The new French spell-checker for Office 2003 and the spelling reform

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Some people were asking us why the new French spell-checker which was made available to Office 2003 users with Service Pack 2 was no longer flagging a number of forms which were considered as mistakes in the previous speller. While it has to be made clear that the French spelling reform was of course not “invented” by Microsoft, I thought it would be worthwhile to give a brief summary of the changes, especially for non-native speakers of French who are not familiar with them. Let me just first mention the basic principles which underlie this reform.

The official texts make it clear that both the traditional (‘old’) spelling and the ‘new’ spelling are valid. The French official text says: “aucune des deux graphies ne peut être tenue pour fautive » (Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (9e édition) dans les fascicules du Journal officiel, depuis le 22.05.93.). In France, Canada and Belgium, for instance, teachers are invited to consider the two forms as valid. This explains why the default setting of the new speller we launched in April 2005 and which is included in Office 2003 SP2 is precisely the spelling configuration which accepts both the ‘old’ spelling and the ‘new’ one.

Note that the changes impact something like 2,000 words (which represented about 20,000 inflected forms). The following table gives a few examples:

Traditional (‘old’) spelling

‘New ’ spelling





























As can be seen, the changes mainly concern the use of the circumflex accent, which disappears in a number of words like connait, disparait, bruler, cout, enchainer, the concatenation of some words which used to be hyphenated, the use of accents, or a number of irregular plural for loan-words which now behave like any other French word taking –s in the plural (whiskys, matchs, gentlemans…). The use of accents also reflects the real pronunciation (which is why it is now recommended to write gèreras or opèrerai, with a grave accent instead of the acute accent of géreras, opérerai).

There are a number of web sites which give more or less exhaustive lists of words impacted by these changes. I have already mentioned the French site Orthographe Recommandée, hosted by the "groupe de modernisation de la langue française", which awarded a quality label to our speller. There are also very interesting descriptions of the changes here, on the site of the Académie Française, or here.

Unlike the German spelling reform, which is an “either-or” decision (you apply the new spelling or you stick to the old one), the French spelling reform allows more flexibility since all the linguistic authorities agree that the old forms and the new forms should be considered as valid. This means that nobody can blame you if you use “bruler” (new form) in your text and “connaître” (old form) later on in the same text. For people who would like to be consistent, however, or for people who would like to use only one of these flavors (e.g. the new forms only), we have a very simple dialog box with three options, which can be downloaded here:


The three options enable you to:

(a) apply only the traditional (‘old’) spelling (i.e. ‘new’ forms will be red-squiggled)

(b) apply the ‘new’ (rectified) spelling only (i.e. the ‘old’ forms will be red-squiggled)

(c) consider the old and new forms as valid (which is the default option)

The thesaurus (synonym dictionary) also uses these options and adapts the spellings of the suggestions it makes to the flavor selected by the user.

Note that we hope these options will be used by teachers to teach the spelling reform and the new rules. It is not difficult to imagine that a teacher could write a text using the ‘old’ spelling, select the ‘new’ spelling option, which causes red squiggles to appear underneath the ‘old’ forms and ask students to correct the text, adapting it to the new spelling. I am personally convinced the tool can be a great pedagogical device to teach these changes to people who are not familiar with them. The teachers (and plenty of other users) who have downloaded the speller seem to have liked these three options very much and the linguists I talked to when we presented the new tool were very happy Microsoft had decided to develop this new speller to reflect the changes in the French language. This language, like any other language, has evolved (and is constantly changing) and it was essential that we should be able to provide a flexible proofing tool to meet our users’ needs.

In a few days, I’ll talk about another change in this new speller, viz. feminine job titles… J

Thierry Fontenelle [MSFT]

Speech & Natural Language Group