Basic Business French 7:
Letters, Memos, Agendas and Minutes

© 2015, Greg Lessard

About this module

In the last module, we looked at at variety of communication devices, including voice, texting and email. In this module, we will turn our attention to some more formal means of communicating and coordinating the activities of a business, including business letters, memos, agendas for meetings and minutes of meetings. We will look at their structure and at some of the usual written forms found in them. We have seen one of these before (the business letter), while others are new, although you may have some experience of them in English. By the end of the module, you should be comfortable with:

A complaint

Like voice, texting and email, business letters are usually part of a conversation. Letters are exchanged. Like in conversation, where listening is crucial, the ability to understand the gist of a business letter, its arguments and nuances, is an important skill. To help you acquire that skill, we will show an exchange of letters. The first letter, which we will see here, is from an unhappy customer to a firm. After you have read the letter, look at the comprehension questions below it to ensure that you understand it. And while reading, mouse over the various parts for reminders on their order, structure and content.

Here is some additional context:

le 7 novembre 2015

Les Entreprises WNX
Service de livraison
378, rue Deslauriers
Laval, Québec
V6W 7Y8

Madame, Monsieur,

Au cours des années, j'ai acheté plusieurs produits de votre entreprise, et chaque fois j'ai été impressionné par la qualité du produit et par l'efficacité de la livraison.

Je regrette de vous informer que cette fois-ci j'ai vécu une exception. Il y un mois et demi, j'ai commandé un ordinateur modèle Alpha X. Je l'ai payé par carte de crédit et le montant a été déduit de mon compte. Mais je n'ai pas encore reçu mon ordinateur!

Je sais que vous êtes occupés, mais six semaines, c'est trop. Je vous demande donc de vérifier vos dossiers et de résoudre ce problème dans les plus brefs délais.

Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de mes meilleurs sentiments.

Pierre Dubois
1004, avenue Tremblay
Drummondville, Québec
X1X 1X1

Now look at the comprehension questions below.

  1. Is this a longstanding customer?
  2. Answer

    Yes. They wrote Au cours des années, j'ai acheté plusieurs produits de votre entreprise.

  3. What is the problem?
  4. Answer

    They ordered a computer and it has not arrived yet: je n'ai pas encore reçu mon ordinateur.

  5. How long have they waited?
  6. Answer

    Six weeks: six semaines.

  7. Are they very unhappy?
  8. Answer

    Yes, they are using exclamation marks.

When you have understood the nature of the complaint and who it is from, it's time to respond with another business letter...

A response to the complaint

If you have read the previous letter carefully, you will have identified the nature of the complaint. After taking action to resolve it, you are now ready to respond. As we have seen, a business letter is highly structured, both in terms of the order of the elements and the logic of the argumentation used. To help you practice this, you will see below two parallel lists. On the left the parts of your response letter, in random order. On the right are boxes for you to drag these parts of the letter into, in the correct order. If you drag an item into the correct box, it will remain there. If the box is not the correct one, the dragged element will return to its point of origin.

At the same time, in the body of the letter, you want to present a coherent response. There should be one idea per paragraph and the paragraphs should follow each other logically. If you are unsure about the order of the different elements, review the complaint letter.

Notice also that there is a Start over button to let you try the letter more than once.

Monsieur,

Nous avons découvert qu'il y avait une erreur d'adresse sur le produit qui vous était adressé. Nous nous en excusons. Nous l'avons corrigée et nous avons envoyé le produit ce matin. Pour vous dédommager de votre attente inacceptable, nous vous rembourserons les coûts de livraison.

Les Entreprises WNX
Service de livraison
378, rue Deslauriers
Laval, Québec
V6W 7Y8

le 9 novembre 2015

Je vous prie d’agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées.

Après avoir reçu votre lettre du 7 novembre, j'ai tout de suite communiqué avec notre service de livraison afin de résoudre le problème dans les plus brefs délais.

Monsieur Pierre Dubois
1004, avenue Tremblay
Drummondville, Québec
X1X 1X1

Geneviève Laurier
Responsable des livraisons

In case you have difficulty with any of the aspects of the letter, here is a translation:

Translation

Les Entreprises WNX
Service de livraison
378, rue Deslauriers
Laval, Québec
V6W 7Y8

Monsieur Pierre Dubois
1004, avenue Tremblay
Drummondville, Québec
X1X 1X1

November 9, 2015

Dear Sir,

On receiving your letter of November 7th, I immediately contacted our delivery service to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.

We discovered that there was an error in the address of the product sent to you. We have corrected it and sent the product out this morning. We apologize for this error. In light of the unacceptable wait you have suffered, we will reimburse the shipping costs to you.

Sincerely,

Geneviève Laurier
Shipping Coordinator

Exploring the memo

In the era before email, paper memos were the most usual means of interpersonal and interoffice communication. Email has replaced them in many cases. In fact, the structure of email is based on the structure of memos. Even if they are rarer, it is still important to be able to understand how memos are structured and the terms used in them. We will begin with a short table of the most important of these terms, with explanations.

Term Explanation
une note This is the term used in French to describe what in English is called a memo. In French, un mémo or un mémorandum is a short note one writes to oneself to remember something.
une note de service This is the term used in French to describe a memo written by someone to a group of people who report to him or her. English uses the word memo for this as well. The expression note de service is becoming rarer and people increasingly use un mémo for this as well.
l'expéditeur/l'expéditrice This is the term used in French to designate the sender of a memo.
le destinataire/la destinataire This is the term used in French to designate the receiver of a memo.
l'objet This is the term used in French to designate what a memo is about. In English, the word subject is used.
la date Memos are almost always dated.
p.j. This is the term used in French indicate that something is attached to the memo. It stands for pièce jointe.
c.c. This is the term used in French indicate that the memo is copied to someone else. As in email, it stands for copie conforme.

With these terms in hand, it is time to explore a typical memo. Mouse over the various elements to see the equivalent in English or additional comments.

DESTINATAIRE : Pauline Dubuc, gestion des envois

EXPÉDITEUR : Pierre Rivière, service informatique

DATE : Le 15 octobre 2015

OBJET : Problème d'étiquettage des envois

J'attire votre attention sur un problème que nous venons de découvrir. À cause d'une erreur de programmation, un certain nombre d'envois n'avaient pas la bonne addresse. Par conséquent, les clients qui les attendaient ne vont pas les recevoir.

Lorsque nous avons identifié l'erreur, nous l'avons corrigée, mais il faudra attendre des communications d'un certain nombre de clients au sujet de la perte de leur commande.

Au nom du service informatique, je présente nos excuses.

We can see that the two most important traits of a memo are clarity and brevity. It is useful to practice writing memos, since these traits are valuable in most other cases of communication.

Agenda and minutes of a meeting

The agenda (in French, l'ordre du jour) and the minutes (in French, le procès-verbal, sometimes abbreviated to p.v.) go together. If we think about a meeting being a bit like a piece of theatre, then the agenda is the script and the minutes are a description of how the play was acted.

As we will see, parts of the agenda follow a strict order. Their goal is to allow for:

Among other things, the order of motions is set so that motions which depend on previous ones come later in a meeting.

The objective of the minutes of a meeting is to capture accurately and without bias what was decided in a meeting. Minutes can be very detailed, showing what each speaker at the meeting had to say, or more general, showing only what was decided. Similarly, it is possible to show how each person voted on each issue, but it is more frequent to show only whether a motion passed or not.

In the course of a meeting, participants present information or points of view, express agreement, or express disagreement. There exist in French a number of verbs which are frequently used to describe these actions, as the following tables illustrate. These same verbs are used by participants in a meeting to present their different points of view, so it is important to master them. The first table shows verbs used to present information. We show these here in the context of a treasurer's report. You can read the example sentences like a sort of short story. Later on, when reading other minutes, try to reestablish the story behind them. Notice in passing the use of the present tense in French. This is customary in reporting on meetings, although the past tense is also found.

Verb Example Equivalent in English
présenter Le trésorier présente les résultats du dernier trimestre. The treasurer presented the results of the previous quarter.
préciser Il précise par la suite que les données ne sont pas pas surprenantes. He added that these data were not surprising.
souligner Il souligne la performance exceptionnelle du bureau de Montréal. He underlined/highlighted the exceptional performance of the Montreal office.
ajouter Son assistant ajoute que tous les documents sont disponibles sur le site web de l'entreprise. His assistant added that all documents were available on the company's web site.

Other verbs show disagreement with some position. Here are some typical ones. As before, these are in the context of a treasurer's report.

Verb Example Equivalent in English
contester Un membre du comité conteste l'exactitude des chiffres fournis par le trésorier. A member of the committee questioned the exactitude of the figures provided by the treasurer.
critiquer Il critique l'approche utilisée pour les obtenir. He criticized the approach used to obtain them.
déplorer Un autre membre déplore le manque de détails dans le rapport. Another member deplored the lack of detail in the report.
douter du bien-fondé Il doute du bien-fondé des conclusions présentées dans le rapport. He called into question the conclusions presented in the report.
objecter Le trésorier objecte que le système de comptabilité utilisé est le même que celui des années précédentes. The treasurer objected that the accounting system used was the same as in previous years.
reprocher Un troisième membre du comité reproche au trésorier son manque de transparence. A third member of the committee reproached the lack of transparency shown by the treasurer.
rejeter Il propose de rejeter le rapport du trésorier. He proposed that the treasurer's report be rejected.

Finally, there are verbs designed to show agreement or support. Here are some of them, again in the context of our little story.

Verb Example Equivalent in English
abonder dans le sens de Un quatrième membre abonde dans le sens du trésorier pour défendre le système actuel. A fourth member supported the treasurer and spoke in favour of the current system.
admettre Il admet toutefois que le système est mal documenté. He admitted however that the system was badly documented.
exprimer le souhait Il exprime le souhait qu'on ajoute des explications supplémentaires à l'avenir. He expressed the wish that more explanations would be added in the future.
concéder Le trésorier concède qu'il y a du travail à faire à ce sujet. The treasurer conceded that there was more work to be done on this issue.
recommander Le comité finit par recommander que le trésorier soumette de la documentation supplémentaire à l'avenir. Finally, the committee recommended that the treasurer submit additional documentation in the future..
adopter Après cette discussion, le rapport du trésorier est adopté. After this discussion, the treasurer's report was adopted.

These verbs are only a subset of a larger list. To see more examples, look at the site Documents relatifs à la tenue de réunions published by the Office québécois de la langue française.

With this material in hand, we can now turn to exploration of examples of agendas and minutes.

Exploring the agenda

As we noted earlier, the agenda for a meeting is like the script for a play. Here is a typical example, but it should be noted that there is much variation in this area. The example shown here is for a small imaginary not-for-profit organization, Les logements Saint-Sauveur which provides low-cost housing by helping with loans to low-income families. This is the agenda for a regular meeting (une réunion ordinaire). Special meetings (des réunions extraordinaires) are also possible. Mouse over the various elements to see the equivalent in English and an explanation of each.

Les logements Saint-Sauveur

Ordre du jour de la réunion du 20 juillet 2015

  1. Adoption de l'ordre du jour
  2. Adoption du procès-verbal de la réunion du 15 mai 2015
  3. Questions relatives au procès-verbal
  4. Rapport de la directrice
  5. Rapport du trésorier
  6. Motion: Que les prêts décrits dans l'appendice A soient approuvés. Proposée par la directrice; appuyée par le vice-directeur.
  7. Motion: Qu'on examine les possibilités d'une relation avec la Banque Y. Proposée par M. Martin; appuyée par C. Grégoire.
  8. Autres questions
  9. Levée de la séance

Exploring the minutes

We will use the agenda we have just seen as a basic for a typical set of minutes. These are intermediate-level minutes, which capture at a general level the different points of view expressed at the meeting, without going into great detail, and the decisions taken. Notice that point 5 includes the discussion we looked at earlier around the treasurer's report. Here we see it in the context of a set of minutes. It shows how the back and forth of a discussion can be captured.

Read these minutes carefully to try to fix in your mind what went on at the meeting. Mouse over the various items to see translations or explanations. We will use these minutes in the Reading Passage below.

Les logements Saint-Sauveur

Procès-verbal de la réunion du 20 juillet 2015

  1. Adoption de l'ordre du jour

    La question suivante est ajoutée à l'ordre du jour: une discussion de l'effet des taux d'intérêt sur le marché du logement.

    Proposée par le trésorier; appuyée par M. Marois.

    La motion est approuvée.

  2. Adoption du procès-verbal de la réunion du 15 mai 2015

    Proposée par la directrice; appuyée par le vice-directeur.

    M. Tremblay demande la correction de la date 2035 à 2015.

    La motion est approuvée.

  3. Questions relatives au procès-verbal

    Aucune question n'est soulevée.

  4. Rapport de la directrice

    La directrice signale:

    • que le gouvernement a exprimé son intérêt à participer davantage dans le système de prêts
    • que plusieurs clients ont signalé leur difficulté à faire leurs versements mensuels à cause du climat économique de plus en plus négatif;
    • que malgré ces difficultés, le bilan financier reste positif.

  5. Rapport du trésorier

    Le trésorier présente les résultats du dernier trimestre. Il précise par la suite que les données ne sont pas surprenantes. Il a souligné la performance exceptionnelle du bureau de Montréal. Son assistant ajoute que tous les documents sont disponibles sur le site web de l'entreprise. Un membre du comité conteste l'exactitude des chiffres fournis par le trésorier. Il critique l'approche utilisée pour les obtenir. Un autre membre déplore le manque de détails dans le rapport. Il doute du bien-fondé des conclusions présentées dans le rapport. Le trésorier objecte que le système de comptabilité utilisé est le même que celui des années précédentes. Un troisième membre du comité reproche au trésorier son manque de transparence. Un quatrième membre abonde dans le sens du trésorier pour défendre le système actuel. Il admet toutefois que le système est mal documenté. Il exprime le souhait qu'on ajoute des explications supplémentaires à l'avenir. Le trésorier concède qu'il y a du travail à faire à ce sujet. Le comité finit par recommander que le trésorier soumette de la documentation supplémentaire à l'avenir. Après cette discussion, le rapport du trésorier est adopté.

  6. Motion: Que les prêts décrits dans l'appendice A soient approuvés. Proposée par la présidente; appuyée par le trésorier.

    Après discussion, la motion est adoptée.

  7. Motion: Qu'on examine les possibilités d'une relation avec la Banque Y. Proposée par M. Martin; appuyée par C. Grégoire.

    G. Saint-Pierre et M. Roy propose l'amendement suivante:

    • que l'étude soit menée par au moins trois membres du comité.

    La motion est approuvée, telle qu'amendée.

  8. Autres questions

    Il n'y a pas de questions supplémentaires.

  9. Levée de la séance
  10. La séance est levée à 16h45.

You should now feel fairly comfortable with the structure and tone of minutes. To practice this further, explore the websites of shareholders' meetings. A Google search for procès-verbal actionnaires will provide you with many examples.

Reading passages

In this module, we have looked at some of the basic tools that organizations use internally to communicate and to keep records. Being able to understand documents like these is crucial within an organization. To help you practice this further, the following reading passage is a memo based on the events of the meeting whose minutes appeared earlier in this module. We saw that the members of a meeting were unhappy with some elements of a treasurer's report. This is a memo written after that meeting. Read it carefully, then answer the comprehension questions, based on the memo and also on the minutes. This will also give you practice in combining the reading of several distinct documents.

You may not understand everything. Don't forget though to use the strategies we saw earlier, including the use of cognates. Also, a number of words are highlighted in blue. Mousing over them will give you the English translation. If you need more help, a translation appears at the bottom. Remember, you are still exploring this world of business communication, so have fun and follow your curiosity.

DESTINATAIRE : Micheline Paulin, présidente, Les logements Saint-Sauveur

EXPÉDITEUR : François Cournoyer, trésorier, Les logements Saint-Sauveur

DATE : Le 25 juillet 2015

OBJET : Présentation plus transparente des données financières

Comme vous le savez, certains membres du comité d'administration étaient insatisfaits de la présentation et du manque de transparence de notre rapport budgétaire. Après la réunion, j'ai examiné la situation plus en détail et j'ai pu identifier deux problèmes principaux à résoudre. Cependant, puisque cela exigera un investissement de nos fonds, je vous écris pour obtenir votre approbation.

Les deux problèmes sont les suivants:

Pour résoudre ce problème, je propose la création d'un site Web où tous les rapports pourraient être versés. Un site de la sorte, si elle était bien programmé, pourrait identifier un certain nombre des lacunes et demander des précisions à ce moment-là. Un site de la sorte pourrait aussi mettre toutes les données dans un format standardisé.

D'après mes investigations, le développement d'un site Web de la sorte pourrait coûter jusqu'à 50,000$. Puisque ce montant dépasse mon budget actuel, je vous écris pour obtenir votre permission de le prendre dans notre compte de développment.

Si les fonds étaient disponibles avant le mois de septembre, je pourrais activer le site au mois de janvier 2016. J'attends donc votre réponse avant de procéder.

Comprehension questions

  1. What was the problem identified by the administration committee?
  2. Answer

    A lack of clarity and transparency in the budget data. (un manque de transparence)

  3. Why is the treasurer writing to the president?
  4. Answer

    Because the proposed solution requires investing money (un investissement de nos fonds)

  5. What two problems were identified?
  6. Answer
    1. People reporting data were using different formats and weren't always skilled in accounting
    2. The current staff didn't have the resources to fix these problems
  7. What solution is proposed?
  8. Answer

    To develop a website where people could drop their data and which could identify problems and gaps at that point. The website would also put materials in a standard format.

  9. How much would it cost?
  10. Answer

    Up to $50,000 (jusqu'à 50,000$)

  11. When would it be ready?
  12. Answer

    By January 2016 if the money was available by September 2015.

Translation

TO : Micheline Paulin, président, Les logements Saint-Sauveur

FROM : François Cournoyer, treasurer, Les logements Saint-Sauveur

DATE : July 25, 2015

RE : Improved transparency in presentation of budget data

As you know, several members of the administrative committee were unhappy with the presentation and the lack of transparency in our budget report. After the meeting, I looked at the situation in more detail and found two main problems to resolve. However, since this would require investing money, I am writing to you to obtain your agreement.

These are the two problems:

  • We receive reports from a great variety of sources. All those who submit them do not have the same level of expertise in accounting and the quality of the data they submit is highly variable. In many cases, we are obliged to reconstitute parts of their file.
  • Our current staff does not have the time or the resources required to correct all the documents sent to us. Too often, we are required to leave them unchanged.

To solve the problem, I propose the creation of a website where all reports could be submitted. A site like that, if it was well programmed, could identify a certain number of gaps and request details at that point. A site like that could also put data in a standardized format.

According to my investigations, the development of a website like that could cost up to $50,000. Since this amount is beyond my present budget, I am writing to you to obtain your permission to draw this money from our development account.

If the money was available before September, I could have the site in operation by January 2016. I will await your decision before proceeding.

Summing up

You should now feel comfortable with:

  1. how to interpret a business letter, including what information goes where, as well as how to use best practices to produce an effective business letter
  2. how to interpret a business memo in terms of its format and usual terms, and how to structure one for maximum effect
  3. how to read an agenda for a meeting
  4. how to read and interpret the minutes of a meeting.

If you would like to see more details on these questions, a good source is the page on Rédaction administrative et commerciale of the Office québécois de la langue française.

In the next two modules, we will turn our attention from business correspondence to the more general area of reporting on a business' status and progress, including accounting data.