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  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

French and English Styles and Punctuation Patterns: Information Flow, Fronting & Postponing

Painting "La folie" by Gustave Doré
La folie by Gustave Doré

Information Flow (Packaging)

Like other languages, to communicate intended messages, both French and English rely on the principles of information flow (packaging), whereby speakers place the most familiar or old (🇹​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇵​​​​​🇮​​​​​🇨​​​​​) information at the beginning and the most important or new (🇫​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇨​​​​​🇺​​​​​🇸​​​​​) information at the end of the sentence.

Information packaging relies on a number of strategies to keep sentences consistent with each other or to move constituents around to shift the emphasis within a sentence, and these differ in speech and writing.


Speech vs. Writing

In speech, to maintain a cohesive conversation and communicate what is important, speakers often use intonation and pausing, in addition to word order variations and specific phrasing patterns.

While English speakers especially relies on intonation (and word order variations) to mark the 🇹​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇵​​​​​🇮​​​​​🇨/ 🇫​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇨​​​​​🇺​​​​​🇸​​​​​, French speakers may instead opt for specific phrasing.

In writing, however, both languages employ word ordering, phrase templates, and punctuation-markings.


Strategy #1: Topicalization by Fronting

Placing of any constituent in front of the subject to make it more prominent as the sentence’s 🇹​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇵​​​​​🇮​​​​​🇨 that links to the previous sentence or contrasts with another 🇹​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇵​​​​​🇮​​​​​🇨. And both languages use topicalization (by fronting) as a stressing and context-linking strategy.

In speech, a fronted 🇹​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇵​​​​​🇮​​​​​🇨 is usually followed by the so-called comma intonation (expressed as a change in intonation followed by a pause). In writing, both French and English tend to signal such comma intonation with an introductory, 🇹​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇵​​​​​🇮​​​​​🇨-marking comma.


Introductory (Fronted) Indirect Object

À lui, je dirais tout.

To him, I would say everything.


Introductory (Fronted) Prepositional Phrase

Use an introductory comma to separate and mark the topicalized prepositional phrase that backward-links to the previous sentence.

Quand nous étions jeunes, nous allions quelquefois au bordel, Montesquieu, Buffon, le président des Brosses et moi. De nous tous, le président était celui qui présentait la figure la plus imposante.

When we were young, we sometimes went to the brothel: Montesquieu, Buffon, the Les Brosses president, and me. Of all of us, the president was the most imposing figure.

Denis Diderot, Correspondance


Introductory (Fronted) Adverbial

Insert an introductory comma to mark the topicalized adverbial:

Tout à fait résolument, il courut vers celui qu’il venait de reconnaître.

Quite resolutely, he ran towards the one he had just recognized.

Ici, on parle anglais.

Here, they speak English.

🚩 In English short sentences, such introductory comma may be omitted:

Après le dîner, le comte a tiré sa révérence.

After dinner(,)the count took his leave.

📛 Make sure, however, that omitting the comma does not cause ambiguity:

After eating, the count took his leave.


Introductory (Fronted) Adverbial: Contrastive Topic

In the compound sentence below, mark the fronted adverbials using introductory commas to mark them as contrastively stressed topics:

Là-bas, règnent misère et désespérance ; ici, le petit peuple évolue dans l’insouciance.

Over there, misery and despair reign; here, the little people lived a carefree life.


Introductory (Fronted) Complement Clause

Que ta famille soit renommée, je m’en suis déjà rendu compte.

That your family is famous, I got that already.


Strategy #2: Topicalization by Left Dislocation

Placing of a 🇨​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇷​​​​​🇪​​​​​ constituent (subject, object, etc.) in front of the clause (to the left) as 🇹​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇵​​​​​🇮​​​​​🇨 (in most cases) and outside the clause boundaries, while keeping its pronominal copy inside the main clause.

A common strategy in the French language, dislocation is often used in conversations as a cognitive shortcut.


Introductory (Left-Dislocated) Subject (if subject is not a pronoun)

Insert an introductory comma to mark the tropicalized subject:

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.

Dislocated version (more common in French)

This noble goal, she had been pursuing for eleven years, without worrying [about the timing] or letting herself getting distracted.

Fronted version (more common in English)

French has a natural penchant for dislocating its main constituents, whether as a fronted topic or a postponed afterthought, each marked with a comma intonation in speech or a comma in writing.

Le danger, c'est qu'à travers cette capricieuse profusion, le lecteur ne distingue aucune image claire.

The danger is that the reader, because of all this capricious profusion, cannot see a clear picture.

[= The danger, it is that the reader, because of all this capricious profusion, cannot see a clear picture.]

Beauvoir, Force des choses

La pharmacie, c’est où ?

The pharmacy, [any idea] where it is?


Introductory (Left-Dislocated) Emphatic Pronoun (if the subject is pronominal)

If the subject of the sentence is itself a pronoun, French still uses the same strategy. However, to avoid repeating the same pronoun in a sentence, French has developed a separate class of the so-called emphatic (stressed) disjunctive pronouns to use as topicalized copies instead:

Moi, je déteste les lentilles !

I hate lentils!

[= As for me, I hate the lentils!]

A disjunctive pronoun is packaged with another subject to form a dislocated compound subject:

Toi et ta collègue, vous avez gâché la soirée !

You and your colleague spoiled the party!

[= You and your colleague, you spoiled the party!]

Julien et moi, on passe toujours nos vacances en Corse.

Julien and I, we always spend our vacations in Corsica.

De quoi parle-t-il, ce livre ?

What is it about, this book?


French Strategy: Contrastive Introductory (Left-Dislocated) Disjunctive Pronoun

Marise chante et moi, je danse.

Marise sings, and I dance.

[= Marise sings, and me, I dance.]

Elle, elle a toujours de la chance. Et lui, a-t-il la même veine ?

She is always lucky. Does he have the same luck?

[= As for her, she is always lucky. And [what about him], does he have the same luck?]


French Strategy: Subject Elision with Topicalized Disjunctive Pronoun

Sentences with disjunctive pronouns may elide (omit) the pronominal subject altogether:

Lui, était tout pâle et tout tremblant.

He was all pale and trembling.

[= Him, [he] was all pale and trembling.]

Zola, Assomm.

Elle fit un pas vers la porte. Lui, bondit.

She took a step towards the door. He jumped up. [Him, [he] jumped up.]

Courteline, cit. Damourette

Le prince était ensorcelé. Elle, voyait à travers lui la France et sa capitale.

The prince was bewitched. And she saw France and the capital through him.

[As for her, [she] saw France and the capital through him.]

Cocteau, Thomas l'imposteu


Strategy #3: Postponement by Right Dislocation

Placing of a 🇨​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇷​​​​​🇪​​​​​ constituent (subject or object) in the end of the clause (to the right) as an afterthought and outside the clause boundaries, while keeping its pronominal copy inside the main clause.

A postponed afterthought is typically preceded by comma intonation:

Je les ferai gras, vos serviteurs, bien enfermés, bien obtus.

I will make them fat, your servants, locked up and very obtuse.

Gustave Flaubert, La tentation de saint Antoin

Alors, on est contentes, les petites ?

Well, are we happy now, girls?


Strategy #4: Postponement of a Clarifying or Contrasting Comment (Afterthought)

In French, postponed elements are often added as an afterthought (as an additional, contrastive, or clarifying remark) using the structure [comma + et (and)]:

Le conflit n'avait rien d'inexpiable, ni d'irréductible.

Nothing was inexpiable about the conflict, nor irreducible.

Le Roy Ladurie, Carnaval de Romans

In English, for a sharper, more dramatic, or surprising break, use a dash:

La Révolution a été aussi féconde pour la langue que pour la nation elle-même, et par ses résultats immédiats et par ses lointaines conséquences.

Both the language and the nation benefited from the Revolution—and from its immediate and distant consequences.

Brunot, Hist.

Il est bête ou méchant, et pas les deux.

He's stupid or meanbut not both.


Postponement of an Appositive List

Appositive usually refers to a noun phrase that defines (elaborates, clarifies, expands on) the noun phrase it follows. Appositives are generally parenthetical and should be set off with comma(s) (for more emphasis, dashes or parentheses).

An appositive list contains a series of equal elements, all of which refer to the same summative principal headword:

Quand nous étions jeunes, nous allions quelquefois au bordel, Montesquieu, Buffon, le président des Brosses et moi.

When we were young, we sometimes went to the brothel: Montesquieu, Buffon, the president of Les Brosses, and me.

When we were young, we sometimes went to the brothelMontesquieu, Buffon, the president of Les Brosses, and me.

Denis Diderot, Correspondance


Postponement of an Appositive Exclamatory Tag

Exclamatory tag (a pseudo-vocative) is another type of a postponed appositive structure.

Que tu brilles enfin, terme pur de ma course !

May you shine at last, the pure end of my race!

Paul Valéry, Fragments du Narcisse


Strategy #5: Focusing via Wh-Clefting

Focusing is used to strongly emphasize the new or the most important information in a sentence. The common focusing strategies involve using special grammatical structures: i.e., it-clefting and wh-clefting.

Wh-clefting is a common focusing strategy used in both English and French:

Ce qu’elle adore, c’est acheter des vieilles chaises.

What she loves is buying old chairs!

💥 Wh-clefting results in a sentence with a long subject that is followed by comma intonation, which French marks with a comma. English, however, strictly prohibits interrupting the continuity between the subject and the verb:

Ce qui me déplaît chez cet auteur, c’est qu’il donne toujours l’impression de prendre ses lecteurs pour des imbéciles.

What I don’t like about this writer is that he always gives the impression of taking his readers for fools.


Strategy #6: Postponement of an Adjective (as an Afterthought)

Unlike in English, noun phrases in French can have both premodified and postmodified adjectives.

The most common structure in French is a noun phrase with the adjective(s) positioned in apposition to its noun head (after the noun):

une mélodie lente et pensive

a slow, pensive melody

When it comes to adjectives, French has a choice that English seems to lack: While English adjectives seem to be glued to their nouns, French is able to separate (extract) the adjective from its noun head and move or postpone it to the right, outside the boundary of the clause. This way, the adjective is parenthesized or added as an afterthought remark:

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne, pensive.

Here, the adjective pensive qualifies Jeanne’s state of mind, not the way she speaks.

In English, the only way to parenthesize a single adjective is to use it as an inverted (premodifying) appositive structure, in which case the movement can only be to the left:

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne, pensive.

Pensive, Jeanne said, “Go back to France?”

Classic (postmodifying) apposition may also work:

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne, pensive.

Jeanne, deep in thought, said, “Go back to France?”

“Go back to France?” said Jeanne, deep in thought.

In English, only adverb can be postponed (parenthesized) to the right (to the post-verbal position) like this. In fact, English adverbs are the most mobile and very prolific in their ability to modify sentences.

Comparing to English, French uses and forms adverbs more sparingly than English, instead relying on the inherent mobility of its adjectives. One ingenuous device in French is to use punctuation to transform adjectives into adverbs:

For example, compare:

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne, pensive.

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne pensive.

The lack of a comma suggests a sudden change in Jeanne’s state of mind: The reader is thus invited to picture a change taking place in Jeanne’s behavior, especially her facial expression and tone of voice. The absence of comma gives the adjective some degree of adverbial force, specifically, of adverbial complement of manner.

Although there is no exact equivalent of such structure in English, the closest meaning can be expressed by an adverb or an appropriate verb:

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne pensive.

“Go back to France?” said Jeanne, wistfully.

“Go back to France?” Jeanne said thoughtfully.

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne pensive.

“Go back to France?” ruminated Jeanne.

Another option is to use the English participle, which has a unique property of merging an adjectival and adverbial senses. It can often be translated as a relative clause as well as a (reduced) adverbial clause, which is why linguists use the term “converb” to describe this use of English participles:

— Rentrer en France ? dit Jeanne pensive.

“Go back to France?” said Jeanne, musing.

Pondering, Jeanne said, “Go back to France?”


Other examples of how adverbs and adjectives are punctuated in French and English:

Pensive, elle médite le vertige d'une chute que n'a précédée aucune ascension.

Lost in thought, she muses on the vertigo of a fall not preceded by a rise.

Tu regardais juste par la fenêtre, pensive.

You were just staring out the window, deep in thought.

Le ministre laisse entendre, pensivement, qu'il est presque prêt à faire une annonce quelconque.

The minister is musing that he is almost ready to make some sort of announcement.

« Je me demande souvent comment ma vie aurait changé si j'y avais été, » dit-elle pensive.

“I often wonder how my life might have changed if I'd gone,” she says wistfully.



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