3 stylistic differences between English and French

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Posted on 
April 6, 2020

You have a translation in front of you, from English to French or from French to English. From the very first line, nothing seems to match. So how do you know if you have a good translation? An awareness of some of the stylistic differences between English and French may provide some helpful insight.

1. Word order

English first qualifies something and then names it, as in the case of “Chinese food,” where “food” expresses the main concept and “Chinese,” the category. In French, the equivalent would be mets chinois. Here, the main concept is expressed first and then qualified. What are we talking about? Food. What type of food? Chinese.

The same difference can be observed in a sentence like “He ran downstairs.” French would say il descendit l’escalier en courant. In this example, English expresses the action with the verb ran, while French expresses the action with the complement en courant; the order is therefore reversed.

So when you’re assessing a translation, it’s normal to feel as though you have to “read backwards.”

2. Prepositions

French uses more prepositions than English. In English, a noun can qualify another. But in French, this practice is not as common; in most cases, a preposition is needed to combine two nouns. For example, “ball gown” wouldn’t be translated as robe bal, but as robe de bal; “management report” would become rapport à la direction or rapport de la direction; and “knitting needles” would be translated as aiguilles à tricoter.

Furthermore, French and English do not always use the same prepositions. Here are a few examples:

Examples of differences in English and French prepositional usage
English prepositions Equivalent French prepositions
A report by the chief financial officer (not of) Un rapport du dirigeant principal des finances (not par)
This order is payable on receipt (not at) Cette commande est payable à la livraison (not sur)
I was waiting for the bus (the preposition cannot be omitted) J’attendais l’autobus (not pour)

3. Gender

It’s well known that English, unlike French, does not use grammatical gender, a fact that can cause headaches for those learning English but most especially for those translating it.

In French, since the masculine form prevails over the feminine, the translator may choose to change the word order or use a synonym to simplify agreement between an adjective or a participle and the word it qualifies. So a phrase such as “relevant results and data” could be translated in different ways, depending on the context.

Ways to translate “relevant results and data” and explanations of the strategies used
Possible translations Strategy
Résultats et données pertinents The French adjective pertinents is masculine plural. However, since it comes immediately after the French noun données, which is feminine, the Francophone reader might wonder if there is an agreement error.
Données et résultats pertinents The feminine noun données changes position so that the phrase ends with a masculine noun, making the agreement more natural.
Résultats et données utiles The adjective utiles is used because it has the same form in both genders.

On the other hand, in the last example, going from French to English, the translator could decide to use “relevant” rather than “useful,” since agreement is not an issue.

As you can see, English and French don’t work the same way. For that reason, it’s very difficult to assess the quality of a translation without understanding the stylistic differences between the two languages.

Ultimately, it all depends on how much confidence you have in your translator. For more information on this topic, I recommend reading the post “Translation: Let's trust the professionals (opens in new window),” also published on this blog. Don't hesitate to ask your translator questions and explain your needs. In return, be prepared to answer your translator’s questions. The more you collaborate, the better the translation will be. And in the process, you’ll be sure to discover other stylistic differences. Feel free to share them in the comment section below.

View bibliography

Delisle, Jean. La traduction raisonnée: Manuel d’initiation à la traduction professionnelle de l’anglais vers le français. 2nd ed. Ottawa: Ottawa UP, 2003.

Canada. Translation Bureau. Clés de la rédaction (opens in new window, French only).

Canada. Translation Bureau. Writing Tips Plus (opens in new window).

Eastwood, John. Oxford Learner’s Grammar. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Québec. Office québécois de la langue française. Banque de dépannage linguistique (opens in new window, French only).

Vinay, Jean-Paul, and Jean Darbelnet. Stylistique comparée du français et de l'anglais. Montreal: Beauchemin, 1990.

Translated by Josephine Versace, Language Portal of Canada

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About the author

Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand has been an English-to-French translator for the Government of Canada since 2009. She specializes in employment, training and project management. In addition to translation, she studied creative writing and music: her tickets to another life in which she would spend her time writing works of poetry, fantasy and science fiction.

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I worked as a mentor for a new lawyer, who had completed his kindergarten to grade 12 education in French. Knowing this, I noticed he used "that" a lot in his writing in English. The "que" would be mandatory in French, but it was not required in English. If I hadn't been aware of his background, I probably wouldn't have noticed.

Thank you for sharing. That is a good example!

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