A Contract-Language French-English “False Friend”

In the course of considering, for purposes of today’s post on time is of the essence, how contracts are drafted in Quebec, I came across an oddity of the sort that I wouldn’t have expected to encounter in contract language—an instance of “false friends,” in other words pairs of words in two different languages that sound similar but have different meanings.

Anglophones in Quebec routinely use French equivalents in English that even anglophones in the rest of Canada don’t use. So you have the English word delay being used as the equivalent of the French word délai, meaning “period of time.” Hence the following, from a Quebec lease filed on the SEC’s EDGAR system: “If the Tenant elects to lease the space within the stipulated delay, it shall … .” Quebecois understand what’s going on, but anyone else might do a double-take.

I’m not suggesting that this is going to cause any real confusion, or that Quebecois should do anything differently. I simply enjoyed spotting it.

Incidentally, I’m familiar with the notion of false friends because my sister Christine is a conference interpreter. I recall a real-life instance of false friends that she regaled me with. Those with some facility in French and Italian might, like me, find it highly amusing. As I recall it, a native Italian speaker offered the following from the podium at a conference, to explain the late arrival of someone from his delegation:

Monsieur l’Ambassadeur est en rut, et il vient de salir l’escalier!

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.