French and English Styles and Punctuation Patterns: A Few Style Remarks
Updated: Sep 11, 2022
Commas are more frequent in French than in English, due to the French tendency to juxtapose, prepose, and insert elements, while English is more likely to integrate and coordinate elements.
– Chuquet and Paillard
In their astute observation, Chuquet and Paillard use three verbs to describe the French language:
Asyndetic & Polysyndetic Parataxis,
Sentence Fragments, Parallelism
Juxtaposing means placing elements next to each other, without using a conjunction to link them.
For example, French independent clauses are often connected with a comma, which English considers too weak to hold them and requires that either the comma is reinforced with a conjunction, or it is replaced with a stronger semicolon or a period (or a colon/ dash if appropriate):
Dans la rue un cheval au galop s’arrête, se dresse sur ses pattes arrière, hennit, vide son cavalier, un jeune homme en haillons, lequel tombe, bras en croix, sur le ventre, dans le sable.
[≈ In the street a galloping horse stops, rears up on its hind legs, neighs, throws off the rider; a young man in rags, who falls, his arms outstretched, onto his stomach, into the sand.]
Pierre Guyotat, op. cit.
J’ai mangé, on peut sortir si tu veux.
I’ve had something to eat, so we can go out, if you like.
Elle a toujours un air condescendant, ça m’énerve !
She always looks condescending—it really annoys me
With a series of three or more items, unlike English, French often omits a coordinating conjunction before the last item:
Le Père, le Fils, le Saint-Esprit constituent la Sainte Trinité.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit constitute the Holy Trinity.
In rhetoric, this kind of linking (without a conjunction) is called asyndetic parataxis (from Greek “side-by-side arrangement” of “unconnected” items), which is used to connect equal, parallel, successive elements without using conventional conjunctions.
While French shows a strong preference for asyndetic parataxis, English favors syndetic parataxis, or coordination with conjunction.
As a literary technique, asyndetic parataxis favors short, simple sentences linked with a comma, semicolon, or period to seamlessly string elements together and present them as equally important. Works utilizing asyndetic parataxis as a style often emit a staccato rhythm.
Furthermore, in line with its overall preference for the asyndetic paratactic style, French has a greater tendency to permit a period with sentence fragments (which lack a subject or a verb) for a dramatic stylistic effect:
Acheter anglais. A moins d’être un consommateur averti, c’est bien difficile, pour ne pas dire impossible.
Buying British isn’t just difficult for the informed shopper; it’s very nearly impossible.
In English, the same effect can sometimes be achieved with a dash:
Je combattrai pour l’Homme. Contre ses ennemis. Mais aussi contre moi-même.
I will fight for the Man against his enemies—and against myself.
Saint-Exupéry, Pilote de guerre
In contrast with the French language, English use of the period after sentence fragments as a stylistic effect is relatively infrequent. So, whenever sentence fragments are used, they are significantly stylistically marked. Appropriately, the most common applications for fragments are literature, journalism, and advertisement.
One famous literary example in English is the opening sentence of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House:
Able to get right to the point (pun intended!), sentence fragments are perfect to make a point quickly and emphatically. This makes them invaluable for journalism and marketing.
Remember Volkswagen’s revolutionary ads utilizing the period’s point-making function?
Or who can forget Apple's fondness of sentence fragments?
Spelling finality, the period seems to have fallen out of favor with the social media generation. Using periods may appear rude, I guess, in the potentially infinite medium of the digital scroll.
In a mirrored contrast to asyndetic parataxis, French serial items are often linked through polysyndeton (from Greek many bound together).
This stylistically marked polysyndetic linking relies on the repetitive use of the coordinating conjunctions et, ou, or ni (or another shared element) before each item in a series. It can add rhythm, liveliness, and even enthusiasm to the description:
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.
La terre était belle, et riche, et féconde.
The land was beautiful, and rich, and fruitful.
Lamennais, Paroles d'un croyan
Although rarely used in English, polysyndetic parataxis very common in French.
Both asyndeton and polysyndeton in combination with parataxis are effective ways to create parallel constructions. Often required grammatically, parallelism is one of the most effective methods of emphasis.
Both French and English use parallelism to emphasize the likeness or contrast between items. French poems and dramas are especially prone to using emphatically amplified series by repeating an element shared by all items in the series:
J’ai inventé son passé, son présent, son avenir.
I invented its past, its present, and its future.
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
Topic Fronting & Dislocating,
Subject Stressing (Disjunctive) Pronouns
Preposing means placing in front of a clause of an element that is usually not positioned there. Here, Chuquet and Paillard refer to two special syntactic devices: fronting and dislocation, which often employ the uniquely French emphatic disjunctive pronouns.
These devices are used to emphasize a clause element as the clause’s topic or deemphasize it as a non-topic (often as an afterthought), and they come natural to French speakers.
In fronting, we place a clause element (a direct object, prepositional phrase, often an adverbial) that we want to emphasize in front (to the left) of the subject:
Que ta famille soit renommée, je m’en suis déjà rendu compte.
[≈ That your family is famous, I got that already.]
A complement clause is fronted as the topic.
In left dislocation, we do the same—place the clause element that we want to emphasize in front (to the left) of the clause—but we retain its pronominal copy inside the clause (hence, dislocation):
Ce noble but, elle le poursuivait depuis onze ans, sans compter, sans s’en laisser détourner.
This noble goal, she had been pursuing it for eleven years, without worrying [about the timing] or letting herself getting distracted.
The object of the clause is fronted as its topic.
La pharmacie, c’est où ?
The pharmacy, [any idea] where it is?
The subject of the clause is fronted as its topic.
To emphasize the subject of the clause, especially if the subject is a pronoun itself, French speakers use emphatic disjunctive pronouns:
Elle, elle a toujours de la chance. Et lui, a-t-il la même veine ?
[As for her,] She is always lucky. And [what about him,] is he lucky, too?
Marise chante et moi, je danse.
Marise sings, and [me,] I dance.
In right dislocation, the clause element that needs deemphasizing is copied as a pronoun, and that pronoun is placed in front of the clause (becoming its topic), thus causing the clause element to be postponed to the end of the clause as an afterthought:
Il l'a mordue, le chien, la petite fille.
[≈ It has bitten her, the dog, the little girl.]
A famous example of postponing both the subject and object.
In speech, these devices are used as convenient mental shortcuts; in writing, they usually signal the conversational nature of the narrative and are always marked with a comma.
Interrupting with Asides
Inserting means interrupting the flow of a clause because of an additional comment, an epithet, an expletive, or any kind of an aside remark.
Such asides fit into the clause semantically; however, they are not integrated syntactically (as dependent elements are, for example). To highlight their out-of-place nature, they need to be enclosed with paired punctuation marks (commas, dashes, or parentheses).
The French language loves insertions. French sentences are often interrupted by single dramatic adverbials or epithets.
Il t’a, par simple amitié, dit ses condoléances.
[≈ He has, simply out of friendship, expressed his condolences to you.]
Le ministre laisse entendre, pensivement, qu'il est presque prêt à faire une annonce quelconque.
[≈ The minister is wistfully hinting that he is almost ready to make some sort of announcement.]
La bague fatale brillait à nouveau, distinctement, au doigt recroquevillé, exsangue, presque translucide, de la jeune fille.
[≈ The fatal ring shone again, distinctly, on the finger that is curled-up, bloodless, almost translucent, of the young girl.]
Renaud Camus, Roman-roi, La xjirgule
Tout un monde lointain, absent, presque défunt,
Vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique !
A whole far-away world, absent, almost defunct,
Dwells in your depths, aromatic forest!