The genius and logic of French and English

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Here are the warning labels on the sun visors in my Toyota Tacoma:

In almost every line, the French is longer than the English — demonstrably and conspicuously so.

Why does the French feel more comfortable going on at length, while the English is happy being more concise — consistently so in both cases?

This is a phenomenon we have noticed before in different settings, so it is not a fluke.  There must be some reason why speakers of French and English behave this way.  Is it cultural?  Linguistic?

Selected readings

[Thanks to Zihan Guo]


  1. FM said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 12:07 am

    One of the more evident reasons is average word length and the need for words such as articles where English uses zero determiner.
    But also, this is not just French: it’s translated French, and studies have shown that a) it is different from ‘authentic’ (for want of a better word) French, and b) it takes on average 1/3 more space than the English source text it is translated from.

  2. AntC said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 12:31 am

    In my French-English/English-French dictionary [Oxford MiniDictionary], the English-French section is noticeably longer than the reverse.

    That's no surprise: English very often has both an Anglo-Saxon and Romance-derived word for the same or closely-related meanings. As a rule, the A-S words are shorter. (Because English has clipped off the inflections?) Often the A-S or the Romance words have gained narrower/specialised meaning, whereas in a language with a smaller vocab you need to compound words to get the same specialisation.

    Having said that, I find neither warning precise: what does flipping the visor have to do with the air bag? Am I supposed to put the visor up when the bag inflates? But I won't have time or presence-of-mind for that if I'm caught in a bag-inflating situation! And I certainly won't be reading that long CAUTION in either language.

    Why does the French feel more comfortable going on at length, while the English is happy being more concise

    Hmm? The English warning and French avertissement have the same _number_ of words. But the French seems to require more suffixing: 'air bag' in this case doesn't mean a bag filled with air (cp 'shopping bag') (in fact it's rather important there's no air in it under normal circumstances) nor a bag made of air (cp 'paper bag'), but a bag _capable_ of being filled with air = 'gonflable' (costs 6 extra letters).

    English 'bag' from Norman from Old Norse 'baggi' (saved 2 letters by clipping the inflection) wherefrom also Old French 'bague'. But the French prefers 'coussin' (costs 4 extra letters) from which English 'cushion'. I guess the 'coussin gonflable' is thereby clearer as to its precise purpose and modus operandi, whereas you have to recognise 'air bag' or indeed 'airbag' as a compound noun with a sense not guessable from its components.

    English has 'advertisement' — near enough as long as the French — but has clipped it to 'advert' (with a narrower meaning than the French). French has 'warning' — borrowed from English — but only in the narrow sense of 'hazard light'.

    English 'flip' shortened from ME 'filippen' (actually longer than the French, especially if we include the 'over') — has both clipped the inflection and swallowed a syllable. English is allowed to be anarthrous in these sort of telegraphic instructions — and newspaper headlines. (A habit it picked up during the wars? — compare "Naming of Parts" poem.)

    BTW this Br English speaker finds 'visor' not quite right/rather vague. Is that an Americanism? Or a poor translation by Toyota? I think I'd prefer 'sunshade' (follows the French) or 'sun visor'. Although the meaning is clear enough in this highly-constrained context.

  3. Taylor, Philip said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 1:53 am

    Somewhat to my surprise, the TOC for my Collins-Robert has no page numbers for the start of the French-English or the English-French sections, so I had to consult the first and last pages themselves. The French-English section is composed of pp.~1–768, whilst the English-French section is composed of pp.~1–833 (a ratio of ≈ 0.92:1). And I do thank Ant for reminding me of Henry Reed's Naming of Parts, which I love — may I, in return, mention Ivor Gurney's The Silent One, which I have only just discovered. And yes, for speakers of <Br.E>, "sun visor" is required — a visor is what one has on one's motorcycling helmet (or one's tilting helm, if one is a member of the Sealed Knot or similar …)..

  4. lukas said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 2:23 am

    The French here is aiming for a rather formal register (not entirely successfully IMO) whereas the English is in a much more colloquial tone, in line with how companies are expected to address their valued customers in the respective cultures. Formal language is more elaborate and that certainly contributes to the length difference here.

  5. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 3:26 am

    Having worked in a European organisation which has 3 official languages, German, English French, and produces many documents with the three texts in parallel columns, I can tell you that the English text is almost invariably the shortest.

    People who work in the EU can probably confirm this.

    I suspect part of the answer is orthography: silent letters, digraphs and trigraphs for example.

  6. Rob Grayson said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 4:19 am

    As a professional French to English translator, my gut feel is that a French text typically contains about 10-15% more words than its English equivalent. I'm not entirely sure why this is, except (perhaps rather obviously) that French often seems to require multi-word constructions to describe things that English rather pithily sums up in a word or two.

  7. Nathaniel Harari said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 4:26 am

    Thirty years ago (1992 or 93 – I forget), my brother and I were in Paris on vacation (where I live now since many years). We noticed that a Chinese restaurant across from our aunt and uncle's place had the words:

    "Degustation rapide des plats Asiatiques" under their restaurant name.

    Which, as everyone knows in English, can just be shortened to: "Chinese fast food" or, in reality and daily use, just "Chinese".

    That made us laugh at the realisation that yes, indeed, French is a much more convoluted and "longer" language than English in most cases.

  8. Peter Taylor said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 4:46 am

    The French does seem a bit calqued from the English. E.g. COUSSIN GONFLABLE AVERTISSEMENT doesn't look like the right word order.

  9. Dr. Decay said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 4:52 am

    The reasons given above sound plausible, but I think there may be another factor in the length of translated texts. I have found French texts sometimes become longer when translated into English simply because, in order to capture certain nuances (an exclude others) in an original text, it is necessary to use more words. An example I came across only yesterday is the french word "dossier" in a context where we were referring to everything associated with a consortium agreement between several parties – paper documents, but also the process of collecting the partners' comments, designating whose signatures are necessary etc. The French sentence was something like "J'ai pris en main ce dossier."

    DeepL suggested "file" which doesn't convey the meaning at all – we were not just talking about a manila folder with some papers in it. I thought of "matter" as in "I have taken over this matter", but that sounds too vague and a little sinister. We settled on "I have taken over the responsibilty for this consortium agreement" so as to be absolutely clear to our readers what was being taken over. And so 7 french words became 10 english ones.

    If I, the anglophone, and written the entire paragraph in English and then had my French colleague translate, the translated version may well have been longer. That might have been an interesting experiment but we were in a hurry to get our work done. This sort of thing probably happens a lot in the EU, and so documents initially drafted en English are likely to be longer after translation.

  10. Scott Mauldin said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 5:11 am

    The French here is using only the official terms approved by the Academie Francaise, but it is important to realize that languages are often more likely to borrow words from other languages when they are quicker or more concise/convenient that native constructions – so almost by definition when the Academie feels the need to intervene to slow the spread of a foreign import it is because that foreign import is shorter and quicker than a native construction (Coussin Gonflable vs Airbag is a classic example).

    Another unrelated but similar phenomenon I've seen, having been living in France for three years now, is that French culture doesn't really have a concept of being "too much" or "gilding the lily" when it comes to formal or academic language – it's in vogue to make one's title as convoluted and "stuffy" and "stodgy" as possible as a way of showing one's superior erudition and command of complicated terms. French academic papers are almost unreadably convoluted with academic terms. Clear and direct writing is not seen as a virtue, it's seen as simplistic.

  11. AlexB said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 7:09 am

    Spelling certainly plays a part. Working in a bilingual environment (Dutch/French), I was struck by this disparity as well. So I devised a spelling for French (using Turkish as an inspiration) which did away with silent letters and spelled phonemes with a single letter as much as possible. I found I could shorten French texts by about 15-20% this way.
    I have only shown this to one francophone and the reaction was such that I have never dared to repeat the experience.

  12. Erin B said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 9:19 am

    In the early days of mandatory bilingual labeling in Canada, there was a much more consistent tendency toward lengthy and clunky Fench. My father-in-law was in advertising at the time, and claimed it was because because companys' lawyers wanted to make sure the English and French literally "said the same thing" rather than just serve the same purpose. It was especially noticeable in slogans where the English version involved a play on words,. The French version would say the same thing, but land with a thud. Presumably this was also cheaper: it's much easier to provide a direct translation than it is to come up with something catchy and clever.

  13. Robert T McQuaid said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    In conversational phrases such as
    qu'est que c'est
    qu'est se passe-t-il
    French only pronounces one letter of each word, making the written form excessively long while the spoken form is shorter than English.

  14. Paul Frank said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 11:01 am

    French is more wordy than English because the French feel comfortable being wordy. If the French can say something in 20 words that could just as easily be said in 10, they will. As a professional translator from French I'd add that if the French can write something in 30 words that could just as easily be written in 10, they will (Pascal's apology for a long letter notwithstanding: “I have not had time to make it shorter.”). My wife, a native speaker of French who works in Dakar, tells me that this even truer of Senegalese French speakers: they are prolix. (Forgive a rambling aside: I'd add that there's something to be said for redundancy, as a recent Economist article points out: "Another possible use of redundancy is simply to make listening or reading less taxing. If every possible word that can be removed is removed, so that every remaining one is absolutely crucial, listening and reading become stressful. You cannot let your mind wander for even a moment. Such prose is almost too dense with information; even a short passage of this kind would be demanding to read. Sometimes a little room to breathe is no bad thing." James Gleick's The Information is instructive on the subject of redundancy. He notes that some African drum languages rely on redundancy to make up for the loss of vowel and consonant sounds by repeating the pitch sounds of different words in spoken tonal languages. Extra drum beats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Perhaps the extra words in spoken and written French provide cultural context that French speakers appreciate. Brits don't need to talk about the weather as much as they do. It's probably going to rain anyway. But they do talk about the weather, adding context to their social relations. Don't linguists call this phatic communion?)

  15. Sniffnoy said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 12:58 pm


    I believe it's telling you that there is an airbag warning on the other side of the visor and that you should flip it over to read it; it is not itself warning you about the airbag and flipping the visor.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 1:42 pm

    @Paul Frank:

    Nicely explained and elegantly expressed.

  17. Kristian said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 1:56 pm

    If one is really interested in examining the question of whether French texts are longer, the warnings in a car or similar product labelling seems like very, very poor evidence.

    You should at least be comparing texts translated from English into French and then other texts translated from French into English, and preferably looking at translations from other languages into French and English. Is it the case that English novels translated into French become longer and that French novels translated into English become shorter (or at least, increase in length less)? Are classical texts translated into French longer?

    Also, what is "longer"? More words? More characters? Or would it be more sensible to compare how much time it takes to read?

  18. David L said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 3:04 pm

    Is the question really about the psychology of French speakers or is it simply about the nature of the language? For example, wine labels will sometimes say "mis en bouteilles dans nos caves." For the first three words, English simply uses 'bottled.'

    In principle, it seems to me, French could take the noun bouteille, turn it into a verb bouteiller, and from that make a participle bouteillé. But that's not how French works, so you have to use three words instead of one. QED.

  19. Taylor, Philip said,

    April 12, 2023 @ 3:25 pm

    Robert — "In conversational phrases such as qu'est que c'est, qu'est se passe-t-il, [the] French only pronounce one letter of each word, making the written form excessively long while the spoken form is shorter than English."

    I can see that for the first example, but not for the second, where I cannot see passe-t-il being abbreviated to less than /pɑsti:/, so both /p/ and /t/ from passe. Would you agree ?

  20. RfP said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 12:05 am

    @Paul Frank

    If every possible word that can be removed is removed, so that every remaining one is absolutely crucial, listening and reading become stressful. You cannot let your mind wander for even a moment. Such prose is almost too dense with information; even a short passage of this kind would be demanding to read.

    There is so much of value in what you say here!

    First off, I highly agree that redundancy can be crucial to understanding. I like to think about (at least to myself—inside my own mind—when I'm composing text) the importance of "amplificatory (amplificative?) redundancy." Reinforcing the signal, as it were, rather than adding mere noise.

    But one crucial difference between French and English is that French uses what I believe is referred to as sentence stress, while English (the language of hip-hop?) employs variable stress. There's meaning. in. the rhythm. of English!

    As Ian A. Gordon said in The Movement of English Prose,

    “The stress rhythm of Old English prose is thus essentially the stress-rhythm of the prose of today… [Despite the loss of] dozens of unstressed inflexions in the eleventh and twelfth centuries … The basic rhythm of English prose was preserved. It had to be, because more than rhythm was involved. The rhythm of an English spoken sentence has always been part of the meaning. [Emphasis added]

    Or as Ian Dury put it: "Hit me with your rhythm stick!"

    The rhythm helps your mind keep up with the lushly dense prose of English, and… that self-same rhythm works hand-in-hand with the rules of English which, as George Orwell pointed out, allow us to come up with extremely compact words like "sideswipe"—pretty much by snapping our fingers.

    How magical!

    And French, having its own magic, just does it… the French way!

  21. Nigel Cooper said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 3:09 am

    I have noticed that Spanish also needs more words when translated from English. Something to do with the Latin roots I assume. Having said that, my Latin master at school was always commenting on how concise Latin is.

  22. Peter Taylor said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 4:34 am

    @David L, the French verb is actually embouteiller. The choice of mis en may be originally stylistic and then codified in wine labelling regulations.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 6:45 am


    I greatly appreciate all that you say about rhythm in language.

    Whether I'm teaching Mandarin or Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, I always stress with my students the importance of getting the rhythm right. Not only is it a matter of sounding correct, it also relates to proper parsing and intelligent understanding.

    For the sine qua non of rhythm in Sinitic, see:

    Perry Link, An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

    Jerome L. Packard, The Morphology of Chinese: A Linguistic and Cognitive Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

  24. Mary Vasilakakos said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 9:30 am

    French is not more wordy than English nor is it a matter of vocabulary.
    French is an inflected and gender (grammatically) language and structurally there are more forms and they need to agree with each other. It's a fundamental syntactical difference.

  25. Paul Frank said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 10:22 am

    @Mary: I'm a translator from German, French, Italian (and a few other languages) for the Swiss foreign ministry. Every colleague who translates from German and French I've ever talked about this with has agreed that French is more verbose than German, not because French is more inflected than German (which it isn't) but because French writers like the sound of their voices more than German writers: they are more comfortable with verbosity. Is this impression false? And would I be wrong in thinking that 19th-century British and American writers were more verbose than 21st-century writers? 19th-century English is presumably just as inflected as 21st-century English. Given the choice between a German press release or report and a French one, I usually pick the German one. Why? Translating from German is easier because when translating from German I rarely wonder what a source text sentence means _exactly_. When translating from French, I sometimes have to ask the author, and more often than not she or he (usually he) can't really tell me.

  26. Paul Frank said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 11:03 am

    One last comment from me: there is a link between culture and prolixity. Swedes like to talk. Finns less so. Here's a Swedish joke: Två finländare sitter tysta och dricker vodka. Den ena höjer sitt glas och säger "skål!". Det går en halv timme. Samma man höjer igen sitt glas och säger "skål!". Då tittar den andra surt på honom och utbrister: "Kom vi hit för att dricka eller för att tala?". Loosely translated: Two Finns sit in silence, drinking vodka. The first raises his glass and says, "Cheers!" A half-hour later, he raises his glass again and says, "Cheers!" The second man, visibly annoyed, snaps back, "Are we here to drink or to chat?"

    Some versions of this joke have a Swede drinking with a group of Finnish colleagues.

  27. Scott P. said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 11:40 am

    English has 'advertisement' — near enough as long as the French — but has clipped it to 'advert' (with a narrower meaning than the French).

    In my AmE dialect, this is invariably shortened to 'ad'. 'Advert' is non-standard in AmE

  28. RfP said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 11:44 am

    @Paul Frank

    And then there's the story my Swedish teacher told our class in Swedish 1A, lo these many decades ago. She was American and had lived in Sweden for quite a while before becoming an instructor.

    She said that the Swedes were so lively that their idea of a good time was to bring a bottle of Akvavit to a friend's house, knock on the door, enter without speaking, sit in front of the fire and drink for a while, and then silently leave.

    At least, I thought we were learning Swedish. Maybe it was actually a class in Finnish…

  29. Taylor, Philip said,

    April 15, 2023 @ 6:45 am

    The (British) English version of Två finländare sitter tysta och dricker vodka … is as follows —

    Three old boys are sitting on a bench outside the village pub. After some time, a cow heaves into view and slowly makes her way down the lane. When she has completely disappeared from sight, the old boy on the left says "That be Farmer Jones Daisy — she must ’a’ got out of five acre …". Five minutes or so pass, and then the old boy on the right says "That can't be Daisy — she be lame in right ’ind, and always ’as been". A further 15 minutes pass and then the old boy in the middle stands up, and says "Well, I be off — I can't bear to ’ear folks a-arguin’".

  30. Terry K. said,

    April 15, 2023 @ 10:45 am

    Thanks to my library job I came across a recipe name in a Spanish language (Mexican) cooking magazine that nicely illustrated one thing that can make something longer in a Romance language than in English. The recipe name was Cupcakes de Halloween. The only difference from the English is the grammar, which ads an extra word.

  31. Chas Belov said,

    April 16, 2023 @ 6:52 pm

    @Paul Frank: A friend of mine once said, referring to English language plays, that plays today are so tight that if she misses one line she spends the next half hour catching up.

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