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Top 10 most common errors in French spelling

Frédéric Garcia

Frédéric Garcia

Published on 4 March 2021 • 3 mins. to read

The French and spelling: a great love story - or maybe not! While grammar holds no more secrets for you, be aware that spelling can also have a few surprises in store...

Indeed, nothing will destroy the author’s credibility faster than a poorly written message.

Here is a small selection of spelling subtleties from the most commonly encountered ones. It might bring back some good or bad memories!


1. Agreement of “mille”

The numeral adjective “mille” remains invariable, whereas the noun “mille”, used as a unit of measurement, particularly in aerial and maritime navigation, takes plural agreement.

Examples: “J’ai gagné près de deux mille euros à la loterie !” or “Mon bateau se trouve à cinq milles de la côte la plus proche.”

2. Sens dessus dessous

Why do you need a “e” and not an “a”? Originally, the expression was written “ce dessus dessous”, then “cen dessus dessous”, where “cen” was the contraction of “ce” and “en”. Which therefore meant that what had been above was now underneath.

3. Avoir affaire à

When you want to say “to be related to”, it is the term “affaire” you need to use in the expression “avoir affaire à”.

The use of the expression “avoir à faire (quelque chose)” means “to have to do something”.

4. Au temps pour moi

Although the spelling “autant pour moi” seems to be generally accepted now, this expression was originally a military one, meaning that soldiers had not completed a movement on time and had to repeat it from the very start.

This expression is now used when someone is admitting to their mistake.

5. Tout + adjective

Even if the adjective that follows is feminine and/or plural, the term “tout”, used as an adverb (in the sense of “completely” or “fully”) remains invariable and therefore does not agree in number or gender.

Example: “Elle était tout angoissée à l'idée de le rencontrer.”

6. De plain-pied

This expression is used to describe accommodation that has no storeys, with all the rooms situated on the same level. The origin of the adjective “plain” with an “a” and not an “e” comes from the Latin “planus”, meaning “flat” or “level”. In addition, the expression contains a hyphen.

In the figurative sense, it means “directly” and “without transition”.

7. Près de

When used to express the fact that someone is on the verge of doing something, or to indicate physical proximity, the term “près” is written with the final “s” and remains invariable.

However, its homophone “prêt” followed by “à” means “prepared for” or “disposed to”.

Example: “Il était prêt à nous attendre mais il n'était pas près de venir.”

8. à l'attention de / à l'intention de

These two expressions are paronyms, meaning the words are pronounced in roughly the same way.

”à l'attention de”, particularly at the start of a letter, is used to indicate that you are writing a letter to someone, that you want it to be brought to their attention. This expression can be replaced by “à l'adresse de”.

“à l'intention de” means that we are doing something in honour of someone else, so that it will be beneficial to them.

Examples: “Il a envoyé un courrier à l'attention de Monsieur le Ministre.” or “Il a acheté un cadeau à l'intention de sa sœur.”

9. Date butoir

This expression means the deadline date which cannot be exceeded, particularly in a business setting.

The term “butoir” is placed in apposition to the feminine noun “date” and therefore does not agree in gender. However, it may agree in number if the noun preceding it is in the plural.

Example: “Il nous a présenté les dates butoirs du projet.”

10. Etc.

This adverbial expression is the abbreviated form of “et cetera”. It is always preceded by a comma and is never followed by an ellipsis, just a single full stop. In fact it comes from the Latin meaning “and the other things”, and therefore has the same meaning as an ellipsis.

If the expression is placed at the end of the sentence, the dot at the end of “etc.” and the full stop merge.


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Top 10 most common errors in French grammar

Past participle agreement, transitive verbs etc… French grammar isn’t always very straightforward! Unfortunately, in the business environment, it can really harm your prospects (a proposal littered with errors will have more chance of being rejected than a fault-free business proposition)....

Frédéric Garcia

4 March 2021