Comparing French and English Styles and Punctuation Patterns: Parallel, Successive Items in a Series
Updated: Sep 11, 2022
A French politician once wrote that it was a peculiarity of the French language that in it words occur in the order in which one thinks them.
― Ludwig Wittgenstein
As I have discussed in another post, the French language has a natural proclivity for juxtaposing elements in a sentence rather than grouping them into orderly coordinated chunks cemented with an appropriate conjunction.
In rhetoric, such a writing style of linking elements in sentences is called asyndetic parataxis. It describes the way writers choose to arrange phrases and clauses by merely placing them side by side without using conventional conjunctions to link them. Instead, writers often rely on the emphatic effect of association, parallelism in sentence structures, and the prosodic melody or rhythmic pacing of the narrative.
As a literary technique, such writing style in French often produces short, simple sentences as parallel and equally important elements seamlessly strung together and linked with a comma rather than semicolon:
Et puis, très vite, en silence, sans déranger qui que ce fût, sobrement, il mourut.
[And then, very quickly, in silence, without disturbing anyone, soberly, he died.]
Michel Mouton, op. cit.
English, on the other hand, strongly favors coordination through using a conjunction between elements, including before the last item in a series. As a technique, such style of linking is called syndetic parataxis:
La lune luit, un cri retentit dans la nuit.
The moon is shining, and a cry is vibrating in the night.
And finally, the polysyndetic linking, through the use of a repeated conjunction before each item in a series, gives each serial element the same weight and gravity. It can add rhythm, liveliness, and even enthusiasm to the description.
Although rarely used in English, the stylistically marked polysyndetic linking (through the repetitive use of the coordinating conjunctions et, ou, or ni) is commonly used in French:
Il contempla dans les ténèbres un ciel d’un noir total : ni lune, ni étoiles, ni soleil.
He stared out into darkness at a sky of utter blackness: no moon, no star, no sun.
Syndetic Linking (Using a Conjunction)
Between Syndetic Pair/Series of Words, Phrases ◣
J’aime les fleurs et les arbres.
I like flowers and trees.
Je lui ai donné cinq ou six francs.
I gave him five or six francs.
In French, do not insert a comma before the final et (and) or ou (or), i.e., before the last element in a series of parallel items (no Oxford comma):
Elle a acheté des souliers, un sac à main et une robe.
EN (UK): She bought shoes, a purse and a dress.
🚩 Insert a comma in the U.S. English style (which can be omitted in the U.K. English unless needed for clarity) (Oxford comma):
EN (US): She bought shoes, a purse, and a dress.
Between Syndetic Pair/Series of Clauses ◣
👉 Do not use a comma between French clauses sharing the same subject, but separate the English clauses (separating comma):
Je l’ai fait et j’en suis fier.
I did it, and I'm proud of it.
Do not use a comma between French clauses describing closely related events:
Des coups retentirent et les gens coururent dans tous les sens.
Shots rang out, and people ran in all directions.
Add a comma between French clauses describing loosely related events:
Il était loin, et elle n’y pensait plus.
He was far away, and she didn't think about it anymore.
In French, for a sharper break or a dramatic effect, use [comma + et] (emphatic comma):
Nous devons étudier, et puis toi aussi.
In English, for a dramatic effect, use a dash; for a sharper break, use a period (emphatic dash):
We have to study—and so do you.
We have to study. And so do you!
Use a comma before an afterthought (afterthought comma):
— Est-ce que c’est en version originale ?
— Oui, bien sûr, et il y a des sous-titres.
“Is it in the original version?”
“Yes, of course, and there are subtitles.”
Insert a comma in a compound sentence with different subjects:
Vous passez à gauche de la statue, et la pharmacie est dans la quatrième rue à gauche.
Keep to the left after passing the statue, and the pharmacy will be on the fourth street to the left.
🚩 In French, do not insert a comma before the last item in a series of syndetic clauses (no Oxford comma):
Le devoir patriotique appelle, l’armée sonne le ralliement, les réservistes retenus sont conduits vers différentes casernes et les convois en direction du front sont organisés.
EN (UK): The patriotic duty calls, the army calls to rally, the selected reservists are taken to different barracks and the convoys heading to the front are organized.
In U.S. English, insert a comma before the last item (Oxford comma):
EN (US): The patriotic duty calls, the army calls to rally, the selected reservists are taken to different barracks, and the convoys heading to the front are organized.
Omit a comma to emphasize the connection between the clauses:
Quand il pleut des cordes, les villageois se baignent sous la pluie ou les salles de séjour se bondent de monde.
When it rains heavily, the villagers enjoy the rain or they gather in their living rooms.
Insert a comma to deemphasize the connection between the clauses as well as to prevent momentary ambiguity (by separating tâches and l’inactivité):
Quand il pleut, chacun continue à remplir sous la pluie battante ses tâches, ou l’inactivité devient une occupation commune.
When it rains, people go on working in the pouring rain, or inactivity becomes a common occupation.
Insert a comma before the contrastive conjunctions mais/or:
Nous sommes de bons amis, mais nous nous voyons peu.
We are good friends, but we don't see each other very often.
Il faudrait arrive à l’école à 8 heures, or, il y a trop de trafics.
I should be at school by 8 o’clock, but there’s too much traffic.
💥 Separate the closing independent car-clause (because-clause) in French, but keep linking without a comma in English if it’s an integral subordinate reason-clause:
Je m’en vais, car je suis malade.
I'm leaving because I'm sick. [= I'm leaving, for I'm sick.]
Compound Sentence vs. Simple Sentence with a Compound Predicate
👉 Simple sentence with a compound predicate (with one subject):
Ton fils lit tout ce qui est roman et essai et n’ouvre jamais une BD.
Your son reads all novels and essays and never opens a comic.
👉 Syndetic compound sentence (with two subjects):
Ton fils lit tout ce qui est roman et essai, et il n’ouvre jamais une BD.
Your son reads all novels and essays, and he never opens a comic.
Use a comma to clarify, if there are internal coordinating conjunctions (if needed):
Mon ami chasse le rat ou le hérisson ou cultive son jardin.
My friend hunts rats or hedgehogs(,) or cultivates his garden.
A simple sentence with a compound predicate and a compound direct object
Mon ami chasse le rat ou la perdrix, ou il cultive son jardin.
My friend hunts rats or partridges, or he cultivates his garden.
A compound sentence with two independent clauses and a compound direct object
Use a comma to prevent misreading (disambiguating comma):
L'hôpital me va très bien, dit Jules. Je n'aime pas marcher, et souffrir m'occupe.
The hospital suits me very well, said Jules. I don't like walking, and suffering keeps me busy.
Treat a series of predicates like any other series of items:
En ce moment les élèves jouent dans la cour, regardent la télé ou font des parties de jeux de société.
EN (US): Right now, the students are playing in the yard, watching TV, or playing board games.
EN (UK): Right now, the students are playing in the yard, watching TV or playing board games.
Asyndetic Linking (Without a Conjunction)
◥ Between Asyndetic Pair/Series of Words, Phrases
🎵 While English prefers coordination, French gravitates towards asyndetic linking. In both French and English, asyndetic linking is often used poetry and dramas:
Le Père, le Fils, le Saint-Esprit constituent la Sainte Trinité.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit constitute the Holy Trinity.
Ces paroles, cette menace me déchiraient.
These words, this threat tore me apart.
Arland, Terre natale
In French, long subjects may sometimes be marked with a comma that corresponds to comma intonation (introductory topic-marking comma):
Cette échelle des valeurs, cette culture, cette forme d'activité, sont la vérité de l'homme.
That scale of values, that culture, that form of activity constitute his truth.
Saint Exupéry, Terre des hommes
◥ Between Asyndetic Pair/Series of Clauses
💥 Use a comma to connect juxtaposed independent clauses in French, but a semicolon, a dash, or a period in English:
La société n'acceptera jamais cela, elle explosera même.
Society will never accept this; it may even explode.
C’est plus qu’un engouement ou une mode, c’est un phénomène de société.
It is more than a craze or a fad; it is a social phenomenon.
It is more than a craze or a fad—it is a social phenomenon.
Comme tu es fatigué, va te coucher.
You are so tired; go to bed.
You are so tired! Go to bed.
🎵 Stylistically, English prefers coordination:
Le spectacle s'est terminé, les spectateurs se sont dispersés.
The show ended; the spectators dispersed.
The show ended, and the spectators dispersed.
Coordination is especially especially preferred when it comes to predicates:
Va au jardin, cueille quelques pêches.
Go to the garden and pick some peaches.
A simple sentence with a compound predicate (with the same subject [you])
🚩 Insert a comma if there are two different subjects:
[You] Go to the garden, and I’ll pick some peaches with you.
A compound sentence with two independent clauses (with two different subjects)
◥ Between Asyndetic Clauses Reinforced with a Discourse Connective (Transitional Conjunctive Adverb)
🚩 Adding a discourse connective to strengthen the linking between two juxtaposed clauses should not affect the conventional punctuation used between asyndetic clauses—a comma in French and a semicolon in English:
Il arrive, donc je pars.
He's coming; therefore, I'm leaving.
Parle, sinon nous ne nous reverrons plus.
Speak; otherwise, we won't see each other again.
Je n'ai pas réussi à l'examen, et d'ailleurs je dois admettre que je n'ai même pas révisé.
I didn't pass the test; besides, I didn't even study, I must admit. [= I’ve failed the test. Well, to be honest, I didn’t even study.]
Tu étais là, c'est pourquoi il était inutile que je reste.
You were there, so I didn’t need to stay.
Notice that so is a coordinating conjunction, which requires a comma to separate two independent clauses.
Je n'ai pas envie de sortir, et puis je n'ai pas d'argent.
I don't feel like going out; besides, I don't have any money.
Make sure to set off with comma(s) the connective as an emphatic parenthetical element.
💥 The adverb then (referring to a certain moment in the past or the future) can be added to the coordinating conjunction and to produce the connective and then between two independent clauses:
J'ai mangé, puis je me suis habillé.
I ate, and then I got dressed.
Then is neither a conjunction nor a conjunctive adverb: It cannot connect two independent clauses by itself and has to be combined with a legitimate conjunction, e.g., and or but.
In French sentences, insert a comma with the adverb aussi (too) used as the conjunctive adverb c'est pourquoi (so):
Il est trop tard, aussi ne faites rien.
It's too late [anyway], so don't do anything.
💥 Separate the closing independent car-clause (because-clause) in French, but keep linked without a comma in English if it’s an integral subordinate reason-clause:
Je m’en vais, car je suis malade.
In French, the conjunction car should be understood as the English for, a discourse connective that occupies the semantic area between a coordinating conjunction and a conjunctive adverb.
I'm leaving because I'm sick. [= I'm leaving, for I'm sick.]
Polysyndetic Linking (Using Multiple Conjunctions)
◥ Between Polysyndetic Pair/Series of Words, Phrases
🎵 Although rarely used in English, polysyndetic linking (through the repetitive use of the coordinating conjunctions et, ou, or ni) is common in French.
A pair of single words or short phrases do not need to be separated:
Son regard ne marquait ni colère ni haine.
His gaze betrayed neither anger nor hatred.
Musset, Prem. poes., Portia
Insert comma(s) with a pair of longer items for clarity:
Il partit sans régler ni ses dettes d’argent, ni ses dettes d’amitié.
He left without settling either his money debts or his friendship debts.
Insert a comma if the second clause is added as an afterthought (afterthought comma):
Il ne redoute pas le manque, ni le dépouillement.
He does not fear scarcity, nor dispossession.
Add commas with French polysyndetic series, but no commas in English:
Ni les jeux, ni les cirques, ni les longues nuits de beuverie ne rendirent le citoyen d’Athènes heureux.
Neither the games nor the circuses nor the long nights of drinking made the citizen of Athens happy.
You may add commas in English for an emphatic effect (emphatic author's comma):
La terre était belle, et riche, et féconde.
The land was beautiful, and rich, and fruitful.
Lamennais, Paroles d'un croyant
Add commas with a series of longer items in both French and English:
Elle n’écoute ni [les conseils que lui prodiguent son entourage], ni [les rappels insistants des faits divers qui signalent la dangerosité des rues de son quartier], ni [les menaces que profèrent ses compagnons d’infortune].
She does not listen to [the advice given to her by those around her], nor [the insistent reminders of news that signal the dangerousness of the streets in her neighborhood], nor [the threats made by her companions in misfortune].
◥ Between Polysyndetic Pair/Series of Clauses
In both French and English, use commas to separate serial clauses, whether they are a pair or a series:
Soit l'infrastructure existante sera utilisée, soit un nouvel aéroport sera construit.
Either the existing infrastructure will be used, or a new airport will be built.
Car ni l'Allemagne ne triomphera de nous, ni nous ne triompherons de l'Allemagne.
Because neither Germany will triumph over us, nor we will triumph over Germany.
Ou tu es notre ami, ou tu quittes notre groupe.
Either you are our friend, or you leave our group.
French polysyndetic clauses may occasionally omit comma(s) to deemphasize individual elements:
Ni l’amour ne l’enchante ni la haine ne l’émeut.
Neither love enchants him, nor hatred moves him.
Parallelism: a Rhetorical Device Used for Emphasis
In parallel constructions, emphasis on the individual parallel items can be increased by repeating a shared element: conjunction, article, preposition, introductory word, pronoun, or phrase:
J’ai inventé son passé, son présent, son avenir.
I invented its past, its present, and its future.
J’ai écrit aux amis, aux connaissances, aux relations.
I wrote to the friends, to the acquaintances, and to the relatives.
J’étouffe, je suffoque, je ne sais plus que dire.
I can't breathe, I'm suffocating, I no longer know what to say.
Oui ! Va-t'en, crève de rage, détale plus vite, l'humanité bâille à ton nom. Tu lui as agacé les dents avec le sirop de ta tendresse, tu l'as étourdie de tes soupirs, tu l'as fatiguée de mignardises, de sentiment, de bonheur.
Yes! Go away, die of rage, run faster. Humanity yawns at your name. You have irritated its teeth with the syrup of your tenderness, you have stunned it with your sighs, you have exhausted it with sweetness, with feelings, with happiness.
Gustave Flaubert, La tentation de saint Antoine
Subtle Parallelism: Elliptic Structures
To prevent excessive repetition and to add subtlety, parallel structures are often ellipted:
Le marxiste fut grand et gros, le thomiste petit et maigre. Pourquoi pas le contraire ?
The Marxist was tall and fat, the Thomist short and thin. Why not the other way around?
Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Histoires déplaisantes
In French, elliptical parallel structures may involve dislocation:
Vous êtes jeune ; moi, vieillard.
This is an example of an ellipted left dislocation: the marked pronominal copy of the subject is fronted, while the subject itself is ellipted (omitted).
You are young, and I am old. [You are young. Me, old.]
Nous devons étudier, et puis toi aussi.
We have to study, and so do you.
A Special Case of Series: Appositive List
💥 Although it is semantically warranted, appositive lists are not distinguished in the French language.
In English, however, it's an important distinction, marked by specific intonation (with the focus-stress falling on the related summative principal word) in speech and appropriate punctuation in writing (dash(es) or colon).
Et la neige, et la pluie, et le vent, j’ai tout essuyé.
French recognizes that this is an example of an inverted appositive structure but fails to distinguish it.
1. Appositive List + Summative Principal: place a dash between them:
And the snow, and the rain, and the wind—I wiped it all away.
In English, a dash separates a polysyndetic appositive list from its summative principal word all (tout) that follows it.
2. Summative Principal + Appositive List: place a colon between them:
I wiped it all away: and the snow, and the rain, and the wind.
In English, a colon separates a polysyndetic appositive list from its summative principal word all (tout) that precedes it.
Make sure to mark the separation between an appositive list and the part of the sentence with the summative principal word (dash or colon):
Les chasseurs, les chevaux, les chiens, tous étaient éreintés.
The hunters, the horses, and the dogs—all were exhausted.
Other common parallel structures in French:
Moins il fait clair, mieux on y voit.
The less light it is, the better you can see.
It is acceptable to use a comma to separate two independent clauses in proverbial expressions.
Nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont lâches.
Our sins are stubborn, our repentances are cowardly.
It is acceptable to use a comma to separate two independent clauses in short sentences with parallel structures.
Plus on est de fous, plus on rit.
The more, the merrier.
An idiomatic elliptical expression with parallel structures.
Series of Adjectives: Predicative vs. Attributive Modifiers
If a noun is modified by two or more adjectives, the ordering of the adjectives and punctuation rules may be rather complicated for both English and French. In both languages, adjectives may occur in the attributive position (before the verb) or predicative position (after the verb):
◢ Predicative Adjectives
L’été fut long et chaud.
The summer was long and hot.
🎵 In English, when a list of adjectives occurs predicatively, the penultimate and final adjectives tend to be joined by and:
Je crois qu'il [Drieu] nous trouvait « mal élevés », trop bruyants, irréfléchis.
[I think he [Drieu] found us “badly brought up,” too noisy, and thoughtless.]
Philippe Soupault, op. cit.
✦ ✦ ✦
◢ Attributive Adjectives
la belle vieille dame
the beautiful old lady
🎵 In English, the conjunction and occurs less commonly when the list of adjectives is in an attributive position:
Une [molle, grande, forte femme] l'avait abordé au coin de la mairie en ruine. Elle ne prenait que les dollars : il essaya de l'oublier — n'y parvint pas.
A [soft, tall, strong woman] had accosted him at the corner of the ruined townhall. She took only dollars: he tried to forget her—he couldn't.
Michel Mouton, op. cit.
Series of Adverbials (Optional Elements)
French tends to interpret multiple adverbials as parallel items, whether they are positioned canonically (as a closing constituent) or not. English tends to omit serial commas if the adverbials are not of the same class (🇵🇱🇦🇨🇪–🇹🇮🇲🇪–🇲🇦🇳🇳🇪🇷) or if they are listed as progressing from 🇬🇪🇳🇪🇷🇦🇱–🇹🇴–🇵🇦🇷🇹🇮🇨🇺🇱🇦🇷.
Il est parti hier, à sept heures.
He left yesterday at seven o'clock.
With a series of adverbials of different types, set it off with comma(s) if it is interrupting or introductory (but not if it is closing). Internally, punctuate the series depending on what you want to emphasize:
Il y avait, dans le premier quart de ce siècle, à Montfermeuil, près de Paris, une façon de gargote qui n’existe plus aujourd’hui.
EN Option 1: In the first quarter of this century, in Montfermeuil, near Paris, there was an eatery of sorts that no longer exists.
If you want to emphasize each individual item.
EN Option 2: In the first quarter of this century, in Montfermeuil near Paris, there was an eatery of sorts that no longer exists.
If you want to emphasize the time and place adverbials separately.
EN Option 3: In the first quarter of this century in Montfermeuil near Paris, there was an eatery of sorts that no longer exists.
If you want to deemphasize the listing of adverbials.
🚩 If the fronting of adverbials triggers an inversion of the subject and the verb, don’t set off with comma(s), only use internal serial commas:
In the first quarter of this century, in Montfermeuil, near Paris stood an eatery of sorts that no longer exists.