples of these phrases include:
- Sincèrement - “sincerely”
- _Meilleures salutations _- “best regards”
- _Salutations distinguées _- “sincerely”
- Merci par avance - “thanks in advance”
5. Using formal phrases in written communication
There are also a few phrases you can use in the body of your email to explain why you are writing or ask questions.
Some examples of such sentences include:
Je m’adresse à vous pour…
Je vous remercie pour votre e-mail…
6. Learning how cela is different from ça in formal French
You may have encountered the pronouns cela and ça when studying French.
To give you a small recap, both of these pronouns can replace the word “it,” but one is ideal for formal or professional situations, and you should use the other one for informal situations.
When you’re in formal situations, use cela. When you’re in informal situations, use ça.
Keep in mind that you can use them interchangeably, and your sentence will still make sense.
However, to master formal French, remember to use cela in formal circumstances.
7. Note the inversion for interrogatives or questions for formal french
Despite the lack of grammatical inversion in informal French situations, formal French requires the speaker to invert the verb and the subject.
For instance, consider the difference between asking if someone goes to Spain in winter, informally and formally.
The first example is an informal French interrogative; the second is informal:
Tu pars en Espagne en hiver ?
Partez-vous en Espagne en hiver ?
Here are a few other examples to show the difference between formal French verb-subject inversion and informal French:
Tu as assez d’argent ?
Avez-vous assez d’argent?
Tu manges du steak pour le dîner ?
Mangez-vous du steak pour le dîner ?
As you can see, in all of the formal examples, the vous pronoun follows the verb.
In the informal examples, the tu pronoun goes before the verb.
Try to remember this rule when speaking in formal French situations and keep in mind that you can invert the verb and subject in formal cases.
8. Consider the difference between simple and compound tenses
When using formal French, you usually use simple tenses to express ideas in statements, particularly those that use the future tense.
In informal French, you instead use compound tenses. This rule may seem counterintuitive but it’s something to learn.
Here are a few usage examples to show the difference:
Il va boire un café.
Il boira un café (formal)
Elle va rendre visite à ses parents
Elle visitera à ses parents (formal)
Elle va aller au restaurant.
Elle ira au restaurant.
9. Learn formal vocabulary for business situations
There is a lot of vocabulary reserved for professional situations and workplace environments. Learning formal language will help you become a master of formal French.
Here are seven words you should add to your language to help you:
- Le rendez-vous - meeting
- Un entretien - interview
- Le personnel - employees
- Le client - client
- Le voyage d’affaires - business trip
- Le concurrent - competitor
- La gérance - management
10. Recognize the different formal synonyms for informal words
You’ll find that there are plenty of formal synonyms for colloquial words when studying formal French.
For example, the well-known affirmative French word oui can be used in formal and informal situations. Still, you should always avoid using synonyms such as ouaip or mouais in formal circumstances.
Practice these rules when speaking and writing formal French sentences
The rules in this article are some helpful tips to ensure that you understand the principles of formal French.
Try to remember them and use them when communicating with French natives.
Although there’s no formal pronoun for “you” in English, remember that this difference exists in French. The difference between formal and informal French is important, so remember it when speaking and writing in French to make the right impression.
Are there any formal French tips that I’ve missed?
Add them to the comments section!