Have you noticed that your writing in French is missing that je ne sais quoi ?
Do you want to move past simple translated English, but are having trouble finding a voice of your own in French?
This isn’t an uncommon problem for French learners.
After all, it’s one thing to understand what someone is saying, another to be able to communicate back, and yet another to find the degree of fluency that allows you to communicate with the same facility as you would in your native language.
Add to that the fact that writing in French is difficult even for native speakers of French, and you’ve got a whole lot of things to contend with as a French learner.
But don’t worry! 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.
“Hang on!,” some of you are saying. “I’m not translating my sentences—I’m writing directly in French!”
If that’s the case, that’s great! But you might still be translating without even knowing it.
The fact of the matter is that no two languages are ever written the same way; that’s why literary translation is such a tough gig.
What we mean by translating isn’t necessarily that you’re literally translating sentences from French to English, but more that you may be calquing what you already know in your native language onto your second language.
Phrased like that, this is kind of an abstract concept, so let’s take a look at three elements of writing style and structure that often pose problems for non-native speakers.
How to Write Strongly in French: 3 Advanced Elements to Focus On
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-synthèseor 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).
For instance, if you were writing an English essay proving that FluentU videos are the best tools to help you become fluent, your thesis statement might look something like this:
Watching FluentU videos is a very useful way to learn a foreign language and they may in fact be the most useful tool to achieve fluency.
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 couldsay, “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.
Writing in French is far from a mere matter of learning the words and the conjugation. Try to read as much as you can in French to get a feel for the structure and flow of the written language, and of course watch FluentU videos to get even more ideas on how to practice your newfound skills!
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Je me présente. Je m’appelle Céline et j’habite à Cannes dans le sud de la France. Mon anniversaire, c’est le trente avril et j’ai dix-sept ans. Je ressemble à ma mère parce que j’ai les cheveux blonds et les yeux verts, par contre, j’ai un bon sens de l’humour comme mon père. À mon avis, je suis sympa et bavarde, mais je peux être timide.
Dans ma famille, il y a six personnes : mon père, ma mère, mes deux frères, ma sœur et moi. Je m’entends bien avec ma sœur et je passe beaucoup de temps avec elle. Nous nous intéressons à la musique et nous chantons et dansons dans ma chambre. En revanche, je me dispute toujours avec mon petit frère qui s’appelle Frédéric. Il m’embête et je le trouve égoïste parce qu’il aime être le centre d’attraction. Nous ne nous entendons pas bien.
Ma meilleure amie s’appelle Marie. Elle est très gentille et généreuse. On aime les mêmes choses donc on s’entend vraiment bien. Nous passons beaucoup de temps ensemble et aimons aller au cinéma ou faire les magasins le week-end. C’est super d’avoir une si bonne copine !
Le week-end dernier, c’était l’anniversaire de mon père et nous sommes allés au restaurant pour dîner avec toute la famille. J’ai fait un gâteau au chocolat pour lui parce que c’est son gâteau préféré. Nous avons beaucoup mangé et mon père a bu beaucoup de vin rouge. Après avoir mangé, nous sommes rentrés à la maison. C’était très amusant.
L’année prochaine, j’irai à l’université pour étudier les maths. Quand j’aurai ma licence, je chercherai un emploi et j’espère trouver mon copain idéal. À l’avenir, je voudrais me marier et avoir des enfants.
Et toi ? As-tu beaucoup d’amis ? Tu t’entends bien avec ta famille ? Qu’est-ce que tu vas faire plus tard dans la vie ?
Let me introduce myself. I am called Céline and I live in Cannes in the south of France. My birthday is on the 30th April and I am 17 years old. I look like my mum because I have blonde hair and green eyes however I have a good sense of humour like my dad. In my opinion I am kind and talkative but I can be shy.
In my family there are six people; my dad, my mum, my two brothers, my sister and me. I get on well with my sister and I spend a lot of time with her. We are interested in music and we sing and dance in my bedroom. On the other hand I always argue with my little brother, who is called Frédéric. He annoys me and I find him selfish because he likes to be the centre of attention. We don’t get on.
My best friend is called Marie. She’s very kind and generous. We like the same things therefore we get on really well. We spend a lot of time together and we like to go the cinema or go shopping at the weekend. It’s great to have such a good friend!
Last weekend it was my dad’s birthday and we went to the restaurant to have dinner with all the family. I made a chocolate cake for him because chocolate cake is his favourite. We ate lots and my dad drank a lot of red wine. After eating, we went home. It was fun.
Next year I will go to university to study Maths. When I get my degree, I will look for a job and I hope to find my ideal boyfriend. In the future I would like to get married and have children.
And you? Do you have a lot of friends? Do you get on well with your family? What are you going to do later in life?
See you soon,