As usual, the rentrée has been busy and my blogging has been a little sporadic. But with the shiny new lockdown, things have quietened down (a bit) and I’m back.
Rather than following the ups and down of being stuck at home, again, I thought about my English copywriting experience and what I can bring to you.
Working in France, I often rewrite English content that has been created by non-natives. And, mostly by French people. Every time, many of the same little tell-tale signs bounce back.
So, to help you write more convincing English, I’ve compiled my top 9 tips.
Spaces with punctuation
This is one of the irksome ones. Even French people with a very good command of English like to add spaces before question marks, colons, semi-colons & co. (like in French). When I’m writing from scratch, I now always ask to see the mock-up as one or two extra spaces will have inevitably made a wanted appearance.
Tip: details matter, even those tiny little spaces. So, take care when proofreading.
Lists (with bullet points)
This is quite similar and linked to differences between French and English punctuation. In French, every item in the list is punctuated (usually with a comma or semi-colon) and a full stop at the end. In English, we don’t consider these texts as full phrases – as indicated by the bullet points – and they therefore don’t require any punctuation at all. Not even the last one.
Tip: avoid the temptation to punctuate your lists.
Ellipsis points (…)
In French, ellipsis points spring up everywhere and are used for everything from non-exhaustive lists to implying (rather than stating) or an incomplete phrase. You can also add exclamation marks and question marks at the end.
In English, they are used more sparingly and don’t have nearly as many uses. They are mostly used in reported speech to indicate the omission of a word or phrase in a text without changing the original meaning (in French, this would be […]), or an intentional silence.
Tip: think very carefully before you dot the line. If in doubt, get rid of them.
Not another noun
This is another of my pet hates. Well, hate might be too strong a word. But it’s definitely something that lets me know the culprit is probably French. By picking nouns rather than verbs, you make your text stuffier and more static. So, replace “on your departure” by “when you leave”, and “for the deployment of the project” by “to deploy the project.”
Tip: whenever you can, swap nouns for verbs.
This one follows on from the previous point. Which sounds more natural in English “depart” or “leave” or “take off”? Not peeking!
“Depart” sounds very formal, “leave” is more neutral and “take off” more conversational.
So, unless you’re writing a really formal article, avoid verbs like “depart” with Latin origins. I know this they far more similar to their French counterparts (depart / partir), but you unintentionally add a layer of meaning that shouldn’t be there. The same goes for “commence” (commencer in French). “Start” or “begin” is better in most cases.
Tip: choose your verbs carefully to avoid sounding too stuffy.
This leads on nicely from the previous point. Phrasal verbs are the bane (or holy grail) of English language learners. The more you use them, the more English you sound. The same goes for your writing, particularly for marketing or advertising content that aims to create a conversation with the reader.
This means replacing “remove” with “take off”, and opting for “taking on new challenges” rather than “accepting them”.
Tip: don’t be afraid to use them, a lot. Just be careful where you put the proposition.
Most non-natives are understandably cautious when creating new words. But English is a very creative language that lets you build unlimited combinations, particularly when it comes to adjectives. By adding a hyphen, the word’s your oyster! So rather than using long descriptive phrases like “who was born in England”, opt for the shorter, snappier “English-born”. Why refer to someone as “having fun all the time”, when you can say “fun-loving”?
Tip: remember that you’ve created an adjective that is therefore invariable (“accident-prone” and not “accidents-prone”).
- Convoluting sentences
In French, phrases can be long. Very long. You can add lots of commas, subclauses and even miss out the verb and still be understood (and even poetic). In English, this doesn’t go down so well.
Tip: stick to shorter sentences (with active verbs). Keep lists to 3 or 4 examples, max.
This one always gets me. And sometimes makes me laugh. French people love using English words. They are everyone. But not always in the right places. Or even with the right meaning. A “car park” has become a parking, and “getting your hair blow dried” is faire un brushing. What’s with the extra “ing”? And, don’t even mention baby-foot (table football) or a flipper (pinball machine).
Here’s another handful of examples.
Tip: If you want to laugh the weird ways English people use French words, take a peek: https://youtu.be/I75xU1wM5EU
A few words to finish
These seemingly minor choices actually make a big difference. Sometimes they create confusion, add unexpected nuances or simply sound rather unnatural.
So, next time, you’re writing in English, think take a look at this list before you send or publish.
Do you have any more tips to add? Do you agree (or disagree) with these linguistic insights?
I’d love to hear from you.