How to Tone Your Writing in French: 3 Elements for Advanced Learners
Have you noticed that your writing in French is missing that je ne sais quoi ?
After all, it’s one thing to understand what someone is saying, another to be able to communicate back, and yet another to communicate with the same facility as you would in your native language.
Lucky for you, there are quite a few tips and tricks we can share to help you elevate your French writing from pure translation to true innovation in French on the page.
Let’s take a look at three elements of writing style and structure that often pose problems for non-native speakers.
- 1. Structure
- 2. Sentence Structure
- 3. Flow
Structuring a French text can be a bit off-putting for a native English speaker, because a text—in this case, we’ll talk about essays—won’t be structured the same way in French as it would be in English.
If you attended school in English, you likely learned to structure your ideas in a five-part essay. The five-part essay is made up of an introduction, three thematic parts and a conclusion. The introduction presents your ideas and thesis statement, the three parts provide three different pieces of evidence proving your thesis statement, and your conclusion rounds everything out.
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis
In French, a different structure is used, called thèse-antithèse-synthèse or thesis-antithesis-synthesis. This explanation in French is a great way to get a handle on it. Basically, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model asks you to approach your argument in four parts, not five.
As in English, you begin with an introduction, but the introduction does not present your thesis statement. Rather, it presents context for your argument, which will follow.
Next, you have the thesis portion. This is where you not only present your thesis statement, but you also defend it. In other words, what an English writer would do over the course of three and a half parts of an essay is done in one part.
Following the thesis is the antithesis. This is the point in the essay where you present contrary evidence; you explain possible alternatives to your thesis. In other words, you play devil’s advocate.
The synthesis portion is kind of your conclusion, but you have one important task: You must explain and prove why your thesis still holds, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, presented in the antithesis portion of the essay.
This model is typically used by the very young, in middle school or high school.
A second model exists in French, one that is used once students are a bit older. In fact, a dissertation is the same model—albeit shorter—that French master’s and doctorate students are expected to use for their mémoire (master’s thesis) or thèse (doctoral dissertation). It’s no wonder there’s a link between the French word dissertation and the English word “dissertation”!
The dissertation resembles the more typical English three-part structure much more closely, with one big difference: Instead of putting a thesis statement at the end of your introduction, as you would in English, you poser un problématique (ask a question).
Let’s say you are writing an English essay about authentic language videos, using native French videos on the FluentU language program as an example.
To indicate that they’re useful for reaching fluency, your thesis statement might look something like this:
Watching FluentU videos is an effective way to learn and achieve fluency in a foreign language.
In French, however, you would write the following:
Les vidéos de FluentU constituent-elles l’outil le plus efficace pour parler couramment une langue étrangère ?
(Are FluentU videos the most effective tool to become fluent in a foreign language?)
In the next parts of your essay, you would seek to answer this question, only typing out your thesis statement in the conclusion of your essay. This sort of logic is called Cartesian logic and stems from French philosopher Descartes, who approached philosophy from a very scientific angle.
2. Sentence Structure
Once you’ve gotten the structure of your essay squared away, the next problem you might encounter is sentence structure. French sentences and English sentences are not necessarily structured the same way, at least not ideally. While it’s possible to calque English sentence structure directly into French, there are a few techniques to make your sentences—for lack of a better term—more French.
Nominalization is an important technique for making your sentences sound more French. The word nominalization basically means “noun-ing.” In short, French sentences use more powerful nouns than English ones do; where English would use a powerful, meaningful verb, French uses a powerful, meaningful noun.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
In English, you might say:
Going to school is important.
In French, you could say, “Aller à l’école, c’est important,” or even, “C’est important d’aller à l’école.”
But you would be far more likely to see something like:
L’assiduité à l’école est importante.
(Attendance at school is important.)
Here’s another example. In English, you might read “He published the book in 1944” or “The book was published in 1994.” In French, you’d be more likely to write, “L’édition du livre s’est faite en 1944″ (The publication of the book was done in 1944) or “L’édition du livre a eu lieu en 1944″ (The publication of the book occurred in 1944).
Here are some great exercises for practicing nominalization of adjectives and verbs, and here are a few more examples of nominalization.
Appropriate sentence length
The abundance of conjunctions in French make it quite easy to go on and on. However, although long sentences seem very French, they’re best reserved for established writers or literary legends like Proust. The more modest among us should probably stick to shorter sentences that get our point across more readily.
A good rule of thumb is to limit your use of conjunctions in French to the bare minimum, thus having a greater number of shorter sentences.
Are your sentences are looking good? Great. Now let’s make them look even better!
With all of the short sentences that you have in French, you need to have good ways of linking them, and linking words are something that French is definitely not poor in.
Connecting words can be broken into several categories.
The simplest connecting words to use are coordinating conjunctions, words that simply show a relation between two ideas. There’s an easy mnemonic used to remember the coordinating conjunctions in French:
Mais où est donc Ornicar ? (But where, therefore, is Ornicar?)
And the coordinating conjunctions it reminds you of are:
- mais (but)
- ou (or)
- et (and)
- donc (so, therefore)
- or (yet, well)
- ni (neither)
- car (since, because)
This page gives you some great exercises for practicing use of coordinating conjunctions.
Connectors of causality
Other connectors show causality, words like puisque (because, since) and lorsque (when). These words are often used at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a link between two ideas that will follow, whereas in English, similar words are usually used in the middle of a sentence, after the first idea has already been introduced.
Her mother picked her up because her car had broken down.
Puisque ma voiture était en panne, ma mère est venue me chercher.
(Since my car was broken down, my mom came to pick me up.)
Introduction and conclusion words
The last category of words to encourage flow are words that introduce or conclude a part of your written work:
- tout d’abord (firstly)
- premièrement (firstly)
- deuxièmement (secondly)
- ensuite (then)
- enfin (finally)
- finalement (finally)
- pour conclure (to conclude)
These words are usually used in the first sentence of a paragraph that begins a new part of your essay or dissertation. The use of these words signals to your reader that they’re about to encounter a new thought or part of your argumentative process.
Still feel like you’re missing that missing that je ne sais quoi ? These tips for how to write in French should give your written language just what it needs.