What’s The Deal With French Spacing?

Ever wondered why there’s always an extra space before most punctuation marks in French?
French spacing represented by a smiling woman writing something down in a notebook while holding up her phone in front of a window looking outside.

One thing you’ll for sure discover pretty early in your foreign language studies is that punctuation is not universal. There are often different rules you’ll need to abide by when using quotation marks, apostrophes and commas in different languages. For instance, in French, they don’t use “these” — they use << these >>. Another peculiarity of French punctuation that may seem odd to people just learning the language is French spacing.

The Ins And Outs Of French Spacing

French spacing refers to the extra space that comes before many punctuation marks in French. Known as une espace insécable (“non-breaking space”) in French, the extra space comes before double punctuation, or any typographical mark that has two components (for instance, the question mark has a top part and a bottom part, whereas a period or a comma only have one).

An extra space is needed when using a:

  • Question mark
  • Exclamation mark
  • Colon
  • Semi-colon
  • Quotation mark
  • Percentage symbol
  • Currency symbol

An important note: this isn’t true for all forms of French — it mainly applies to European French. In Canadian French, there’s no extra space before punctuation, except for before the colon.

How Did It Get To Be That Way?

The prevailing theory around the origins of French spacing is that it’s a holdover from old printing standards, as evidenced by its use in old books. It most likely started with the question mark, because it takes up much more space than other punctuation marks. Its use may have spread across the board for readability purposes.

The advent of typewriters in the late 19th century cemented this further, because certain characters were made by printing two symbols on top of each other (hence the rule about “double punctuation”). Typewriters were built to accommodate this by allowing the user to hold down the space bar while typing the symbols without the carriage moving forward. Afterwards, there would be a space before and after the symbols.

For the record, English developed its own typographical rules concurrently, but English spacing diverged from French spacing in a number of ways. English used a double space between sentences — a rule you may have had to unlearn at some point — whereas French used one. Eventually, English-language books embraced this too, but printing practices in different languages continued to develop separately, and to fit the circumstances of the culture, the language and the times.

Looking for more French lessons?
Try Babbel