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How To Write A Polite Formula in French Posted by on Jul 29, 2015 in Culture

In France the art of the handwritten letter has not been lost. I was surprised when I read the requirements for a school application or contacting a bank and saw une lettre manuscrite (a handwritten letter).

I hadn’t written une lettre manuscrite since third grade! I couldn’t believe that I would have to handwrite a letter to anyone!

I wrote my letter in ma mauvaise écriture (my bad handwriting) and was met with another surprise when I asked un ami (a friend) to check my grammar. In France, handwritten is synonymous with cursive. My print was acceptable, but not quite normal.

The last big surprise came from how to end a letter. You need to add une formule de politesse (formal salutation) in a French letter. It’s une phrase (a sentence) that has no meaning but is customary in order to correctly write une lettre formelle (a formal letter).

Even in emails, if it’s formal enough, you need to add une formule de politesse! Most people memorize une formule de politesse and use it in their lettres formelles. Cependant (however), you can fine tune your formule de politesse to fit what you’re asking or the content of la lettre. The problem for an English speaker is that they sound incredibly bombastic and unnecessary. Les formules de politesse often don’t translate well, and knowing what they mean doesn’t help understand their importance.

In English, the end of a letter would not have an equivalent formule de politesse, and any translation just doesn’t really work. they are all the equivalent of Sincerely yours in an English letter. Ceci dit (that said), I’ve added translations to help understand the language used in the French formules de politesse.

There are a few parts to making une formulle de politesse, normally you start with une phrase that doesn’t translate into English very well:

En vous remerciant de votre obligeance,
Dans l’attente de vous rencontrer,
Dans l’attente de vous recevoir,

I would like to thank you for your courtesy,
I look forward to meeting you,
I look forward to your reply,

Then you work your way into the more polite part of la formule de politesse:

Veuillez agréer l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.
Je vous prie d’agréer mes meilleures salutations.
Veuillez recevoir mes salutations distinguées.
Veuillez agréer l’expression de ma sincère reconnaissance.
Je vous prie d’agréer l’expression de mes sentiments très respectueux.
Je vous prie d’agréer l’expression de ma haute considération.

Please accept the expression of my distinguished sentiments.
Please accept my best salutations.
Please accept my distinguished salutations.
Please accept the expression of my sincerest appreciation.
Please accept the expression of my very respectful sentiments.
Please accept the expression of my highest consideration.

Finalement (finally), after you’ve written all that, you add a final farewell:

Cordialement,
Bien cordialement,
Sincèrement,

Cordially,
Very cordially,
Sincerely,

The end of la lettre ends up looking like this:

Dans l’attente de vous recevoir, veuillez agréer l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.

Cordialement,
John BAUER

Of course in less formal situations you can drop la formule de politesse and just add a cordialement to the end of your letter, and between friends a simple bises (take care, literally: kisses) will do.

A translation of les formules de politesse does not help much in understanding the language. La formule de politesse, being related to courtesy and politeness, has more to do with culture than language. Similarly, writing a handwritten letter seemed unnecessarily archaic to me, but understanding how to write a formal French letter requires accepting these things, even if they seem unnecessary.

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.