Topic outline

  • General


    The following information has been assembled drawing on my experience as an English teacher, translator and corrector of texts written by non-native English-speakers.

    The material is not a course, nor grammar reference book.  Instead, it is a series of recommendations and tips, which should help you improve the quality of your writing, by avoiding the most common mistakes native-speaking French writers tend to make in English.

    For more detailed information (aimed at students but useful for everyone), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides excellent information at its on-line Writing Center.

    Any comments about this webpage or suggestions for extending the activities are welcome, and can be sent to me at:

    Nicholas Sowels
    MC Département des langues

    (I much thank my colleague Dalita Roger Hacyan for comments to correct and improve this page. Any remaining mistakes are of course entirely my responsibility.)

    • 01 - Spell-checks, Google checking, Google translation and on-line dictionaries

      Most word processing software, and Word in particular, includes good spell-check and correction functions.  These should be used.

      When writing in a foreign language you may not be completely sure of an expression (e.g., the guarantee covers "in site"/ "on site" repairs).  A Google search for the exact expression is one easy way of checking the exact form in English. But be careful, the majority is not always right, and some wrong expressions may be used repeatedly by non-English websites.

      Linguee is also an excellent website for translating words and expressions, and usually provides many examples of translations in context. There is quite a lot of "Brussels-speak", using EU documents. This has the advantage that translations are already used, if not "official". But the language used may occasionally be a bit strange.

      You can also use Google translate, DeepL, and Microsoft Word 2019 for machine translation. French into English translation is generally quite good, but needs to be checked carefully! Google translate is pretty good at translations of technical vocabulary and common expressions.

      Dictionaries. There are several excellent on-line dictionaries which can help anyone writing and/or translating into English. Personally I use three main dictionaries when translating:
      1/ Wordreference, which is a good multilingual dictionary as well as an English-only dictionary. It also has a thesaurus function.
      2/ Reverso, provides a dictionary and online translation.
      3/ Granddictionnaire, this is more a terminology dictionary provided by the Office Québécois de la langue française. The translations are more specific.

      The Freedictionary is also an excellent general English language dictionary, very useful for providing definitions, word context and synonyms. It can also be used to translate words.

      • 02 - Explaining French institutions, government and administration

        Most foreigners, unless they are French specialists, will not understand the exact meaning of many terms and expressions relating to French government, public institutions, public administration, the organisation of civil society, etc.

        Everything has to be clearly explained. For example, the word Etat refers to central government in France. It cannot be correctly translated by the word State, which in English would cover the whole apparatus of government.

        When you write an article touching on any form of public policy or any other institutional issues keep this in mind. You might have to explain clearly how certain organisations work.

        • 03 - Article structure - Seminar papers

          Article structures between disciplines and across countries vary, although there does seem to be some convergence within academic literature. From my personal experience as a researcher and as a corrector of texts written in English by French authors, I have the feeling that English language articles are more compact than articles by some French writers. Articles in English journals tend to concentrate on one key idea: the hypothesis is set out, the data/information used to test it is presented and the results are then written up as briefly as possible. Or, as my PhD supervisor in "civilisation britannique", which draws mainly on the methodology of history, used to say: "PIC - problématiser, informer, commenter".

          In some of the texts by French authors I have corrected, the research on several ideas is grouped together in one paper. This makes the article (paper) long, more difficult to prepare (i.e. write and correct in English) and perhaps harder to get published.

          A somewhat "purist" view of how articles should be written is given by John Cochrane (see reference below). He is a professor of finance at the University of Chicago, a university known for its free-market views, which he shares. His original university training was also in physics, which may partly explain his writing style. For Cochrane, the most important thing to keep in mind is that articles should be as short as possible, concentrating on essential information: i.e. your specific contribution to the research/literature.

          Such brevity begins with the abstract, which presents the main idea of the article.

          Similarly, the introduction sets out briefly what your main idea is, and why you have looked at the issue you analyse.

          If you provide a review of the literature, keep it short and do it to explain why you are doing your research.

          Then move on to the body of article, in which you should present your ideas/findings as quickly as possible.  Background theory should be presented succinctly, as should data.

          The conclusion too should be short, and it is perhaps not necessary to restate your main idea/findings if these are already stated in the abstract, the introduction and the body of the text.

          For further information, see John H. Cochrane, "Writing tips for PhD students", June 8, 2005, which you can download in pdf format from the link below. (I thank Bertrand Wigniolle for referring me to this article.)

          An interesting example of this compact style can be found in an article by Franklin Gilliam, Professor of Politicals Sciences at UCLA, entitled "The "Welfare Queen" Experiment: How Viewers React to Images of African-American Mothers on Welfare". He describes an experiment he conducted on the views of welfare recipients in the United States, linked to the issue of race and gender. His experiment seeks to assess the "narrative script" which emerged in the United States about black women living on state aid, and which was used by Ronald Reagan and the "New Right" to promote anti-government policies. It is probably fairly safe to say that Prof Cochrane and Prof Gilliam have opposing views about social and economic policy. But they both share a similar approach to presenting research in economics and political sciences.

          For information about writing a seminar paper, see Dirk Thiessen, Seminar: Writing Techniques, WS 2006-2007.

        • 04 - Paragraphing

          It is quite common in French to start a new line within a paragraph.  This is often done in memos (notes de service) and sometimes in reports.  But you cannot do this in English.  Either you must continue writing on the same line in a paragraph or you must start a new paragraph, eg:

          It is not possible do use the following paragraph structure in English:
          Writing in a foreign language, especially writing well, is probably the most difficult task any language learner faces.  Communication by speech usually involves the speaker and the listener seeing each other.  It allows information and ideas to be transmitted not just via the words spoken, but also through the body language of both parties. [Return]
          When speaking, it is also possible to re-state ideas in a different way, should the listener not understand.  As a result, the listener is much more "tolerant" of possible language mistakes made by the speaker, and many of these mistakes pass unnoticed, as the listener concentrates naturally on the content and less on the style of what is said. [Return]

          You must use:
          Writing in a foreign language, especially writing well, is probably the most difficult task any language learner faces.  Communication by speech usually involves the speaker and the listener seeing each other.  It allows information and ideas to be transmitted not just via the words spoken, but also through the body language of both parties.  When speaking, it is also possible to re-state ideas in a different way, should the listener not understand.  As a result, the listener is much more "tolerant" of possible language mistakes made by the speaker, and many of these mistakes pass unnoticed, as the listener concentrates naturally on the content and less on the style of what is said.

          Writing in a foreign language, especially writing well, is probably the most difficult task any language learner faces.  Communication by speech usually involves the speaker and the listener seeing each other.  It allows information and ideas to be transmitted not just via the words spoken, but also through the body language of both parties. 

          When speaking, it is also possible to re-state ideas in a different way, should the listener not understand.  As a result, the listener is much more "tolerant" of possible language mistakes made by the speaker, and many of these mistakes pass unnoticed, as the listener concentrates naturally on the content and less on the style of what is said.

          • 05 - "we", "I", "you", "one" -- "he/she"and "his/her"

            Traditionally it was recommended not to use first person pronouns ("I" or "we") in academic literature. However, today it is increasingly possible to find these in texts.

            This is especially so for the use of "we", which is now quite frequent when there are two or more authors of a text. Otherwise "we" can also be used to bring the reader into to discussion: e.g., "... in the figure we can see that migration behaviour changed during the 1990s". Here, the author is including the reader in the argument.

            But, it is better not use "we" when you are the sole author of an article.  There is not really an "academic we" in English. It is better to use "I", or another subject such as "This research examines...", "This article discusses...". That said, some texts do use "we" if there is only one writer.

            If you use "I" or "we" ("my", "our", etc.) do not use them too much.

            For more information about this, please refer to the webpage here, published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

            Generally avoid using "one".  It very quickly becomes snobbish or old-fashioned.

            In spoken English, you can use "you" as a general pronoun, as I am doing here. This is a bit like using "nous" in a general sense, when you are speaking in French.

            It is sometimes necessary to use third person singular pronouns: i.e. he, she, his and her. Generally speaking, just using male personal pronouns (he, his) sounds very conservative nowadays. Quite often, researchers today just use female personal pronouns (she, her), although this may sound quite strongly feminist for some people. It is up to you to choose.

            For myself, I prefer to use both: "she/he" or "her/his", putting the woman's pronoun first.. This is a bit clumsy, but it very clearly acknowledges that impersonal "agents" in a text may just as often be women as men.

            • 06 - Narration and the "past simple"

              Generally speaking, the past simple (le préterit) is used as the main tense for narrating events which took place in the past.  There is no historical present in English as in French.  For example:

              - Rembrandt painted the Night Watch in 1642.
              - The French settled Louisiana and the American Mid-West in the early 18th century.

              If your paper presents a test/experiment conducted, you may want to use the past simple to explain what you did, eg:

              -Data was collected from ...
              -We then applied certain techniques to make it compatible.
              -The results we obtained ... indicate that... (in this case, the results were obtained before writing up the experiment).

              • 07 - "Since", "for", "ago" and "during"

                "Since": is used with a moment in time, and generally takes the present perfect (it may sometimes take the past perfect, but not the present simple, nor the past simple), eg:

                - Motor transport has developed massively since the start of the 20th century. (present prefect simple - describing a state of being which began in the past and continues into the present).
                - I have been working hard since 9:00 am. (present perfect continuous - used for a more immediate, on-going action which started in the past and is continuing in the present, or still has an impact on the present).

                "For": is used with a duration of time and may be used in the past, the present or the future, eg:

                - Mitterrand was President for 14 years.
                - The seminar will last for 10 weeks.
                - We hope to go on holiday next summer for three weeks.

                "Ago": is used when indicating how much time has passed between an action and the present.  It very clearly situates the action in the past, and takes the past simple, eg:

                - Dinosaurs became extinct about 60 million years ago.
                - She telephoned five minutes ago.

                "During": is not used to introduce a length of time, i.e. you cannot say "during 10 minutes", "during three weeks", etc.  Instead, "during" situates an action within a recognised period of time, e.g.: "during the summer", "during the 20th century", "during the holidays", etc.

                • 08 - Indications of time ("yesterday", "in 2003", "at the weekend")

                  Indications of time, or when things happen, usually come at the beginning or the end of a clause (ie. a subject and verb, as well as perhaps an object).  This is somewhat different from French, when indications of time may come in the middle of a sentence.

                  -The new statue was unveiled yesterday.
                  -The government will submit its new budget to Parliament, next week.
                  - Last night, we saw a great film on TV.
                  - The next presidential elections in France will be in 2012.

                  • 09 - Nouns as adjectives

                    When nouns are used as adjectives, they must take the singular eg:
                    A four-door car... a 12-foot wall.

                    Export diversification in Asia has increased. 
                    not  Exports diversification ...

                    There are occasional exceptions, when it is usual to have a plural eg:
                    the savings rate   human rights activists

                    • 10 - Multiple nouns as adjectives

                      Be careful when using several nouns as adjectives, together with normal adjectives together.  For example, you cannot really say

                      "a same community membership"
                      but should use
                      "membership of the same community"

                      The use of community (which is a noun) here draws attention away from membership, and the result sounds clumsy.  When using several adjectives before a noun, be careful about including other nouns.

                      • 11 - Adjective order

                        Adjectives usually have an order in which they are placed, in front of a noun:

                        1/ determiner (eg: three, a, the, ours, etc.: although "a" and "the" are articles, not adjectives);
                        2/ value (eg wonderful, disagreeable, etc.);
                        3/ size (eg: small, large, etc.);
                        4/ age (20th century, new, etc.);
                        5/ shape (square, round, etc.)
                        6/ colour
                        7/ origin (English, Edwardian, etc.);
                        8/ material (iron, plastic, etc.);
                        9/ compound (sitting-room, etc.).
                        and lastly the noun.

                        You can change this order exceptionally, if you want to provide extra emphasis to what you are saying.

                        • 12 - Foreign words and Latin

                          Foreign words and Latin words/expressions are usually written in italics, eg: belle époque, ad hoc, etc.

                          However, it is increasingly common to find some much-used terms in non-italics, such as:

                          etc., e.g. (exempli gratia or for example) and i.e. (id est - that is) are exceptions!

                          • 13 - Footnotes

                            The number (1, 2, ... n) or sign (*) indicating a footnote comes after the full stop at the end of the sentence.  It is also quite rare in English to put a footnote reference in the middle of the sentence.

                   the author's point out in her major biography.1

                            1. Fraser, A., Cromwell: Our Chief of Men.

                            NB: the numbers and signs are in small, raised characters!

                            • 14 - Punctuation: spacing for question marks, etc.

                              In English, all punctuation comes immediately after the word at the end of the sentence.

                              - question marks: What time is it, please?
                              - colons: date of birth: 22 August 1961

                              • 15 - Capital letters

                                Capital letters are used more in English than in French.

                                1/ in titles: capital letters are usually used in titles of books, articles, chapters, article sections, organisations etc. All nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs are in capital, for example:

                                -Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland;
                                -Chapter 3: Money or the Circulation of Commodities;
                                -the Ministry of Truth; etc.

                                2/ days and months: Monday, Tuesday, etc. January, February, etc. But, seasons take small letters, spring, summer, etc.

                                3/ peoples and languages: The French mainly speak French, though some speak minority languages too, such as Breton or Basque.

                                • 16 - Lists: i), ii), iii), etc.

                                  Compared to French, English uses numbers in lists much more.

                                  Within a paragraph.  It is possible, for example, to use small roman numerals within a paragraph.
                                  She had a number of things to do before the end of the day: i) finish correcting the exam papers, ii) check through the applications for the Master's course, and iii) reserve a lecture hall for the conference by the visiting professor.

                                  With paragraph cuts for longer lists, eg:
                                  Climate change is caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, including, among others:

                                  1) carbon dioxide gas generated by the burning of fossil fuels;
                                  2) chloroflorocarbons or CFCs which used to be used in fire-fighting equipment and refrigeration appliances;
                                  3) methane which is found naturally in the Earth's surface as well as being produced by flora and fauna.

                                  Note too that an incomplete list of items may be indicated using "etc."  You CANNOT use "..." in English as in French. "..." may only be used in quotes, indicating that you have left out part of a quotation.

                                  • 17 - "permit", "allow" and "enable" cannot be followed by an infinitive

                                    Unlike in French, in which "permettre de..." can be followed by an infinitive, this structure is not possible in English.  It is not possible to say, for example, "the data permits to measure the relationship between x and y".

                                    The same is true for allow and enable.

                                    These verbs generally have to be followed by a noun, which may then be the subject of a clause with a passive infinitive.  Thus, the above idea may be re-written as: "the data permits the relationship between x and y to be measured".

                                    • 18 - Direct questions

                                      Direct questions are often used in French language academic texts, and may even be used in chapter or section titles.

                                      They are used less in English, and instead a passive sentence may be used or another subject which raises the question, eg:

                                      Instead of writing in a text:
                                      What is the influence of popular culture on politics?  How does mass media affect the political process?

                                      It is more common to say:
                                      This article/research examines the influence of popular culture on politics, and how mass media affect the political process.

                                      This raises the question of the influence of popular culture on politics and how mass media affect the political process.

                                      • 19 - articles : "a/an" and "the"

                                        The use of articles is not always very easy, especially as they are employed slightly differently in English and French.

                                        "A/an" - the indefinite article - is used when:

                                        1/ introducing something new or which has not been mentioned previously, eg: Our neighbours are having a party this weekend, and we have been invited.

                                        2/ referring to things (countable objects!) which are members of a group, eg: I would like a ham sandwich, please.

                                        3/ referring to professions, eg: She gave up her job in finance to become a teacher.

                                        "The" - the definite article - is used when referring to something singular or plural which has been defined previously or is specific/definite in other ways.

                                        1/ The teacher gave us a long reading list, but said that the most important books to read are the course books at the top of the list.

                                        2/ The foreign student who came to the class is on an Erasmus exchange. (This suggests that there is only one foreign student in the class.)

                                        NO articles are used:

                                        1/ When making general statements about things, eg:

                                        Water is becoming more and more expensive.
                                        (In this case, water, which is a mass or uncountable noun is not defined or specified in any way. It therefore does not take an article - this is different from French.)

                                        Cars are an important source of pollution. (This too is a general statement about cars and so takes no article.  It should be noted, however, that "car" is a countable noun.  When countable nouns are used to make a general statement, they are usually used in the plural!)

                                        2/ No articles are used for countries and languages, eg:
                                        -France is western Europe's largest country. (With the United States, the United Kingdom or the French Republic, the "States", the "Kingdom" and the "Republic" are specific, and so they do take "the" - NOTE, the US takes a singular verb).

                                        - French is spoken in many countries.

                                        • 21 - Vocabulary: common mistakes, "faux amis", etc.

                                          The following is an incomplete list of common vocabulary mistakes.

                                          -Achever. Use to complete (not achieve which means to accomplish).

                                          -Actuellement. Use Presently or currently (not actually which means "in fact").

                                          -Au contraire. Use "In contrast" in most cases ("On the contrary,..." is used more after a negative sentence, whose information is confirmed by "On the contrary,..." and a positive sentence reinforcing the argument of the negative sentence. For example: The weather was not bad today. On the contrary, the sun came out at the end of the afternoon and the evening was very pleasant.)

                                          -Dans le cadre d'un projet de recherche. Use Within the framework of a research project...

                                          -Dans un premier temps, ... dans un deuxième temps, etc. Use To begin with... Next / then... Finally...

                                          -D'un côté... de l'autre côté. Use On the one hand... on the other hand, not On the one side...

                                          -Décevoir. Use disappoint. (To deceive = tromper, duper)

                                          -En même temps. Use At the same time,...

                                          -Eventuellement. Use Possibly or maybe (not eventually which means finally, at the end).

                                          -Globalement. Use Generally or On the whole (globally means more literally in the whole world).

                                          -Figure. Use face, if you do not mean image.

                                          -Hypothèse. Remember, there is an important difference between "assumption" (hypothèse de départ) and "hypothesis" (hypothèse à tester).

                                          -Informations. Remember, "information" is uncountable in English and so always singular!