Careful With Those French Words

EXACTLY thirty years ago when I was a Secondary Four student in Raffles Girls’ School, I asked my English teacher, Mrs. S., what she thought about using French words in our essays. I may or may not have rattled off concrete examples like raison d’être or coup de grâce. 

As to what she said exactly, I couldn’t recall, but what I remembered was that her response didn’t impress me. It had that prohibitive tone of caution, an annoying lack of adventure: “Wiser not to touch them” seemed to be her advice. Such a loser, I thought, what a killjoy! It wasn’t surprising that she didn’t even applaud my initiative to explore fancy, foreign words. She didn’t precisely because it was an unfamiliar place—a place she’d rather not go, a place she’d feel threatened.

I’ve never ever had any student ask me that question from so long ago, but you can expect I won’t be doing the Mrs. S. thing. Use them, by all means, I’d urge them, but make sure you’ve got your bases covered.

First, remember the words of Professor William Strunk: “Avoid foreign languages.” It’s fine if it is “convenient or necessary to borrow from other languages,” but it becomes a bad habit if you’re “sprinkling” your work with foreign words out of “sheer exuberance or a desire to show off.”

Second, play doubting Thomas if your first encounter with a French word, say sans, for instance, is from a copy of your friend’s essay, never mind if it’s an A-grade showpiece. Do the same if you have spotted the word in The Straits Times, then proceed to do either of these:

(a) Check the dictionary for proper usage
(b) Visit The New York Times and run a search on the word
(c) Go the Google route

I’m erring on the side of caution with model essays because my experience tells me that most of them aren’t model, but mediocre. I’ve noticed, on many occasions, mistakes slip through tiny little cracks (and big ones) in scripts. Now, one can’t blame it squarely on the teachers whose marking duties can get rather overwhelming, but it’s hard to trust some of them, especially the likes of Mrs. S., or Mr. X. who pronounces hyperbole as hyper-bowl, or Madam Y. who says luxury like lug-zoo-ree.

But let’s get back to our word in question: sans. It means without in French, straightforward enough. But a careful writer will note other things in the dictionary entry:

sans |sænz|
(preposition) literary, humorous
without: flavorful vegetarian dishes sans meat, eggs, or milk.

Watch the tone: literary, humorous. Then your mind harks back to that famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue, where Shakespeare portrays the last scene of our lives as a “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Yes, that works. It’s literary, it’s humorous.

Next, watch the usage: what follows after sans is a noun without an article. In other words, you will never find any article, “a,” “an,” “the,” or a possessive following sans. So you can’t say: He walked out into the cold sans his coat.

Now, let’s watch how a Straits Times food writer has written about the thunder tea rice I have almost every week at the Bukit Timah Food Center:

… the crushed tea—a gently pungent blend of ingredients including basil, mint, pumpkin seeds and walnuts—holds the dish together. … The tea might be an acquired taste for some. So for them, a friendlier option may be his vegetarian beehoon ($3), which is served with similar toppings, sans the tea.

Clean and Green
By Foong Woei Wan
The Straits Times, June 8, 2014

Oh, really? Sans the tea? I’d do just one thing to that phrase: drop the French word and go English because it sounds all pompous and silly with my vegetarian bee hoon—which, by the way, tastes only half as good if you have it without the tea.

Language Bites” are reflections on the joys and angst of language usage, from sentence structure to syntax, voice and vocabulary, some why’s and how’s, plus do’s and don’t’s.


3 thoughts on “Careful With Those French Words

  1. Funny you mention this Vivienne. I was very surprised to witness this use of French words in the middle of English texts. Not surprisingly it often comes in food menus, which makes sense I suppose given the reputation of French “cuisine”; however I admit that yes I can’t help but find it pompous. Maybe I’m not quite (adverb) objective.

    PS: option (d) Check with Laurence


  2. That’s another blog post right there: hoity toity menus with funky French. Thanks, Laurence … But of course, one spells center American, not British: center sounds like center, but centre sounds like sen-tra.


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