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How to write French papers that don’t suck

Quick! Before it’s too late. Before the cynicism of late-winter sets in, make a resolution for 2014 to write French papers that don’t suck. It’s a lofty goal, I know. Unattainable, some might argue. But I say, dream big, because big dreams lead to big disappointments, and what could be more French than disappointment?

So let’s dive right in with the top five:

Four out of the five fall under the fautes de paresse (lazy mistakes) category.

1. Gender

A gender (genre) mistake such as “le femme” is like giving the finger to your French teacher. The laziness of gender errors is staggering to such a degree that it can only be regarded as contemptuous je-m’en-foutisme. Maybe that’s what you were going for? Maybe “le femme” is a critique of phallogocentrism. If you can sell that to your professor, you deserve an “A”. Otherwise, since you’re stuck with a gendered language, you are going to have to prove that you are capable of looking up the gender of a word. Be methodical. Look at every single noun in your paper and ask yourself if you are 100% sure of its gender. When in doubt, look it up.

2. Agreement

Same problem as above, but a little more complicated. Agreement (accord) means, for example, that a verb is conjugated to match its subject in number (Elles vont. NOT Elles va.) and gender (Elles sont allées), or that an adjective matches the thing it modifies in number and gender where necessary (La maison blanche—not blanc), and so on. Once again, you will have to move through your paper methodically. Start with the verbs— possibly with the help of a verb conjugator—and make sure that the conjugation lines up with the subject. Then identify the adjectives and what they modify.

3. Spelling

You can install spelling and grammar tools in Word, although in my experience, French spell check is not as good as English. Or you can use various online spell checkers such as Reverso or Bon Patron, but the best way to check spelling is with a good dictionary such as WordReference.

4. Vocabulary

I learned about WordReference from one of my students a couple of years ago and now I always recommend it. The best thing about it is that it gives sample sentences. For example, without context, you might look up “occupation” and get “métier,” which is correct in the sense of “job,” but incorrect if you are talking about the German occupation of Paris in WWII (l’occupation allemande). Without sample sentences, you may end up being an apparatus with rotating blades (Je suis un grand ventilateur de sport.) instead of a sports fan.

5. Syntax

Word order is tough. There are some good chapters to help you brush up on syntax and grammar in What The French?!   It’s too much to do here in one blog post, but let me give you an important tip: don’t translate from English. Especially not with an online translator—they are really, really, bad. One of these days, I’ll do a post to show you just how bad. Automated translation aside, the danger of translating from English is that you will likely write sentences that are too complex. Write directly in French and keep it simple.

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p.s. Don’t write the paper at 2:14 a.m. as I am doing right now with this post. Who nose what mistakes you might make. (haha. groan. That’s just my disclaimer for all the lazy mistakes that you might find in this post)

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