Proofing French

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Some tips about common problems when proofing French.


Recall that the Guideline is "match the scan" for LOTE.


In French, the apostrophe stands for an elided letter at the end of a word (most frequently a pronoun) when the next word begins with a vowel or an h; the elided word is then glued to the following word with the apostrophe, without space. So, instead of le état, French has "l'état" (with no space).

The second word, after the apostrophe, may be capitalised. Generally the spell-check pretends to not know the combination when the second word is capitalised, as in l'Opéra, l'État, etc. even though l'opéra and l'état are valid.

Formatting remark: the second word, after the apostrophe, may be italicised independently of the elided first word. This happens often with ship names or book titles. e.g. l'Intrépide is formatted l'<i>Intrépide</i>.

In the past the notion of what word cause elision was a bit different from now, e.g. l'Yémen (whereas one would rather write le Yémen now).

Quote marks

The usual quote marks are guillemets «like this». But the way of typesetting dialogues is different from in English. The details can vary depending on the book and the time period, but in general:

  • Quote marks are not interrupted for short sentences like "he said".
  • Dialogues are often introduced with an em-dash, with a new em-dash every time the speaker changes. Usually each change in speaker will also be a new paragraph, but not always.
  • If a quote using guillemets continues for more than one paragraph, the closing guillemet (») will often appear at the start of each paragraph as the "continuation" marker. (In contrast, in English the opening quote mark is usually used at the start of each paragraph in a continued quotation.)

Here is an example from 221.png of

. The words spoken by different people are shown in different colors.

[...] Mlle Vanesse l'avait entendue et ne s'en était point formalisée.

«Là-dessus, revenons à notre fait divers, dit-elle en rouvrant le

--Mais l'histoire est finie, dit Mlle Racot. Il a tué sa maîtresse et il
s'est tué.

--Il a voulu se tuer; mais, comme il arrive quelquefois, le pistolet
rata», repartit Jacquine d'un ton si impassible qu'on eût pu douter
qu'il se fût passé rien de semblable dans sa vie.

In this example the guillemets surround the dialog as a whole and then em-dashes separate the speech of the different characters within it. In some books guillemets may not be used at all for standard dialog like this, relying only on the em-dashes to mark speech.


Here are the special characters in French: àâ, ç, éèêë, îï, ô, ùû, ÿ, and the oe ligature œ.

How to detect a true circumflex accent

There are very few cases in French when two different words are valid, one with a circumflex accent, and the other one exactly the same but with a grave or acute accent instead of circumflex. So, generally if there's a choice between e.g. évèque and évêque there is only one valid word (évêque).

The only notable exception is the couple pécheur (sinner) and pêcheur (fisherman); same for péché (sin) and pêché (fished).

That being said, some words used to be spelled differently in the past, a grave accent being used instead of circumflex or vice versa (e.g. trève/trêve; systême/système; etc.)

Often a part of the circumflex accent is faintly visible. To be sure you can generally distinguish between ^ and either the grave or acute accent by looking in the vertical direction at the alignment between the top of the accent and the letter. The top of the ^ is generally centered over the top of the letter, whereas with a grave or acute accent the bottom of the accent will be over the center of the letter.

(See also the discussion on that point in this forum topic)

Accent over a

à is only used in the four words à, çà, là, voilà (at, here, there, here is), to distinguish the adverbs from the homographs a, ça, la, voila (he has, this, the, he veiled). The confusion between the preposition à (at) and the verb a (he has) is a very frequent source of stealth scanno in French.

Two words now spelled with â used to be written without accent before around 1850: ame (âme) and grace (grâce).

Accent over e

The spelling changed many times with respect to accents over e.

Especially the use of è was stabilised the most recently, and many words in è used another accent before around 1900:

Words ending in -ège used to be spelled as -ége until around 1900: siége, collége, cortége, sacrilége, etc.

Old spelling of a few common words in the 19th century: complétement, poëte, systême.

(Still earlier, before 1800 it may happen that è was not used at all when not in final position: pere, mere, ...)

Accent over i

It is often hard to distinguish î from i. Sometimes the î looks like a i with the dot a little below a normal i. Pay attention to these stealth couples meaning different things:

boite/boîte, faite/faîte, parait/paraît, and all verbs ending in -it/-ît (prît, fît, etc.)

Especially fît is a frequent scanno for "fit", the f being mistaken by the OCR for an accent.

Accents over o

You will never see ò or ó, so if there's an accent it's an ô. Pay attention to: côte / côté / cote / coté which are 4 different words (slope / side / rating / measured).

Accent over u

Similarly to à, ù is only used in the word où (where) to distinguish it from ou (or).

A few verbs ending in -ut/-ût both exist and have different meaning (like verbs in -it/-ît). Pay especially attention to fût which is sometimes a scanno for "fut", the f being mistaken by the OCR for an accent. Another frequent couple is sur/sûr (over/sure).

Accents over capital letters

Accents were often not printed over capital letters. For instance words "état, église" becomes often "Etat, Eglise" when capitalised. It is generally not useful to mention that as a [**note].

Spelling norms (modern times)

The dates given below are gross estimates; spelling reforms were published officially, but it was not uncommon for the actual practice to vary from the newly published norm during a long time. Also I didn't check any official texts, this is just a feeling based on typical books proofed here, so feel free to contradict or amend!

Endings in -ége

As said above, until around 1900 words used to be spelled in -ége (instead of modern -ège).

Words ending in -ans/-ens

Until around 1830, words used to be spelled ending in -ans/-ens instead of the modern -ants/-ents: parens, enfans, savans, etc.

Hyphen after "très"

Très-gros, très-grand, très-illustre, etc., all adjectives with "très" used to have a hyphen.

No middle è before 1800

Before around 1800 the e with grave accent è was rarely used. Generally it would appear only at the end of words in words like "près", "très", but not when there was another syllable following, as in "pere", "mere", etc.

oi instead of ai

Before around 1750 (??) a number of words spelling in -ai were spelled in -oi instead. The most obvious case is all verbs in the imperfect (past) tense: avois, étoit, tenoient, feroit, etc. Also a few other words: anglois, françois, roide, foible (and derivative foiblesse), connoître, paroître (and derived forms: connoissoit, paroissoient, etc.).

Spelling norms (before 1700)

Extra consonants

French spelling around 1650 involved using many extra consonants. Part of our modern circumflex accents were written as an s letter: pastre (pâtre), estre (être), maistre (maître), nostre (nôtre), etc. A number of letters were kept in the spelling as a remembrance of the original latin word. For instance: sçavoir (scire), prebstre (presbiter), etc. Double or single consonants were used differently: e.g. apeller, jetter, etc.

eu instead of u/û

Words would often be spelled with -eu instead of the modern u: seur (sur), asseurement (assurément), veu (vu), sceu (su), etc.

extra diaeresis ë, ü

These were originally used to distinguish the vowel u from the consonant (v), and remained in use for some time even after the shape 'v' got reserved for the consonant and the shape "u" for the vowel. E.g. "broüillard" spelled with a ü to make sure it's not read as a non-existing "brovillard".

u/v and i/j

(see Proofing old texts)

Near 1500

Accents and apostrophes started to be introduced around 1530 only. So, previously texts would be printed with no accents and no apostrophe: vng iour deste = un jour d'été.

Formatting specifics


Gesperrt is not used in French texts, whether they are ancient or modern works. Italics, boldface and small caps are available for emphasis; small caps sometimes appear spaced-out, but this is only an uneven printing.

Roman numerals

Roman numerals are not followed by a period (.), as this may happen in ancient English texts.

  • Example: Le règne de <sc>Louis XIV</sc>.