Unlike English, French spelling is actually very regular. It ties in closely with French pronunciation and also indicates how a word should be pronounced. Below are some guides to help you perfect your spelling.
French has several accent marks that indicate how a word should be pronounced, and thus they impact the spelling of words as well.
- The accent aigu (é) goes only on e‘s and indicates that the e should be pronounced “ay”.
- The accent grave goes on the vowels a (à), e (è), and u (ù). The à and ù do not change the pronunciation of their respective letters, but the è changes the pronunciation to “eh” as in “beg”.
- The accent circonflexe can go over any vowel (â, ê, î, ô, and û), but doesn’t change the vowel’s pronunciation.
- The tréma (ë, ï) goes over the second of two consecutive vowels to indicate that each vowel sound needs to be pronounced separately.
More information on French accent marks is in our French alphabet post.
Common French Syllables
Some longer French words can look intimidating, with multiple vowels, but many will consist of shorter, established syllables that are (almost) always pronounced the same way. Here are some syllables that you should get used to seeing:
- eau (pronounced “oh”)
- eu (no direct comparison in English; pronounced something like “u” in “um” if the “u” was cut off short and spoken mostly inside your mouth)
- ai (pronounced “ay”)
- eille (pronounced “eye-uh”)
- aille (pronounced “ay-uh”)
- gn (pronounced “nyuh”)
- qu at the beginning of a word and q at the end of the word (both pronounced with a hard “k”)
Instead of having endless spelling “exceptions” like English does, French spelling usually conforms to set rules even when it needs to change a word’s spelling to make it match the desired pronunciation.
For example, to soften a “c” sound that comes before before the a, o, and u vowels, c becomes ç (this is called a c-cedilla). It transforms the “hard” c sound (pronounced like the “k” in “dark”) to a “soft” c sound (pronounced like the “c” in “center”).
Without using a c-cedilla, the hypothetical word garcon would be pronounced “gahr-kon”. With the c-cedilla, garçon has the desired “gahr-sohn” pronunciation.
A similar thing happens with g‘s – if the g is placed in front of an a, o, u or a consonant, French pronunciation rules state it should be a hard “g” (like in “gulf”). However, it can be transformed into a soft g (like the “g” sound in “beige”) by adding an e after the g.
Without adding an extra e, the hypothetical nous mangons would be pronounced “mahn-gon”. With the additional e added, nous mangeons has the desired “mahn-zhohn” pronunciation.