Let's face it: spelling, in any language, is not the most amenable of arts. Leaving off a single letter, or transposing letters within a word or phrase can sometimes yield comical results.
We only need to think of Lord Spooner, who is famous for that act; some of his utterances went down in history as classically absurd, and are still studied today.
From his mouth, Our Lord is a loving shepherd became Our Lord is a shoving leopard... what a visual!
Have you ever committed a spoonerism?
Granted, he was only talking, and we're discussing spelling. French spelling, to be exact, where the potential for a whole host of trouble lies.
As in French, so in other languages: dictionaries are not much help if you don't know the proper spelling of the word in question.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that any French lesson generally focuses first on French pronunciation and learning to recognise the words, rather than spelling words correctly.
One of the biggest aspects of not learning correct spelling in French is the risk of misunderstanding misspelt words.
Superprof endeavours to shine the light on commonly misspelt words in French, not on a per word basis, but by pointing out the spelling rules and why it is so vital to avoid those spelling mistakes. And, don't forget, tutors are readily available to help you learn the language. Searching for French lessons London produces the most results for face to face courses on Superprof but there are always plenty of tutors available for French lessons online.
Homonyms and Homophones
The French language is lousy with same-sounding words, which makes it truly difficult to determine which one is called for at any given time.
Consider this word set: sein, saint, sain, seing, ceins, and ceint are all pronounced the same, despite their obviously different letter composition.
How is the intermediate French learner supposed to keep them all straight?
As for their meaning... they could not be more varied!
Respectively, they represent: breast, saint, sane, signature; gird your loins or make yourself ready, and surrounded by.
Imagine the text in which you mean to say you are sane; instead you declare you are breast!
While you may pronounce French words from that set correctly, and even spell any given word flawlessly, the confusion lies in spelling the word that represents the idea you wish to convey.
Invariably, using the wrong homophone would be counted as a spelling error on any French language quiz you may sit, even if, in itself, it is spelt correctly.
So much for homophones; on to homonyms.
Actually, the first category of words is included under the broader umbrella of the more expanded second category.
A homonym may or may not be spelled the same way as its sister-words, but definitely does not have the same meaning.
An example of a homonym from the English language would be the word right, which can mean not left, or indicates that something is correct, or represents a civil liberty.
We understand the intended meaning of a homonym by its context.
So in English, as in French, a language that is overwhelmingly populated with such words.
Citing just one example: aussitôt, meaning immediately; versus aussi tôt as early, or so early.
In speaking the word, there is no difference from one to the other. But for space, they are spelt identically, down to the accent over the letter O, yet their meaning is not even close!
Your French teacher would surely count writing the second in place of the first as an error.
Using Improper Accents, or No Accents
One feature of all romance languages, including French, that does not exist in English spelling, is the use of diacritical marks, or accents.
Accents serve to indicate what sound the accented letter should make, the meaning of the word – without impacting its phonology, or to signal a dropped letter.
For example, the word école, meaning school, formerly had an S between the E and the C.
Does anyone care that there used to be an S where now there is none?
Besides academics and linguists, probably not. But your teacher surely will care that you omitted the accent indicating its former presence, and most likely will consider that a spelling mistake.
The accents marking absent letters might not be so serious, but those indicating meaning are definitely important.
The first letter of the alphabet, A can also be a standalone word... or two, in French, depending on whether it has an accent or not:
- a, on its own, is the third person singular form of the verb avoir – to have
- j'ai, tu as, il a...
- à is a preposition meaning to, at, or in
- je parle à ma mère
The most common accent, as seen on the word école above, is only placed on the letter E, and can indicate a now-missing S, or turn a noun into an adjective.
- Âge means age, of course.
- Âgé means aged, a descriptive.
By this example alone, you can see how important it is to place accents properly. Now, let us look at how vital it is to use the proper accent, in its proper place.
- Différent translates to different, a word we know well.
- Diffèrent is the third person plural of the verb différer – to differ.
Here, we would like to point out that, but for the accent, the concept of not the same is spelt the exact same way, French to English.
That is because a substantial portion of words in the English language come from French!
We cannot emphasise enough that, simply because English speakers are familiar with such word imports, does not mean that they would necessarily be forgiven for not writing them correctly in French.
You may find this page on accented homographs in French helpful...
The Case of the Silent Letter
We've talked at length about the importance of accents: their placement and their purpose, one of them being to denote absent letters in modern French words.
The inverse of that condition is letters that are present, but silent – also a cause of misspelling words in French.
To be sure, words in English also have silent letters; we only need to think of every word that ends in E.
Others common words in English with silent letters are:
- any word with the wh combination – what, when, where...
- any word with the kn combination – knuckle, knife, knee...
- any word with an L after a, o, or u – half, folk, would...
- any word with a G before N – champagne, foreign, design...
However, there are general rules to follow in spelling those words that the learner only need follow to ensure the writing of these words accurately.
What rules should the French learner follow?
One of the most difficult aspects of learning French is that it is not at all a phonetic language.
That means you cannot spell words as they sound – I think we proved that with the homonyms.
Now we reveal some basic guidelines to follow in French spelling to help you succeed with silent letters.
Just as in English, the E at the end of words is silent, unless it bears an accent.
Unlike our mother tongue, the French letter H is always silent; the difference being whether it is fully mute – acts like a vowel, or aspired – when it is treated like a consonant.
The letter S at the end of a French word is generally silent: vous, nous, bas, temps.
An interesting exception to that rule is the word fils, meaning son.
The L, usually pronounced, is silent but the S, usually silent, is pronounced!
The end letter X, normally silent in words such as prix, deux, époux, and choux; makes an S sound in some cases: six and dix, for example.
Above all, French is a logical language so, for every linguistic aberration you discover, you could also uncover its reason.
Odds and Ends of Frequently Misspelled Words
As though we've not thrown enough at you already, there are other reasons for common misspellings in French, one of them being irregular plurals.
Did you notice the word choux, a few paragraphs up? Do you know its singular form – chou?
Most French words are pluralised by simply adding an S to the end, or an -es, just as in English.
However, some French vocabulary demands a completely different end, such as journal-journaux, jeu-jeux, château-châteaux, bateau-bateaux.
How can you learn how to spell these words without the danger of a misspelling?
For one, avoid spell check: what with all of the homonyms in the French language, you may well spell the wrong word correctly, and that tool cannot distinguish that the word you need should be spelt differently.
However, a spell checker will clue you into missed accents, so there might be some value in it, but it would be best to apply yourself to learning the correct spelling of tricky words without that safety net.
You may consider making a list of words that are potentially difficult, or making flashcards, to help you study them.
Use any new words you learn right away; both pronouncing and handwriting them.
This multifaceted approach will quickly build neural pathways in your brain, and so help you to remember how they are spelt.
Learning to spell in French presents no more difficulty than spelling English words; it is just a matter of following the rules and exceptions.
Hopefully, this guide provides you with words to overcome any difficulties and improve spelling in French.
Follow this link to read about common French grammatical mistakes.
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