How To Write A Discursive Essay In French

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

1. Structure

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.

3. Flow

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.

Coordinating conjunctions

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!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.

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Advanced Higher French - Discursive Writing

This is the piece of writing you are required to do for Paper II of the external exam. You are required to write an essay of approx. 200-300 words in French on a topic relating to the themes and topics of the 'Language' unit.

This kind of writing is required when you are asked to write an essay which presents two sides of an argument. The ability to do this is also useful for answering questions on literary texts. Marks are given for:

  • content and organization of ideas
  • quality of French in terms of structures, vocabulary and authenticity
  • accuracy (spelling and grammar)

Most marks are given for the first two bullet points. Therefore, it is important to have a clear plan for your essay (to make sure that the material is arranged logically) and to use vocabulary and expressions that have a genuine French ring to them rather than sounding like English translated into French and to be generally more adventurous with vocabulary and structures. You are asked to write between 200 and 300 words. Presenting a series of convincing 'for and against' arguments in so few words is more difficult than if you were writing a longer essay. It is important, therefore, to plan your essay carefully and assemble your ideas before starting to write.


Planning the structure of your essay

The simplest and most effective structure consists of:

  • an introduction
  • the main body of the essay, i.e. arguments for (thèse) and arguments against (antithèse)
  • conclusion (synthèse)

First plan out the 'for and against' arguments. The introduction and the conclusion will both be easier to write when you have done this. Start by writing the main idea or cause for debate (not necessarily the title) at the top of the page. Leave a gap and draw a line down the middle of the page. Label the two sides 'pour' and 'contre' or 'avantages' and 'inconvénients'. Leave another gap for your conclusion.

Some people prefer the spider's web form for organising their ideas. Others like to write down phrases or words that come to mind as they work through the arguments. If you choose this method leave yourself plenty of space so you can circle phrases and link them with a pencil line. When you have finished your outline it is a good plan to number your ideas in the order you want to present them. Remember that your best ideas and strongest points are most effective when they are put last in a paragraph or list. You should therefore keep your own point of view for the second half of the essay and end up with your main point. This will lead you more naturally into your conclusion.


Illustrative question and answer

La dégradation de notre planète est un processus continuel: on peut le ralentir mais on ne peut l'arrêter.

Here is a topic for debate on an environmental issue, showing how facts and ideas might be assembled:


Dégradation de la terre



on ne peut l'arrêter

2. Population - les gens se multiplient

3.Industrie - pollution de l'air, de l'eau

Production de nourriture

1. Instabilité de la nature

- impossible de contrôler

- tempêtes, tremblements de terre

4. Gouvernements ne sont pas en accord

on peut le ralentir

1.a) contrôle de la pollution, progrès déjà faits

3. -recyclage des déchets

- sources d'énergie épuisables - charbon, pétrole - conserver

- le nucléaire

4. nouvelles sources

1. b) capacité de l'homme pour la sauver

5. contrôle des naissances

- action mondiale




Both this way and the spider diagram way of assembling ideas rely on writing down words or phrases in French so that you get an overview of your thinking and put some order into the ideas for and those against.

Avoid making notes in English and trying to translate them into French. This nearly always leads to anglicized French. If you have read a number of articles and discussed the topics of essays in class, you should find that phrases stick in you mind. It helps it you make a habit of writing down useful words and phrases on various themes and if you read through these at regular intervals, including the period before the exam.

Having made your plan, and decided which side of the argument you support, you need to write an introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to present the theme which you are going to debate. It can often take the form of a restatement of the title and be expressed as a question to be answered. So taking the title of this essay you could begin: Est-ceque nous sommes condamnés à accepter la dégradation de notre planète comme inévitable ou pouvons-nous jouer un rôle préventif en limitant autant que possible les effets de la pollution?

You could also make use of a general statement linked to the topicality of the theme: Les médias ne cessent de nous signaler presque tous les jours de nouveaux exemples de la destruction de notre environment and follow this by a question: Cette dégradation, est-elle inévitable ou pouvons-nous limiter ou même la contrôler?

Having written the introduction begin with the side you do not support. Present your ideas in their most effective order, keeping to one idea per paragraph. It makes a better impression if you avoid plunging in with subjective statements like: je crois; je pense; je suis convaincu; or à mon avis. Keep you personal convictions for the conclusion. You can present facts more objectively by:

  1. using an impersonal verb form:- Il est impossible d'ignorer les problèmes posés par la surpopulation
  2. using the 1st person plural of the verb:- Considérons un problème difficile à ignorer: la surpopulation
  3. using the on form:- On ne peut pas ognorer les problèmes posés par la surpopulation

It is better not to overuse these forms though. It is more succinct and just as impersonal to write: Le problème de la surpopulation est préoccupant.

Having given one side of the argument you need to indicate that you are changing your viewpoint. You can do this:-

  1. in the beginning sentence of a paragraph:- Ayant examiné l'impossibilité d'arrêter la dégradation de notre planète, considérons l'antithèse/considérons le problème sous un autre aspect
  2. in a short paragraph on its own:- Face à cette situation que faire? Accepter notre impuissance à réaliser quoi que ce soit ou, par contre, adopter une attitude plus sensée en supposant que nous sommes capables au moins de minimiser la dégradation du globe. A rhetorical question (a question to which you do not give an immediate answer) is a very useful bridging device.

Having presented the opposing, and in your opinion, the more convincing side of the question, all you need to do is add a short paragraph in conclusion. This can:

  • simply state your standpoint:- Quoiqu'il ne nous soit pas possible d'arrêter totalement la dégradation de la planète, je suis persuadé(e) que nous possédons la capacité et les moyens pour contrôler et minimiser les dangers qui menacent l'environnement
  • point a lesson:- Un pas en arrière, deux pas en avant: cela semble résumer le progrès de notre civilisation et ce sera de la même manière qu'on arrivera à résoudre les problèmes de la dégradation de la terre
  • express a hope:- Je préfère vivre dans la certitude que l'homme est capable de résoudre ce problème et dans l'espoir que des mesures seront prises dans un contexte mondial.


Essay phrases and vocabulary

It would be an enormous task to give a definitive list of vocabulary and phrases that could be used in any argumentative essay. The folowing list is based on what students have found useful in giving structure to a piece of writing. It provides only a series of signposts or markers which you will have to fill out with your own ideas and facts. You will find that these marker or structure words sometimes bring you to a halt when trying to put your ideas into order. This is because 'thinking in French' (for the purposes of writing) is often a mixture of thinking in two languages, unless you are totally immersed in them both. So, having remembered an authentic phrase like tous les jours la situation devient de plus en plus préoccupante, you come to a dead stop with 'according to certain scientists' because you can't think of 'according to' or the word for 'scientists' does not come to mind (selon certains scientifiques).

The following words and phrases are given with an English equivalent and sometimes given a context:

  1. Introductory paragraph
  • Nous vivons dans un monde où la violence est devenue une norme (we live in a world where violence has become a norm)
  • Chaque année le nombre d'actes terroristes augmente (every year the number of acts of terrorism is increasing)
  • Il n'est guère possible d'ouvrir le journal sans y découvrir un nouvel exemple de l'inhumanité de l'homme (you can scarcely open a newspaper without finding a fresh example of man's inhumanity)
  • La violence lors des matchs de football est désormais un problème courant (violence at football matches is a very common problem nowadays)

2. How to refer to the title as a whole if necessary

  • Cette affirmation/cette déclaration/cette proposition mérite d'être examinée de plus près (This statement deserves to be looked at more closely)

3. Paragraph openings

  • Examinons d'abord/examinons en premier lieu l'aspect négatif de la question (Let's look first of all at the negative side)
  • Abordons ce problème par une étude de la situation actuelle (Let's tackle this problem by looking at the present situation)
  • Prenons le cas du chômage de longue durée (Take the case of long-term unemployment)
  • Citons l'exemple de ceux qui ont été condamnés à tort pour un crime (Take the example of those wrongly accused of a crime)
  • On peut invoquer plusieurs raisons pour que ce probème demeure (We can think of several reasons why this problem will continue)

4. Structure words within the paragraph

  • Plusieurs facteurs ont contribué à la densité de la circulaion en ville: d'abord les transports urbains ne sont pas suffisants; ensuite la voiture est plus confortable que l'autobus, et enfin le prix des carburants reste relativement modéré (Several factors have contributed to the density of traffic in towns: in the first place urban transport is not adequate; next cars are more comfortable than buses and lastly the price of fuel is relatively low [not currently the case!])
  • d'une part... d'autre part... (on the one hand... on the other hand) D'une part nous ne comprenons pas encore tous les mécanismes de notre climat mais d'autre part certaines tendances comme les sécheresses prolongées sont bien évidentes.
  • cependant; pourtant; néanmoins; tout de même (All have the approximate meaning 'however'; 'yet'; 'nevertheless'; 'all the same'.
  • bref; en un mot (in a word; in short) Bref, quelle autre solution peut-on envisager? (In a word, what other solution can be imagined?
  • quant à... ; en ce qui concerne... ( mean 'as far as... is concerned')
  • dans ce domaine (in this field, area [of thought, activity]) dans le domaine de la physique nucléaire (in the field of nuclear physics)
  • à cet égard (in this respect)
  • par conséquent/en conséquence (as a result)
  • étant donné que (given that)
  • d'une façon ou d'une autre (one way or another)
  • aprés tout (after all)
  • en réalité/en effet (in fact/in reality)
  • malgré (despite) malgré toutes les prédictions des écologistes (Despite all the ecologists' forecasts)
  • grâce à (thanks to) Grâce aux actions des Amis de la Terre (Thanks to the actions of Friends of the Earth).

5. Impersonal statements introduced by 'il'

  • il est + adjective + que + noun: Il est évident/possible/certain/clair que cette politique...(It is possible/probable/certain/clear that this policy...) [N.B. see grammar book for the use of the subjunctive after some phrases of this type]
  • il est + adjective + de + infinitive: Il est dangereux de fermer les yeux devant cette situation; il est impossible d'ignorer ces problèmes; il est facile de ne rien faire; il est important de considérer toutes les possibilités

6. Some other very important phrases

  • il faut (it is necessary) il faut comprendre
  • il faudrait (we ought to; we should) il faudrait s'arrêter de dire (we should stop saying)
  • il reste peu de temps (there's not much time left) il reste peu de temps pour trouver une solution
  • il manque des ressources/il y a un manque de ressources (resources are lacking/there is a lack of resources
  • il s'agit de/il est question de (it is a question of) il s'agit d'une question de valeurs personnelles/il est question de valeurs personnelles
  • il suffit de + noun/infinitive (all that is needed is..) il suffit d'un sourire pour faire confiance aux gens/ il suffit de dire "non!"

7. Increases/decreases

  • Le nombre d'accidents de la route augmente/s'accroît (The number of road accidents is rising).
  • Le taux de naissances diminue (The birth rate is falling/dropping).
  • Une augmentation des salaires (An increase in salaries).
  • Une baisse sur les marchés internationaux (A fall on the foreign markets).
  • Une hausse des niveaux de la mer (A rise in sea levels).
  • Le coût de la vie est en hausse (The cost of living is up).

8. Numbers of people or things

  • La plupart des gens sont.../Bien des gens sont... (The majority of people/ Many people are...).
  • Beaucoup de gens ont refusé de payer leurs impôts (Many people have refused to pay their taxes).
  • Certains prétendent que l'impôt est injuste, d'autres affirment le contraire (Some claim the tax is unfair, others say the opposite).
  • Comme nous l'avons déjà dit/ signalé/fait remarquer/indiqué/affirmé/constaté/souligné (As already stated/indicated/pointed out/shown/noted/stressed).

9. Perhaps/may be

  • Nos scientifiques ont peut-être tort
  • Peut-être nos scientifiques ont-ils tort
  • Peut-être qu'ils ont tort nos scientifiques N.B. Inversion is needed if you begin with peut-être. Similarly with sans doute:
  • Sans doute ces opinions sont-elles mal fondées (Doubtless these opinions are not well-founded). Note also:
  • Il se peut que is followed by the subjunctive - Il se peut que nous ayons tous tort (It may be that we are all wrong).

10. Times and periods

  • de nos jours/à l'époque actuelle/à l'époque où nous vivons (at the present time/nowadays etc.).
  • à l'avenir (in the future).
  • les générations futures (future generations).
  • autrefois (formerly).
  • jadis (in times past).
  • du temps de mon grand-père (in my grandfather's day).
  • à l'âge de pierre (in the stone age).
  • à l'époque médiévale/victorienne (in medieval/victorian times).
  • au début du siècle (at the beginning of the century).
  • dans les années 90 (in the nineties).
  • pendant longtemps (for a long time).
  • en moins d'un siècle (in less than a century).

11. Giving examples/quoting opinion

  • citons en exemple/à titre d'exemple
  • prenons l'exemple de/le cas de (let's take the example of)
  • selon certains chercheurs (according to some researchers).
  • à en croire les experts (if the experts are to be believed).
  • l'un des exemples les plus frappants (one of the most striking examples) N.B. the French spelling - 'exemple'

12. Comparisons

  • certains disent que... d'autres prétendent que... (some say that... others claim that...).
  • Comparées à nos autoroutes, celles de France sont mieux entretenues et aménagées (Compared to our motorways, the French ones are better maintained and have more facilities).
  • faisons une comparaison entre/avec (let's make a comparison between/with).
  • si l'on compare notre époque à celle d'avant-guerre (if you compare out times with those before the war).
  • en contraste à/par rapport à la situation actuelle (compared with the situation today).
  • Le professeur français est mieux payé que son homologue britannique (The French school teacher is better payed than his British counterpart).

13. Conclusions

  • tout bien considéré (taking everything into consideration).
  • en fin de compte (whe all is said and done).
  • il faut conclure que (we must conclude that).
  • en conclusion affirmons que.. (in conclusion let us say that..)
  • Au lieu de sombrer dans le désespoir je préfère adopter une attitude optimiste (Instead of wallowing in despair I prefer to take an optimistic attitude). Quite!

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