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  • Writer's pictureJoachim Lepine

Super-easy syntax tip!

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

Have you ever noticed how French tends to put the end before the means? This is baked right into the grammar of the language.

In everyday parlance, for example, you'll hear things such as La foule est sortie du zoo (end) en courant (means).

...but in English, you wouldn't say "The crowd left the zoo by running" : ) The natural sequence is to go from cause to effect:

"The crowd ran (means) out of the zoo (end)."

In other words, generally speaking, French tends to go from the end to the means, while English tends to go from the means to the end!

Now here's where it gets interesting.

Small phraseological differences such as these were pointed out as early as the 1950s, by Vinay and Darbelnet... but if you pay attention, you'll start to notice that this principle of cause and effect also shows up in larger units of text and even entire paragraphs.

Take this imaginative snippet from a postcard that Joe translated a few years ago:

Selon la légende, les voeux deviennent réalité pour les passants qui lancent, du haut d'un pont, des ailes de fée dans la rivière.

It's easy to miss if you aren't looking out for it, but the French has inverted the end (a wish coming true) with the means (tossing seeds into a local river). If you follow this literally in English, you'll end up with something like:

"According to legend, dreams come true when you toss helicopter seeds down from a bridge into the river."

Notice that the English is not incorrect... but it does fall flat. Would you want to visit this destination? Probably not.

And now, let's reinstate the natural cause-to-effect sequence in English:

"According to legend, passersby can toss helicopter seeds into the river to make a wish come true."

Ah! Now, isn't that infinitely more satisfying? Everything is back in its rightful place. The reader can breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, the fact is that every day, into-English translators (both beginning and more advanced) fall into many traps like these—from inverted cause/effect to broken coupling, choppy wording, awkward sentence endings, inappropriate sequencing, lack of linearity, excessive frontloading, and more.

The good news is that when you know about the word-, sentence- and message-level hallmarks of the English language, you can neatly sidestep these errors and consistently hand in texts that will wow your clients and readers alike.

Check out our upcoming webinars to find out more!

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