Have you noticed that your writing in French is missing that je ne sais quoi ?
Do you want to move past simple translated English, but are having trouble finding a voice of your own in French?
This isn’t an uncommon problem for French learners.
After all, it’s one thing to understand what someone is saying, another to be able to communicate back, and yet another to find the degree of fluency that allows you to communicate with the same facility as you would in your native language.
Add to that the fact that writing in French is difficult even for native speakers of French, and you’ve got a whole lot of things to contend with as a French learner.
But don’t worry! There are quite a few tips and tricks we can share to help you elevate your French writing from pure translation to true innovation in French on the page.
“Hang on!,” some of you are saying. “I’m not translating my sentences—I’m writing directly in French!”
If that’s the case, that’s great! But you might still be translating without even knowing it.
The fact of the matter is that no two languages are ever written the same way; that’s why literary translation is such a tough gig.
What we mean by translating isn’t necessarily that you’re literally translating sentences from French to English, but more that you may be calquing what you already know in your native language onto your second language.
Phrased like that, this is kind of an abstract concept, so let’s take a look at three elements of writing style and structure that often pose problems for non-native speakers.
How to Write Strongly in French: 3 Advanced Elements to Focus On
Structuring a French text can be a bit off-putting for a native English speaker, because a text—in this case, we’ll talk about essays—won’t be structured the same way in French as it would be in English.
If you attended school in English, you likely learned to structure your ideas in a five-part essay. The five-part essay is made up of an introduction, three thematic parts and a conclusion. The introduction presents your ideas and thesis statement, the three parts provide three different pieces of evidence proving your thesis statement, and your conclusion rounds everything out.
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis
In French, a different structure is used, called thèse-antithèse-synthèseor thesis-antithesis-synthesis. This explanation in French is a great way to get a handle on it. Basically, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model asks you to approach your argument in four parts, not five.
As in English, you begin with an introduction, but the introduction does not present your thesis statement. Rather, it presents context for your argument, which will follow.
Next, you have the thesis portion. This is where you not only present your thesis statement, but you also defend it. In other words, what an English writer would do over the course of three and a half parts of an essay is done in one part.
Following the thesis is the antithesis. This is the point in the essay where you present contrary evidence; you explain possible alternatives to your thesis. In other words, you play devil’s advocate.
The synthesis portion is kind of your conclusion, but you have one important task: You must explain and prove why your thesis still holds, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, presented in the antithesis portion of the essay.
This model is typically used by the very young, in middle school or high school.
A second model exists in French, one that is used once students are a bit older. In fact, a dissertation is the same model—albeit shorter—that French master’s and doctorate students are expected to use for their mémoire (master’s thesis) or thèse (doctoral dissertation). It’s no wonder there’s a link between the French word dissertation and the English word “dissertation”!
The dissertation resembles the more typical English three-part structure much more closely, with one big difference: Instead of putting a thesis statement at the end of your introduction, as you would in English, you poser un problématique (ask a question).
For instance, if you were writing an English essay proving that FluentU videos are the best tools to help you become fluent, your thesis statement might look something like this:
Watching FluentU videos is a very useful way to learn a foreign language and they may in fact be the most useful tool to achieve fluency.
In French, however, you would write the following:
Les vidéos de FluentU constituent-elles l’outil le plus efficace pour parler couramment une langue étrangère ?
(Are FluentU videos the most effective tool to become fluent in a foreign language?)
In the next parts of your essay, you would seek to answer this question, only typing out your thesis statement in the conclusion of your essay. This sort of logic is called Cartesian logic and stems from French philosopher Descartes, who approached philosophy from a very scientific angle.
2. Sentence Structure
Once you’ve gotten the structure of your essay squared away, the next problem you might encounter is sentence structure. French sentences and English sentences are not necessarily structured the same way, at least not ideally. While it’s possible to calque English sentence structure directly into French, there are a few techniques to make your sentences—for lack of a better term—more French.
Nominalization is an important technique for making your sentences sound more French. The word nominalization basically means “noun-ing.” In short, French sentences use more powerful nouns than English ones do; where English would use a powerful, meaningful verb, French uses a powerful, meaningful noun.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
In English, you might say:
Going to school is important.
In French, you couldsay, “Aller à l’école, c’est important,” or even, “C’est important d’aller à l’école.”
But you would be far more likely to see something like:
L’assiduité à l’école est importante.
(Attendance at school is important.)
Here’s another example. In English, you might read “He published the book in 1944” or “The book was published in 1994.” In French, you’d be more likely to write, “L’édition du livre s’est faite en 1944″ (The publication of the book was done in 1944)or “L’édition du livre a eu lieu en 1944″ (The publication of the book occurred in 1944).
Here are some great exercises for practicing nominalization of adjectives and verbs, and here are a few more examples of nominalization.
Appropriate sentence length
The abundance of conjunctions in French make it quite easy to go on and on. However, although long sentences seem very French, they’re best reserved for established writers or literary legends like Proust. The more modest among us should probably stick to shorter sentences that get our point across more readily.
A good rule of thumb is to limit your use of conjunctions in French to the bare minimum, thus having a greater number of shorter sentences.
Are your sentences are looking good? Great. Now let’s make them look even better!
With all of the short sentences that you have in French, you need to have good ways of linking them, and linking words are something that French is definitely not poor in.
Connecting words can be broken into several categories.
The simplest connecting words to use are coordinating conjunctions, words that simply show a relation between two ideas. There’s an easy mnemonic used to remember the coordinating conjunctions in French:
Mais où est donc Ornicar ? (But where, therefore, is Ornicar?)
And the coordinating conjunctions it reminds you of are:
- mais (but)
- ou (or)
- et (and)
- donc (so, therefore)
- or (yet, well)
- ni (neither)
- car (since, because)
This page gives you some great exercises for practicing use of coordinating conjunctions.
Connectors of causality
Other connectors show causality, words like puisque (because, since)and lorsque (when). These words are often used at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a link between two ideas that will follow, whereas in English, similar words are usually used in the middle of a sentence, after the first idea has already been introduced.
Her mother picked her up because her car had broken down.
Puisque ma voiture était en panne, ma mère est venue me chercher.
(Since my car was broken down, my mom came to pick me up.)
Introduction and conclusion words
The last category of words to encourage flow are words that introduce or conclude a part of your written work:
- tout d’abord (firstly)
- premièrement (firstly)
- deuxièmement (secondly)
- ensuite (then)
- enfin (finally)
- finalement (finally)
- pour conclure (to conclude)
These words are usually used in the first sentence of a paragraph that begins a new part of your essay or dissertation. The use of these words signals to your reader that they’re about to encounter a new thought or part of your argumentative process.
Writing in French is far from a mere matter of learning the words and the conjugation. Try to read as much as you can in French to get a feel for the structure and flow of the written language, and of course watch FluentU videos to get even more ideas on how to practice your newfound skills!
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Choppy French is a recipe for disaster.
Okay, so maybe it’s not that bad…
But nobody wants their French to sound choppy, right?
Luckily, the French language has quite the catalog of transition words to help hold it all together.
And let me tell you, the French love their transition words!
Not only do they keep you from sounding robotic, but they’re also the key to writing effective essays, understanding the literature you’re reading and improving (never stop!) your comprehension and conversation.
They may be little words, and you could ignore them and get the bare gist of things anyway, but you’re not that kind of learner, now, are you?
Let’s get to it and start adding these key ingredients to our nouns, verbs and adjectives.
How to Integrate French Transition Words into Your Diet
Get your feet wet with quizzes
How much do you really know about these words, anyway? Gauging your knowledge with a few quizzes before you delve into any topic is always a good idea. You may even get a little confidence boost when you realize that you already know a sizable handful of transition words!
If your knowledge is looking kind of rough, make sure to study away using the methods below.
Extract transition words from your reading
Transition words are sprinkled all over your French texts (you’re doing your reading, right?). In order to fully understand what you’re reading, knowing transition words is the final frontier. The clarity will be unreal! With this in mind, use the words around transition words to try and guess from context if you’re unsure. If you still aren’t positive as to what a word means, highlight it for later and look it up in one of your French dictionaries.
You’ll find these fun tie-in words in every type of French literature, from children’s books to young adult fiction to classic literary masterpieces. Once you know the bulk of them, you can revel in the wonderful feeling of understanding that much more French text.
Write your own beautiful sentences
I didn’t want to say it, but here it is…practice makes perfect, guys. So get out your pens and paper, and start on those French sentences! Try writing a paragraph that uses four or five transition words.
If you’re more into immersion-based learning, make sure to include appropriate transition words when writing emails to your pen pals, writing entries in your French journal or even in text messages with another French-speaking friend. You’ll sound oh-so-sophisticated.
Use transition words with the subjunctive
The subjunctive is nothing to fear, but sometimes it can be difficult to integrate into the French you actually use. The tendency of some learners is to avoid it (we’ve all been there). Lucky for you, I’ve noted which of the transitional words and phrases below take the subjunctive. It shall be ignored no longer! This will give you some French to use right away while practicing both your transitions and the subjunctive.
If you’re still a beginner, no worries here. Many of these words and phrases don’t require the subjunctive mood. On the other hand, you always could take the opportunity to learn about this ultra-useful and fun French staple.
Tying It All Together: 23 Transition Words for Seamless French
Translation: First of all
D’abord, il faut réchauffer le four. (First of all, you must preheat the oven.)
When you think “transition word,” this may be what you’re thinking. To start with the basics, here’s one of the first transition words you likely learned in French class. It’s best at the beginning of sentences, when giving directions or when recounting a series of events.
Ensuite, je prépare la tarte aux cerises. (Next, I prepare the cherry pie.)
An easy way to remember this one (yet another in the series of your basic transition words), is that la suiteis the sequel or “the next one” in French. It’s a useful piece of vocab when delving into French book series and films, and this transition word is obviously useful for continuing a series of events or directions you may be giving.
Puis, je coupe les pêches. (Then, I cut the peaches.)
Then, you’ve got puis. If you’re unfamiliar with this one, just know that it’ll come up a lot in literature and conversation. It’s a very useful transition word to have under your belt. Puis proves to be a good fallback word to have when some of the more specific transition words slip your mind.
Subjunctive-friendly? Not this one, either.
Enfin, on mange tout. (Finally, we eat everything.)
In our d’abord, ensuite, puis sequence, we end with enfin. This useful word is not only used as a transition to mark la fin(the end) of something, but is also an interjection—a filler word, if you will. It can mean “well,” “all in all,” “I mean” or “at least.” It’s a multi-edged sword. Use it as a transition to an end or to make your conversational French more authentic.
Subjunctive-friendly? Pas du tout (not at all).
5. Ainsi que
Translation: As well as
Je voudrais une tarte aux pommes ainsi que deux boules de glace. (I would like apple pie as well as two scoops of ice cream.)
Getting into some more advanced vocabulary now, this means “just as.” This conjunction is useful when elaborating on something you’re already discussing. It can also be used with a different meaning of “just as,” as in “It went just as I thought.”
6. Après que
Je vais dormir après que je mange toute cette tarte. (I’m going to sleep after I eat all this pie.)
Bet you’re wondering what the difference is between après queand that old favorite après. Après is a preposition, and après que is a compound conjunction. All that means is you use the latter when it’s followed by a verb (like in the example). If you wanted to start a sentence with “after,” then you would use the preposition:
Après, on va partir. (After, we’re going to leave.)
Remember that the quehelps link the clauses, and you should be good to link the night away.
Subjunctive-friendly? Technically, no, but French speakers tend to use the subjunctive after it regardless. So go ahead and get the extra practice.
7. Avant que
Je vais finir la tarte avant que je nettoie la cuisine. (I’m going to finish the pie before I clean the kitchen.)
Similar to après que, this conjunction is not to be confused with its definition without que. The same distinction can be made—avantbeing the preposition in this case and avant quethe compound conjunction.
Subjunctive-friendly? Yes, and don’t you forget it!
8. Bien que
Translation: Although/even though
Il m’a donné une tarte aux pêches bien que j’aie commandé une tarte aux pommes ! (He gave me peach pie even though I ordered an apple pie!)
Careful not translate this one to “good that.” This conjunctive phrase is great for showing contrast and adding “conditions” to things, even though you have to know your subjunctive to use it.
Subjunctive-friendly? Oh, most definitely.
9. Dès que
Translation: As soon as
Dès que la tarte arrive, je vais la détruire. (As soon as the pie arrives, I will destroy it.)
This is usually followed by not the subjunctive, but by a future tense! Makes sense considering the context. This is a great conjunctive phrase to use when making threats, lofty goals and uncertain plans. Très useful.
Subjunctive-friendly? Never, ever.
10. Parce que/car
J’aime les tartes plus que les gâteaux parce que (car) la croûte est magnifique. (I like pies more than cakes because the crust is magnificent.)
You’re likely familiar with parce que, and maybe less so with car. There are some slight distinctions to keep in mind for you nit-picky French speakers out there: Car leans slightly more towards “since” or “for.” Parce que is a little stronger when used in speech. They both mean essentially the same thing, but it’s good to know both of them to add variety to your French conversation.
11. Pour que
Translation: So that
Je fais une tarte pour que tu aies quelque chose à manger ce soir. (I’m making a pie so that you have something to eat tonight.)
Oh, isn’t it great when such a useful conjunction takes the subjunctive? Well, sure it is! That’s how you get practice. Pourmeans for, but for translation purposes, “so that”makes more sense when using this phrase.
Subjunctive-friendly? You better believe it!
12. Quoi que
Translation: No matter what
Quoi que ma mère fasse en cuisine, c’est délicieux. (No matter what my mom makes in the kitchen, it’s delicious.)
I bet your mind is reeling with how much better your French will sound once you get this one down. No matter what the medium is, it’s useful. But you may be noticing an interesting trend: A word that you’re well-versed in (bien, quoi, pour), whenadded to our favorite little word que, can bring out a completely different definition. Keep this in your mental notebook when you read these phrases or hear them spoken!
Subjunctive-friendly? Yes…yet again!
13. Tant que
Translation: As long as
Tant que cette tarte est là, je serai tenté de la manger. (As long as this pie is here, I will be tempted to eat it.)
What’s tantmean anyway? Funny you should ask, because this here is yet another example of fun words being transformed by their trusty sidekick que. Tant by itself means “so much or many,” or can be used to express an indefinite quantity. If you apply that definition back to this transitional phrase, then you can see something of a rough translation that matches “as long as.” But as long as you remember the definition, you’ll be good to go.
Subjunctive-friendly? No, you’re safe on this one.
Comme j’ai mangé trop de tarte, je ne peux pas manger mes légumes. (Since I ate too much of the pie, I can’t eat my vegetables.)
Puisque je l’ai fait, je goûte en premier. (Since I made it, I’ll taste [it] first.)
Even though the definition is the same on these two, there is a slight distinction. Comme is useful for showing both the cause and result in a sentence, whereas puisque just gives an explanation. Comme also likes to hang around at the beginning of sentences, whereas puisque can go in the middle if it so pleases. This distinction will help you sound extra-super pro!
Subjunctive-friendly? No and no.
Je cuisinais quand/lorsquetu es arrivé. (I was cooking when you arrived.)
These are interchangeable when talking about time, though lorsque is a formal upgrade of quand. Gauge the situation when you pick. They both have their own special purpose as well: Quand can mean “whenever,” and lorsque can mean “whereas.”
Subjunctive-friendly? Sadly, no.
Translation: Even though
Je mangerai une autre tranche quoique je n’aie pas faim. (I will eat another slice even though I’m not hungry.)
Okay, I’ll admit…it does get a bit confusing here. We just did quoi que, meaning “no matter what,”and now we’ve got the same thing minus the space in between and all of a sudden it means “even though”? These sound the same when spoken, but you should be able to figure it out based on the context. In addition, bien queand quoique can be used interchangeably. Just another opportunity for you to diversify.
Subjunctive-friendly? You better believe it.
Je veux que tu la goûtes, donc je garde une part. (I want for you to taste it, so I’m saving a piece.)
There is so much to say about this little word. Doncis one of the holy grails of French filler words, one of the little idiosyncrasies of French speech that you’ll pick up while in France and carry with you, smiling, forever. They use it both in the “correct” fashion, showing causation, as well as how we use it in English: “So, here’s the thing.” “So, I was heading to the store.” “So… So… So…” Remember donc. Cherish it. Can you tell this is my favorite French transition word?
Subjunctive-friendly? Not even close.
18. En fait
Translation: In fact
En fait, l’année dernière j’ai gagné une competition. (In fact, last year I won a competition.)
You have no excuses for not remembering this one. It’s spelt and sounds similar to the English definition. Use this phrase before emphasizing an important conclusion or key point.
Translation: However, nonetheless
Cependant, j’aime un bon gâteau de temps en temps. (However, I enjoy a nice cake from time to time.)
Cependantis actually an adverb, but it still functions as a transition word. Use it at the beginning of a sentence to point out an opposition or contradiction. Pourtantis a close cousin, but it’s a little more nuanced, as it indicates that one thing happened when another one was expected to.
Subjunctive-friendly? No! No!
20. En revanche/par contre
Translation: On the other hand, in opposition
Une tarte aux pommes est classique. Par contre, une tarte aux tomates est bonne pour le petit-déjeuner, le déjeuner et le dîner. (An apple pie is classic. On the other hand, a tomato pie is good for breakfast, lunch and dinner.)
The definition is close to cependant, but provides a little clearer contrast. Those make for two great transition words when you’re writing essays in French or can’t decide which type of pie is better.
Subjunctive-friendly? Mais non !
21. En plus/en outre
En outre, il faut choisir un bon parfum de glace pour accompagner la tarte. (Also, one must choose a good ice cream flavor to go with the pie.)
Need to add something that you forgot before? These two are good ways to vary your language and avoid using aussi (also) at every turn. En plusis common in conversation, and it, as well as en outre, is often a better alternative to aussi in written French.
Subjunctive-friendly? Jamais (never).
22. Pour ma part/pour moi
Translation: For me
Pour moi/ma part, je préfère la tarte au citron. (For me, I prefer lemon pie.)
Here are two phrases to use when you want to put emphasis on “me! me! me!” Pour moiis a good way to order at a restaurant, and pour ma partis best for stating opinions.
Subjunctive-friendly? Stop asking. It’s another “no.”
23. À mon avis
Translation: In my opinion
À mon avis, tous ces phrases sont ridicules ! (In my opinion, all of these sentences are ridiculous!)
But when you really want to make it all about you and your opinions, this is the best phrase. To qualify a statement as an opinion, or before you go on a rant about something you’re passionate about, this is a great transitional phrase to use and abuse!
Subjunctive-friendly? This is the last time I’m saying it…nope.
Enfin, you’re well-equipped to speak like a pro, write like an essayist and understand all the details in the French literature you’re devouring.
While there are far more transition words than those listed, knowing the basics will do wonders for your fluency.
Choppy French no more!
And One More Thing…
If you like learning French with fun, authentic material, then you’ve got to try FluentU.
FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks. Since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.
One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:
Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.
Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.
Experience French immersion online!