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Discursive Writing

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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-ce que 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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