Tools to read or write French

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, actually I wanted the title to be “How to read or write French, when you can’t really read or write French” but that is too long apparently.

I know that many, probably the majority on SF are fluent, or at least comfortable in French but not all of us are so blessed, so I wondered what tools others use to help them with this task.

Clearly it would be easy just to cut and paste text into a translation tool but that is unlikely to improve my French.

So, generally I try to read or write French using primarily my own brain power - however that has distinct limitations, so I start off with what I can figure out with that and a good dictionary - I use WordReference most of the time - it is pretty extensive, has lots of idioms and can unscramble most verb conjugations.

If I’m stuck on a phrase then either Deepl or Google Translate are both good - the latter switched to AI algorithms a few years ago and has been getting steadily better since.

For trickier phrases the Reverso context corpus is also good.

For really tricky, domain specific stuff lots of Googling is sometimes needed.

When writing I start with a manual attempt using a word processor with spell checking enabled, not so  much for the spelling, although that is useful but it makes adding the diacritic marks easier on a UK keyboard (though isolated instances of à are a bit of a pain) then do a sanity check by putting my French into Google or Deepl, only if I’m really stuck on a phrase do I use the translators in “English → French” mode.

Finally I usually check the grammar with Reverso’s checker

A couple of caveats though - for one thing the AI based translators will turn garbage French into plausible looking English, so you have to be a bit careful and the grammar checker can trip up on some more complex phrases - though often that is because I have used a word ordering which is more English than French - so odd “difficulty” with either might suggest the French is not quite right.

Does anyone else have recommendations for favourite translation tools?


I tend to use Google translate when I’m really stuck but only once I’ve swapped the English/French translation a couple of times and the results are reliable. As you say, it does do a lot of interpreting. However, there are things it just doesn’t see - mainly more specialist terms or commercial ones…

What we tend to use here for a UK keyboard is interjecting a “dejà” somewhere as a basis for cutting-and-pasting the right sort of “a”.

We also use Thunderbird as an email client and that is good on French spell-checking (apart from the “a” problem we’ve mentioned.


Yes, most of my written French tends to be email and I also use Thunderbird for that - as you say it has a good French spell checker.

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My written French is far better than my spoken French, and apart from e-mails, which I usually write in French and then check in DeepL of Google, occasionally I’ll write ‘proper’ essays of a few thousand words, usually for exhibition catalogues. Although using a French AZERTY keyboard, I still struggle to find upper case accented letters. That struggle is now over thanks to @b33jay’s post below on Lexibar

The AZERT keyboard’s a really bad design for many reasons, for instance the keyboard are shortcuts more complicated than having to use Shift ; to type a full stop,even though there one in every sentence and you’ll seldom see a semi-colon in a French text.

Rant aside, my essays will be fully written in English (in Word) and then I’ll translate them, one sentence at a time, and then check each completed French paragraph with Word’s Spelling and Grammar Checkers. Lastly if it’s for publication, I’ll get it checked by a well-educated French friend who lived in the UK for forty years and then, lastly run his corrected version through a further Spelling and Grammar Check in Word. when writing for publication, errors can crop up at any stage in the process

One shouldn’t try to proof-read one’s own writing, but when it comes to editing exhibition catalogues, unfortunately, I don’t personally know anyone who’s better than me at spotting tiny typographical errors in illustration captions so on a laptop, I do that by eye under 200% magnification.


I have the best ever - my OH! He is fluent to the extent that people will ask him which area of France he comes from (he does have a moderate english accent). Deeply annoying at times, and did for years stop my progress as I could rely on him and not make the effort. However he still proof reads anything that is important, and the main changes he makes now are to rephrase things to be more French. He says I write in English, just using French words. (He used to be an editor for French-english publications)

So seriously, read things aloud to see if they sound French, and seem to have the right phrasing. Or start by saying what you want to say out loud before you start writing.

That’s cheating!


No more than Deepl! And have to put up with patronising exclamations, which Deepl does’t subject you to.


Oh, I forgot another caveat with the free translation tools - an that is that the T&C usually states your text can be retained for training the AI model - so that you might want to be wary about including any personal information or state secrets.

And since they respond dynamically to input you need to check any text before pasting it in.

A chap I knew at Uni spoke fluent, almost accentless French, excellent German, conversational Spanish and Italian and good Dutch, though he complained a bit that he got that mixed up with German too often.

I’ve never been that impressed with Word’s grammar checking in English, not sure that I would trust it in French at all.

Bonpatron is good for grammar checking


I’d agree that Word doesn’t like the passive voice, as it frequently nags me forthat transgression But, (another transgression) that’s Word’s problem not mine, because the passive voice is a conscious choice of style when one doesn’t want to shout at the reader. Despite getting into lots of arguments (sorry, ‘debates’) on SF, elsewhere I use the passive voice a lot because there’s still the convention in academic writing that where possible, one avoids using the first person.

Meanwhile I’ve not given up hope that someone on SF will direct me to some simple AZERT shortcuts for accented caps.

On a lot of later Android phones, if you selected Shift then selected the letter and held it down, a menu would pop up to allow you to slide your finger across to the accented version of the letter that you want, lift it and the accented version you slid across to lands in your text.

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Yes, I sometimes wish the desktop worked the same way, arguably more useful than repppppppppppppppppppppppppppeating a key.

On desktop in word, Insert Symbols menu has accented characters.

If you had a list of the ASCII codes for the accented letters you wanted Alt+ the code (eg Alt+130 for é, I think) would display the accented character after you lifted off those keys combined. IIRC might have only worked if the numbers were typed on a separate number pad, to the right on some keyboards.

I remember having a list of the ASCII codes for each language sellotaped to the edge of my screen at work - German to the right, French to the left

Yes, it’s fine for the very occasional one that might be needed for English text but a bit tedious when you have to type a whole piece in French.

Strictly these are not ASCII codes, as ASCII is 7-bit only, they correspond to various characters in the DOS/Windows code pages (especially 437, 850 and 1252).

It is still a clumsy way of typing diacritic marks, and does not map to other operating systems so is no help to me on Linux.

I have compose set so I can type (eg) compose + ` + a which gives à but it’s still somewhat clumsy.

True, but perhaps too many, whilst many of the most common French ones are well-hidden and a pain to search for - I should make some hot-keys for the most popular, but it’s exasperating that the keyboard shortcuts for many are easier on a QWERTY than on French keyboard.

However, things could be worse, in 2007 I was attending the World Aesthetics Triennial in Ankara (as you do) where the host institution, the Middle Eastern Technical University didn’t have wi-fi so if one needed to use the internet, you had to queue for half an hour and then only had fifteen minutes at a time. When my turn finally came to send an urgent message to OH as well as a load of other stuff, I couldn’t find the @ symbol on the Turkish keyboard, eventually went to my Amazon customer account, copied the @ symbol from my email address and pasted it in wherever needed. This is the sort of essential info one doesn’t usually find in guide books

Ah yes the @ symbol… a pest to find on any keyboard and in any language. Usually needed when you’re in a desperate hurry too :slight_smile: !

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Another invaluable one is reverso when dealing with more technical topics because you get alternatives and it’s possible to see the context. For example a phrase like “in focus” in photography is translated by Deepl as “au point” but in fact people tend to say “nette”. Go to Reverso and they show you that alternative.


I use Lexibar where the accented French letters in upper & lower case are one click away on a mini, movable toolbar…

Other languages available.

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Thanks very much , I’ve just installed Lexibar and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for on and off for several years to solve previously mentioned problem of typing accented upper case letters on an AZERT clavier. I see it includes les guillemots, whereas the keyboard needs two strokes for that (maybe somone can explain why the key only has a single character, when one normally uses a double one, and yet it has keys for both UK style single and double quotation marks?)

It’s just wonderful, so simple to use and so unobtrusive in Word!

I’ve just tried to use it in Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator and found it didn’t directly work with their text tools, but one can type and copy the letters in Word , then choose the Adobe programme’s text tool and paste the letter in. Useful if designing a poster for eg.