French Handwriting

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One of the things that really wows me about Paris isn’t the chocolate shops, the bakeries, the outdoor markets, or the way people let their dogs just go wherever they happen to want to go; it’s the handwriting.

The French have always been expressive, and expansive, letter writers. If you don’t believe me, you can find online and in books, elaborate forms, templates, and discourses on how to write a letter in French, including the proper opening and closing phrases to use, which, of course, vary tremendously depending on if it’s a formal or familiar contact you’re penning that letter to.

I tend to want to end all letters simply by saying “Cordialement, David”. Because it just seems so easy and to the point. I’m both cordial and polite at the same time, as well as terse and in my book, that’s the trifecta. Or maybe because I live in the age of Twitter and text messaging and tend to write in sound-bites. Or more likely, I’m just too lazy to do the hours of research to find the right way to open and close a letter in French.

“Look it up? Surely you jest!” you might respond. Well, yes, and no. The other day I got an urgent letter from the French office that handles my health insurance (or sécurité sociale, as they say, which is often shortened to la sécu because either the French are as lazy as I am, or they’ve just had it with trying to pronounce all the lengthy monikers for government agencies; mine is AGESSA, which means Association pour la Gestion de la Sécurité Sociale des Auteurs – whew!) which, of course, used all the right formalities. I had a major panic attack because I couldn’t find my French-Anglais dictionary that has a substantial portion in it devoted to depicting the myriad of ways to write letters, e-mails, faxes, and any other correspondence in France.

Because the letter required my urgent and distingué (distinguished) attention, I literally spent forty-five minutes trying to figure out which salutation I should use for opening and closing such a letter to respond with the enclosed check. If it’s to a woman, how do I know if she’s Mademoiselle (young and not married) or Madame (married)? As the author penning the letter, you never refer to yourself as Monsieur David Lebovitz; I’d always be just David Lebovitz. So you never know when a woman is writing you how to address her back. Which I why I keep wishing that only French men would write me…and no, not for reasons you might expect.

Once you get the opening salutation and first line out, then there’s the letter, which is the least of my problems. However to finish things up, there’s the all-important closing of the letter. I’ve seen complex, highly detailed charts explaining the various ways to close a letter in French.

To summarize, it’s at least two lines and can end anywhere from Cordialement (which you never really use, unless it’s a friend) to “Je vous prie d’accepter, Madame/Mademoiselle/Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.

Now if that doesn’t throw your spell-checker into a tizzy, I don’t know what does. It means “I pray that you accept, Mrs, Miss, or Mister, my distinguished sentiments.” But if you do use it,  you need to be careful because you would not use the word “sentiments” if you’re writing to a man because it was infer feelings of l’amour. If part of the French motto is égaltié, along with liberté and fraternité, shouldn’t all letter recipients be treated equally? And not to mention how it would make my letter-writing life easier…and how much extra free time I would have.

(When I first got messages from close French friends, men and women, that were signed “Je t’embrasse David”, which literally means, “I hug you, David” I got a little warm and fuzzy inside. But I also got a little concerned because the French don’t hug, and wasn’t sure how to respond. When I go back to the states and everyone wants to hug me for an extended period, I get a little unsettled by the full-on full body contact. The idea of a French person, even a friend, plastering themselves against me is a bit suspect.)

I’ve had to “pray that my distinguished sentiments” will be accepted by my bank, the national railroad company and the French government (but only by the women who work there – sorry guys), but also by my ex-internet and telephone company as well, when they disconnected my service, otherwise known as The Worst Three Months of My Life. And yes, even the letter I wrote to the president of Ladurée explaining how they kicked me out of their store, who is a man. Which probably explains why I haven’t heard back.

I do have to say, I have pretty good penmanship, but it’s nothing like the calligraphie of the French. Theirs can be absolutely unreadable, but is always done with so much flair and polish, that it’s hard to fault them. (Even though they spelled kumquat wrong, I would have a pretty hard time criticizing the person who wrote out the elaborate menu above. The cook who came up with “Chicken thigh with soy bean sprouts”, however, might have some answering to do…) The French education is notoriously rigid and I am certain that young folks have so much perfection drilled into them that if they write a millimeter outside the square grids of that graph paper they use to write on –  which I find hopelessly annoying; there’s so much going on on the page that I can barely read what I’ve written – that they get a good French-style scolding.

And in spite of their desire to think of themselves as courageous individuals willing to buck a system that is unfair to “the people”, hence the uptick in smoking since it was banned, and rampant line-cutting, folks tend to fall back into the comfort of la fraternité if the situation merits it. Such as when one group goes on strike, the rest tend to take a day off from work follow suit, in support.

Handwriting, however, is what really separates one French person from the next. And in this age of text messaging and e-mails, it’s comforting to see that each café menu is still treated like a work of Louvre-worthy art, scribbled and sketched to perfection; even if it’s cursively cruel to the eyes and impossible to decipher. It’s a skill that I admire. Thankfully, I don’t have to write any letters today, by hand or otherwise, and will use that extra time to have lunch with a friend. Where I can express my distinguished sentiments (to her, of course) in person.

81 comments

  • Ah! So many pertinent remarks. It’s the kind of thing I rarely consider on a daily basis because I get to work mostly in English but it is true that it’s an automatism to think about how to start and end my letters, when writing in French, based on the person who’ll read them. Actually even in my emails sometimes there is a lot of opening and closing work to be done. I still remember the day I went from “Cordialement” to “Amicalement” with my supervisor… in English I take the easy way out, it’s “Best regards” to everyone.

  • “Embrasser” hardly ever means “hug” anymore: it means kissing. So all these friends were kissing you on their letters (which is very French), not hugging you (yuck!)
    :-)

  • Arnaud: It’s interesting how French changes, depending on who is using it. Since you’re probably French or have French lineage (because I don’t know any anglophones with your name), I’m certainly not going to disagree with you about it meaning “kiss” or “hug” anymore, but when someone says “Je t’embrasse très fort”, I hope they don’t mean they want to kiss me strongly, too…Because that would hurt.

    Ouch! ; )

  • Salutations can get a little tricky, but once you have the rules down, it’s quite straightforward. If you will permit me to help clarify. In a nutshell…

    To a superior or equal:

    Veuillez agréer/ Daignez agréer/ Je vous prie d’agréer, etc…

    Madame/Monsieur

    l’expression de

    …mes sentiments dévoués
    …ma haute ou très haute considération
    …mes sentiments respectueusement/fidèlement dévoués
    …mes sentiments distingués

    Bien sûr you are allowed to send your best sentiments man to man. We’re not declaring a crush here. They have far better ways of doing that, as one might imagine. If anything it might be preferable if a man were to avoid using it when addressing a woman.

    When corresponding with someone who is an equal or lower on the pecking order:

    Veuillez agréer/ Agréez/ Je vous prie d’agréer, etc…

    Madame, Monsieur

    L’assurance

    …de ma parfaite considération
    …ma considération la plus distinguée
    …de mes sentiments les plus cordiaux
    …de mon très fidèle et cordial souvenir
    …de mes sentiments les meilleurs

    When a gentleman writes to a woman socially:

    Agréez, Veuillez agréer, Daignez agréer, etc

    (chère) Madame,

    L’assurance or l’expression de

    …mon très profond respect
    …mes très respectueux hommages
    …mes sentiments fidèlement dévoués *
    …ma très sincère amitié

    * when referring to sentiments, it’s always “l’expression de”

    Casually to both genders:

    Sentiments distingués (ou cordiaux)
    Amicalement
    Bien à vous
    Bien sincèrement vôtre

    Ladies seldom use the word cordially though as it’s not terribly ladylike to be cordial.

    See?? Easy peasy, n’est-ce pas?

    Bisous,

    Nathalie

  • Writing letters in French is something I avoid like the plague, yet a chore I have to attempt from time to time. And I’m sure I pretty much always screw it up.

    I love the eloquence of French handwriting, though recognizing the lowercase “p” and “x” can be a bit tricky sometimes!

  • It’s so interesting how other cultures greet each other and say goodbye. When I was in Austria I fell in love with the way they say goodbye — auf wiedersehen — until we meet again. So much more touching than the simple American goodbye.

  • Margaret: It’s funny because some of the young people in France watch MTV and similar programs, and pick up English expressions. So you’ll get ready to depart, and they’ll say – “Later!” – which sounds funny and a little out of context for some reason.

    (I recently read a brief, but interesting article why people who aren’t French should avoid using certain slang words, which often don’t sound the same coming from non-natives.)

  • I studied French at uni; we spent months learning how to construct letters and I still find them hard! I spend ages pouring over lists of opening and closing structures trying to find the perfect phrase. Mind you, I find letter-writing in Italian even worse. No wonder I’m what they call a ‘passive linguist’!

    Your post reminds me of that wonderful scene in ‘Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain’ where Audrey Tautou writes out the café menu backwards on a glass screen in flawless French script. Amazing!

  • Great topic for us anglophones! Always been a source of anxiety for me and now I see I’ve been inappropriately using “cordialement” all these years…
    Thanks Nathalie for the tips. I am copying and pasting your message for easy reference. Terms of address, determining vous vs. tu in unclear situations and the subjunctive case are three things I try to avoid all together!

  • My students do not understand me when I write something on the board. I usually write in all caps, so that they can make out the spelling! I consider myself to have neat handwriting, but the little francais immaculate penmanship!

  • I’ve always been impressed with handwriting all over Europe. Why is it that American’s all write differently and many of us, messily?! Are we just THAT free-spirited and creative?! Anyway, I do love European handwriting. But I also like being able to be sloppy when I feel like it.

  • For the twelve years I have lived in France, Je t’embrasse has been meant to ‘ I kiss you.’ Fort simply means with feeling, not strength. I just love it when that expression is used.

    I had no idea how much precision is needed for letter writing! I have noted the rather grandiose style in letters that I have received thinking it was a passing fad (only kidding). I will reform my crude ways.

  • After 22 years in Paris I will never get all the nuances of the language. French is a playful language, simultaneously precise but inexact. Why are toes ‘the fingers of the foot,’ for example, or why is ‘ninety-eight’ ‘four twenties-ten-nine?’
    All the ‘hugging’ confused me until someone explained that ‘je t’embrasse tres fort’ is like saying that you give or send a ‘big kiss.’
    ‘Poulet au soja’ often means with ‘soy sauce,’ not soy beans.
    Expressions are regional, also. In Burgundy people say ‘bonsoir’ in the morning when they part.
    Thank goodness I understand the food better than the language!
    And don’t even get started about how keen employers are on handwriting analysis. I was told that some of the ways Americans are taught penmanship are considered signs of psychosis here.

  • The two jobs that I applied (and got) in England required my handwriting the cover letter. When I asked why the interviewer requested a handwritten letter, they replied that so many do not know how to write anymore and that the ability to hand write meant that a person had patience and focus.

  • This post really hit home with me as we have just moved to Lausanne from the U.S. (only for 7 months, though). It took me a VERY long time to craft a letter that basically said, “we have health insurance and here is the proof.” And I ended up just guessing that it should be addressed to “Madame” because the person who sent us the inquiry signed the letter with only a first initial and the last name!

  • My pleasure, Dani!

    And because I am a hopeless pedant…
    “Embrasser” effectively means to embrace… but once you are caught up in one, it’s anyone’s guess as to what might transpire. In any event, the connotation now refers both to kissing and hugging.
    To say ‘hug’ and be clear about it would require one to use the term “enlacer”, but no one signs off on correspondence that way. (Nor should one sign off with ‘Hugs’ in English either, IMHO!!)

  • Writing to a Frenchwoman I don’t know (as, indeed, I was doing just a short while ago), I would automatically address her as “Madame”, since that is the default for a woman over about 20. At least, it was in my French-secretary days, which admittedly are a very long time ago now.

    And when we wrote letters, the person dictating them would very often finish by saying “Formule de politesse” (i.e. say something polite), rather than having to think it out for herself. Of course, these days it’s all e-mail and they seem to start: “Coucou!” and finish “Bisous”, whether they know you or not…..

  • PS, I’m not so certain the French can get their heads around why we often sign off our missives with “Love”. Is it any more sincere than sending a virtual embrace? I’m amused by the French Canadians rivaling the sentiment by signing ‘Avec amour’

    Also of interest… French recruiters often require handwritten cover letters (or did, until the last decade), not to admire the penmanship, but rather to analyse it. Graphology was quite prevalent during the hiring process.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/03/news/03iht-grapho.html

  • What a fantastic post, really interesting.

    I love your posts (and your recipes even more) but this one is delightful. I only studied French up to A-level and that was some time ago so I feel a little dim and unworthy whilst reading your post and the subsequent comments yet despite my ignorance am lifted by this beautiful post and indeed the beautiful language it celebrates.

    [updating my Cafe French podcast on iTunes as I type]

    LB

  • It’s interesting that you mention this because in Japan, menus are often handwritten too – it’s considered rustic and charming.

  • I remember when I had to write to a university in Tunisia to try to get into a study program there. I had a French professor help me. It was my first experience with French letter writing. There were 2 paragraphs at the beginning full of formality that basically said nothing and one at the end with the formality that would obligate them to write back to me. Really if you’re going to study French in the US they should start letter writing right away just in case you want to go abroad someday.

  • It took me two days to write a letter to l’Assurance Maladie after they’d made a mistake and refused me. I didn’t want to get it wrong and tick anybody off. It’s like slithering through a mine field. I finally took my correspondent’s lead “agréez, je vous prie, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées” and I added “les plus” before distinguées. I wanted her to REALLY know just how much I respected her…and her ability to fix the mess! I don’t know if that was right or wrong, but I got the mess figured out. And thank you Nathalie for the tutorial. I am also printing it out for future reference.

  • Hi David,
    I´m a huge fan and follow your blog daily. I think your chocolate chip cookie recipe is the best there is, and so does every single person I´ve made them for (quite a lot). I´ve been wanting to try your mint chocolate ice cream for a while now and today at the market I saw a HUGE bunch of “hierbabuena”, which is often translated as mint, but is actually a different herb. It´s what goes into mojitos. Do you think the recipe would work with hierbabuena? or will the taste be too different? Please tell me it will, because otherwise my impulse purchase of about half a kilo of hierbabuena for 0.69 euros will have to go into little packets in the freezer for future mojito-use.By the way, I love reading your posts about dealing with french people.

  • @Ana: Hierbabuena can refer to many plants depending on the local custom and whomever is picking it. Sometimes it’s mint, sometimes not*. However, it usually has similar taste properties to mint. So, I’d say go for it. *In San Francisco, you have about a 50-50 chance of someone giving you mint or giving you marijuana, just a heads up.

    About the handwriting and letter-writing: Yes! You can pick out someone who went to a French school so easily. I’ve noticed Russians have a similar uniformity, even when writing in Roman script. I went to a French bilingual school starting in 3e and was suddenly hounded by teachers of my on my:
    -non-conforming penmanship,
    -my non-conforming loose leaf paper
    -my use of ballpoint instead of fountain pens (they saved extra exasperation for students who dared write in pencil)

    I must admit that such hounding gave better results than years of filling out D’nelian worksheets on a regular basis at my prior school ever did.

  • It’s still a challeng dealing with the intricacies of German after 17 years here, and the ß, a double s (only lower case) and umlauts make it interesting, too. Hubby always proofs my letters before they go off. And like the French, the Germans seem to take pride in their handwriting, still. My American children AND grandchildren can’t write in script at all – it’s printing with a few lines connecting the letters. Thanks for the post – that was fun! – and I think I’ll save the comments for the next time I need to write in French!

  • As a result of this culture, I still over-engineer my letters. I’m still amazed that I can begin every letter with Dear, and close it with sincerely or cheers and be fine.

    But more importantly: caramel de betteraves. I need that, right now. With a bit of pork, of course.

  • Because I was in the French school system myself for years, and now have children enrolled in the village school, AND am fairly tight with the French mom mafia, I can say with utter certainty that French penmanship simply ain’t what it was. They have significantly reduced the emphasis and time spent in that area. Today’s best pupils would’ve been in some educational hot water over their p’s and q’s in the programs of 20-some years ago. And I suspect penmanship requirements were already more lax with my generation than the previous one…

    But I love hand-written things in any form, anyway, and perhaps never more so than when they are detailing something delicious that I am about to consume.

  • Great post David and very informative indeed. HOWEVER, please pay attention to your English grammar while writing about the subtleties of the French language. :)
    In the second paragraph “your penning” should of course be “you’re penning”…

    I usually never bother with sending “mes sentiments dévoués” when writing to my French banks, instead choosing to use “Cordialement” -even though I am a woman- and they usually comply with my requests but maybe it’s because I’m French?
    And I also confirm that French people send explicit kisses to friends and family in casual letters and messages, as in “Gros bisous” or “Grosses bises”…

    I saw a news report a few weeks ago on American TV about schools stopping teaching cursive handwriting altogether because it is too time consuming. Kids will just learn to print (and type, of course). So let’s enjoy our handwritten letters while we can, soon we will be dinosaurs of the handwriting age…

  • I’m with Arnaud on the “embrasser” issue – it mostly means kiss. Not in an intense way though, think of it as the French habit of kissing people on the cheek to say hello and goodbye. I write “je t’embrasse” to people I have never kissed and never will though, so don’t get too freaked out.

    When I moved here, my American friends and even my professors were slightly put off by how formal my letters were. I still cannot bring myself to write “Dear Pr X…” And they called my handwriting ridiculously old-fashioned. Not to mention the fact that I write with a fountain pen, because that’s what French kids use in school. Some habits are hard to change :)

  • I am American married to a Frenchie and raising my children in France. My kids go to the French public schools and hardly a day goes by that I do not have a giggle or a sigh because of something they are doing. At age 5 they start learning cursive and they never learn to print. My 7 year old has to write in a fountain pen…..even for his math tests !! His handwriting is beautiful and he rewrote his valentine’s letter four times because it was not perfect and he wanted to impress his girlfriend.

    I do love the handwritten menus in France and I often choose my dining spot because of the lovely penmanship. I love how they dot their capital ‘i’ when they print.

    My husband tells me that ‘embrasser’ is most certainly kissing and not hugging (French do not hug and he is always making fun of may family when they hug).

    I love this post :)

  • You know, in the movie “Amelie,” in a scene in the coffee shop, Audrey Tautou was writing the menu du jour on a glass board backward in perfect penmanship; and that has never ceased to amaze me.

  • I am sending this to my daughter immediately, the response with the forms of greeting and ending is priceless. SHe often spent hours on HOW to address different people. She’s in the US now, teaching art, but she has friends in France and hopes to return one day on a more permanent basis. Thank you…but I do mourn the loss of cursive in America. My son prints, at age 29, and my daughter writes in cursive at age 26. The problem is people cannot read cursivee if not taught to write it. I think it’s all a Stone Age mentality.

  • I love “Cordialement!” Not having written many letters in French (well none, actually), I hadn’t even known about that closing. It’s perfect, in French or English. I mean, what is up with “Yours Truly,” or “Sincerely,” anyway? “Cordially,” in a frilly script sounds like a perfect ending in English as well.

  • Wow, does this hit home (as do so many of your posts!). Many moons ago I went through the process of purchasing an apartment in France, and I had more anxiety about the letters I had to write in French than the actual purchase itself. In the end I don’t think my poorly written letters had any long-term impact on the transaction, other than giving the notary a chuckle.

    While I could appreciate the formality and old-worldliness of their approach to business letter writing, when forced to actually engage in it, I spent more time panicking than appreciating.

    So it’s nice to know that I’m not alone there!

  • I love the distinction of most European handwriting. Sometimes it’s quirky as well as always neat. My best friend moved to Germany when she was about 7 and came back to the US years later. At 45, he handwriting still reflects her schooling in Germany, I love it.

  • I just adore the individuality of French café board menus. I miss teaching little French kids with beautiful penmanship!

  • So…what does A.A.A.A.A. stand for on the menu picture?

  • I grew up in the French school system and went through the Bac handwriting with a fountain pen dozens and dozens of pages of “dissertation”.
    I remember teachers always emphasizing on personality and readability. As a result I would spend hours of taking notes perfecting just how I want my “f”s to look. How curly do I want my “2”s? Overall, how round or spicky do I want my hand writing to be? Which pen glides and complements best my handwriting?
    The same attention would go for signatures. You’d would never just write your name to sign a letter. Especially in my family, you would need a signature that graphically represents your personality and is hard for others to reproduce. Readability is not important for this one. Needless to say, many drafts over several years were made before settling for the final scribble. When I’m in the US and I get a “wow” from someone when they watch me sign a receipt or the like, it always makes me feel like all this finetuning was worth it. Thanks for the great post!

  • I love this article you wrote. Well, I love them all, but I these slices of life in addition to your slices of cake from time to time too. Cheers!

  • I too am obsessed with writing on the everyday ardoise. On occasion I’ve caught someone in the act of printing it out and fantasized that could be me. I have endless samples of French ecriture including MANY kid’s calligraphie books. And I’ve spent hours tracing the letters to not much success in the end. Frankly I’d have to start at grade school level to really ‘GET’ it clearly. As for letter writing skills, my attempts are less ardent, but then I never get mail from AGESSA.
    It’s my contention that pastry chefs are the ‘artists’ in the kitchen, so perhaps it’s the visual quality that attracts you to French writing..?
    Wonderful post David.
    Merci Carolg

  • A.A.A.A.A. means Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique! (Friendly Association of Authentic Andouillette Connoisseurs). Andouillette is a French tripe sausage.

  • Jessica: AAAAA = a vetted designation for andouilette sausage made by the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique

    Now for my problem: trying to read the handwritten letters we receive from France. There seems to be a non-classic, airy-fairy cursive prevalent among a certain social level of ladies that we find close to impossible to read. I have set up a “dictionary” folder in which I keep all of these letter in hopes that there is some carry-between or transliteration among them. Most of the time the sentiments are flowery niceties. But I live in terror of reacting improperly because of a misunderstanding…like arriving when we were told that our visit was not convenient or waiting at a restaurant after they have told us they cannot join us….:(

  • … just a word about handwriting and the news that schools would stop teaching cursive handwriting because it is too time consuming. Going to Catholic school in Philadelphia, we were taught the Palmer method of handwriting. I can remember the three lines on the practice paper and that the small “t” was above the second line but didn’t touch the top one. The hours spent making “small “e” and “i” over and over again. Even today when I write my name or a note, people comment on my handwriting or say my mother used to write like that. The nuns are rolling over in their graves with the announcement of no more cursive!

    … off a little on the French topic but it brought back memories.

  • My friends comment that my handwriting is so pretty, but I’ve been reading some letters from the 1860’s (diaries and letters from Civil War soldiers) and they all wrote much more beautifully than I can. My son writes poorly and the young people I know only print, and cannot write cursive. I’m happy to hear that the French are not giving in.
    This was a very interesting post. Thanks.

  • I was recently at a school administration meeting here in the Paris suburbs, and the topic moved to what to do about children with messy handwriting. All the teachers and administrators agreed that children who still had messy handwriting in the sixth grade should probably see a learning disability specialist. I had to work hard to keep a straight face on that one.
    But the math teacher solemnly chimed in to point out that perhaps in today’s technological era, the children should also be taught to type properly. Some confused nods ensued. Again, the struggle for a straight face.

  • Nancy and Jenn G: Thankfully, a lot of French people overlook our flaw when letter-writing (and speaking!) because even they know what a struggle it is; as I often say, even the French have trouble with French. It’s a highly nuanced language and it’s easy to make a faux pas.

    Maria: The system, from what I understand of it, doesn’t provide for many individual differences and quirks; it’s kind of ‘one size fits all.’ I have some French friends whose handwriting (and even text messages) are impossible to read.

    Margaret: When I can’t read letters like that, I simply admire the handwriting, and figure if it’s really important, I’ll get a typed, official letter.

    Stéphanie: You have my deepest admiration! I have a large signature and once I went to a talk about handwriting analysis, and when we were asked to submit a few lines of handwritten text and a signature, when the woman looked at mine, she gasped audibly.

    She then offered to do a analysis for me at a later time and it was really interested what she said about what my handwriting said about me, including that jumbo signature.

  • I’ve always loved how the French can make “art” out of mundane things. I wonder if the famous French bureaucracy is a result of their knack for transforming the everyday into something else, or a side-effect of the rigid rules for correspondence?

  • While this tutorial has been very educational, I have a different question: What are the raviolis at the end of the menu? Since they are “of Royan”, does this mean they’re bathed in suntan oil instead of butter? Joking aside, I’d really like to know.

  • Oh, I remember this so well from my French classes in High School. But I guess it kind off made me who I am, working as a Secretary. I regularly get complimented on being so correct and I allways make the effort when corresponding, by letter or e-mail, to find out the recipient’s gender and titles. I really love it how the French do it, it’s very hard to get it like that in Dutch.

  • This brings back memories of me age 6, in school, learning Italic fountain pen writing. I actually won a prize from one of the well known pen manufacturers. Then, the next year, in Junior School, I was not allowed to use joined up or Italic writing and was forced into single rounded letters. By Secondary school, my writing was terrible, made worse from years of trying to write fast notes while teachers were speaking. (Yes, we were told to do that!) I did notice in adulthood though, that my writing could easily be mistaken for that of my Mother – even though she had nothing to do with my schooling in that regard!

  • THANK YOU. I’m French but have been living abroad for the past 5 years and forgot all about writing letters in French – except people don’t believe me when I say that.

    And never having had an office job in France, having to send the occasional email to a French company makes me panic. Should I use “cordialement”, “bien a vous”, or “salutations” (or “slts” as I’ve been told)?

    I also look up the procedure every time. Even the place where you write your own address and the recipient’s address is different from the US/UK.

    @Cinzia: ravioles de Royan are a local specialty – smaller raviolis than usual and stuffed with cheese. Insanely good.

  • I love my husband’s handwriting. It is so elegant and that signature slanting upwards with swirls all over the place is so cool. My American handwriting isn’t anything to write home about-ha- but my husband can hardly read a word of it, even if I print. Thank God I don’t have to write letters in French. I couldn’t survive here if I did.

  • Monsieur Lebovitz,
    You don’t even know the half of it.
    I am a Canadian but went to High School in France for half a year when I was young.
    Oh Mon Dieu! I still find myself writing the title of my note pages in red, with a blue box surrounding the title because if I didn’t it was “inacceptable”. And to write a letter in French? Don’t even get me started.
    But it is part and parcel of the French people’s je ne sais quoi. And I very much hope you get used to it.
    Sincèrement,
    Jocelyn

  • Adeline and Cinzia: I think the ravioles are at the end because they are a vegetarian item, and perhaps menus are written that way to make it easier for diners to denote items that don’t have meat in them. For some reason, I’ve never tried them.

    But thinking about them right now makes me hungry for some …

  • I wonder if “poulet fermier au soja” doesn’t mean “soy-fed chicken” instead of “chicken with soybean sprouts”.

    If it does, Europe is the only place I’d order it because at least they had the guts to ban GMOs there.

  • I was wondering what happened to the letter you wrote to Laduree…
    They also wrote rumsteack wrong btw.
    A question: what do you write if a woman is not married but not young ;o)

  • pls correct my e mail address…Merci beacoup, Cecile

  • Beautifully written. And thoughtful. You touched a chord because I lived in France for many years and always took pictures of the hand written black boards in restaurants and cafes. I think it is art. Loved this article!

  • What a fun blog! Personally, I always got a kick out of finding the right expression and I guess I was too naive to be worried about using the wrong one. Sadly, the header picture is, to my mind, the attestation of a slip in form. It’s all in BLOCK Letters! not in the beautiful script that distinguishes French handwriting from that of the Palmer Method.

  • Loved this article (as usual – I look forward to seeing your name in my inbox :-) Love the picture of the menu too… just curious, what is a MORCEAU DU PETIT BAL?

  • Nuts about food: Unfortunately I never heard back, which was too bad because they said they wanted me to let them know what happened. I’m sure they have other things to think about but since I took the time to write the letter they requested, it would have been nice just to get an acknowledgment.

    (Actually I was hoping to get a visit behind-the-scenes to share with readers..)

  • thanks for this very informative post — I always wondered what was the story behind the beautiful handwritten menus and blackboards in France.

  • What a wonderful post – it reminded me of when I lived in France as a student I tried to imitate the belle écriture I was seeing every day – and started to cross my 7’s and make those funny 1’s with a tail – curving the ‘a’s and ‘o’s and whatnot. I loved to do handwriting exercises in my cahier – and a few years before then I was trying to learn graffiti handwriting and tagging in my high school in Los Angeles. Slightly different styles, but very interesting comparison! David, have you changed your handwriting to include more French style?

  • Great funny, interesting, informative post. Thank you.

  • Gina: Bowing the pressure, the Paris transit system just ordered the removal of ads protesting against pesticide use and GM foods being used to feed animals. It’s unfortunate because it is an important issue.

    Claire: Yes, I find myself naturally writing that way. In fact, I have a hard time writing an American check because now I write everything the wrong way..in the wrong places, too!

  • I went to school in South Africa in the 60’s (elementary & middle) and early 70’s (high) and remember spending hours of the school day in the early years practising writing, first printing and then cursive, learning where to start forming a letter and where to end it. Once cursive was introduced, we spent weeks at a time practising first single letters and then combinations of letters and exactly how to join one to the other, until everything met with the teacher’s approval. All the practice books had lighter lines above and below the line on which you were writing so that you knew how high or low to extend the letters.

    I don’t know the name of the type of cursive we were taught, but it very very different from the American Palmer system. I find the Palmer very difficult to read and to me all American handwriting looks the same, an untidy, immature-looking script, whereas even though we learnt one system, we were allowed to individualise our handwriting once it was firmly established that we could form the letters correctly.

    Don’t even get me started on American handwriting today. My nephews were never taught the correct way to form any letters, neither printing nor script, and had my sister not spent time with them practising, they too would not be able to write a script that even begins to approach being legible, though even today their handwriting remains terrible. On the other hand, they taught themselves to type really early in life and nowadays all school papers have to be typed and everyone emails and texts and seldom is a letter written and mailed so handwriting basically doesn’t matter.

  • I’m French, but my French has almost been forgotten, and I just wish my handwriting was more legible, but I like typography, I like see it, looking at it, but beyond that, I haven’t had much of a desire. I fear handwriting has been left by the wayside.

  • Just one question: did you get a fountain pen (stylo plume)? like most French people to handwrite your letters? I brought mine over to the US and people always look at me when I use it!

  • great post!

  • Having been schooled in a French lycée, this was one of the first things we were taught; the whole formula, front, back and sideways. Then I moved to the US and was at a loss: Where is the formula? what about my salutations distinguées in English?

    Then my kids experienced French school in Dallas, Texas and they were taught to write in cursive at age 4 and they could not wait to get into the American system. I personally miss all these formalities!

  • Enjoyed reading this and found it very informative. I am homeschooling our bilingual child and trying to incorporate as much French along side my American-English background. When a French friend suggested my 6 year old start practicing french cursive 30 minutes a day in that small (foreign-for-me) style, for the next two years, and to buy a bunch of those gridded notebooks, I thought she was a little over the top. But now I’m starting to see where she’s coming from… Handwriting analysis, future employment, I get it. Thanks.

  • Amanda, it may sound horrendous to an American, but at 6, your child is about a year behind kids in French schools, when it comes to learning cursive. French children and those in French schools in the US learn to print capital letters, then around 4 1/2 or 5 they start learning cursive. Printing lowercase letters essentially never happens.

    This is made possible by the large amounts of time spent doing “exercises de graphisme” starting around age 3. They basically train the hand muscles (and the children) to have much more control than we would ever expect of a young child. You start with straight lines, then learn to draw circles, then spirals, then waves of various styles, then loops, etc. At some point, the worksheets with rows of shapes turn into the components of letters, then letters themselves.

    To do it properly, you have to have the right paper (à grands careaux), which is like graph paper, except that the squares are larger and have 4 lines in between the top and bottom one. The lower case letters fit in between the bottom and 2st lines, l’s t’s, h’s and k’s go up to the 2nd line, capitals to the 3rd.

    You don’t learn to do capital letters in cursive until about 1st grade (C.P.), though, because they’re so complicated.

    I went through this system, and now teach it, and I’ve been told that my handwriting is beautiful, but illegible.

    Don’t ask me to write one of those letters though….they make my brain explode….So many unnecessary words!!!!!!!

    For all of you who find this ridiculous and beyond obsessive, you should see the rest of French primary education! If the teacher hands out a worksheet, you don’t put it in a binder, you cut it down so that it’s about 6×8 inches and glue it into your notebook, which has had the date written at the top, and the title written in blue ink, underlined in red.

    People wonder why I’m so OCD……

  • i couldn’t agree more about amazing french handwriting especially of menus!

  • this brought back some memories….

  • Wait, doesn’t anyone want to know why David was kicked out of Laduree?!! :) I do!

    Aside from being spot on, of course, on lovely French handwriting and the art of writing letters….

    Seriously. How do you get your self booted from Laduree?!

  • I have a bottle of pure Yuzu juice that I bought on a whim and I don’t really know what to do with it. Do you think I could use it in place of the lemon juice?

  • My education took place in a Lycee and we spent hours upon hours throughout elementary working on our penmanship. We had a special cahier with vertical millimetre spacing. There were rows upon rows of letters and words and we were constantly evaluated. It was horrible at the time but something that I am grateful for now that I see the average person’s penmanship. It definitely can make one stand out because it wasn’t just about the letters but the proper margins, word spacing, etc.

  • How, pray tell, did you get kicked out of Ladurée? And which one? And pourquoi?

  • The ‘Kunquats’ made me giggle.