mise à jour 31 mars 2004 - Writing a commentaire ...

Useful phrases
Common mistakes

Guidelines for commentaire

En DEUG1, on vous demande essentiellement de ...
—faire la liste des grands traits de civilisation américaine qui apparaissent dans le texte
— ordonner cette liste de façon logique
—  bâtir un paragraphe autour de chacun de ces traits de civilisation,
— avec une citation par paragraphe.
Les principes ci-dessous viennent compléter ces direcrives de base:
(Voir la fiche spéciale L1)

1. First...

First and above all, take some time to REALLY THINK ABOUT the meaning of the text to be commented on in its historical context, about its main themes, about its interest. What is your overall impression and interpretation of the text? What central issue does the text address? What question does it raise? What is your answer to that question?
It is useless and impossible to start working on the outline without that preliminary investigation.


2.1. Select about nine quotations from the text that seem to be especially meaningful to you after your first analysis of the document.
2.2. For each quotation decide what the underlying concept is. Write a table with concepts and quotations.

racism "... During the civil rights movement [in the 1950s], Southern whites had done much to justify defamatory stereotypes..."
sectionalism "Incidentally, this movement was not, as many assumed, an invention of Northern liberals..."

2.3. Find a/the problematic underlying the document.

2.4. Find a suitable final controlling thesis (C.T.) for your interpretation of the document.

The controlling thesis is your interpretation fo the text summarized in one sentence in your conclusion. All the paragraphs in your commentaire must point to this controlling thesis.
2.5. Write your outline [plan] ...
... using problematic + concepts-quotations + controlling thesis. You may start from the C.T. and move upward to the introduction, always finding links from one paragraph to the previous one. Read your outline again and again to convince yourself that from one step to the next it logically leads your reader to the necessary controlling thesis. Using a computer is especially helpful to organize your ideas.
2.6 Do take some time to check that there are logical links throughout between each section and sub-section of your outline.
It is essential at this stage to tell yourself the final commentaire mentally, or at least, a condensed version of it, to make sure that indeed there are logical links from one paragraph to the next, and that the whole outline can work.


In your introduction you should state:
3.1. the nature of the document
3.2. the author (and what role he played in his or her time if he or she is famous and links with the text)
3.3. the date of the document
3.4. the main theme or issue dealt with in the document and the link between the historical background and this theme (2/3 lines) and how it relates to American culture and civilization.
3.5. A short rendering of the document (4/5 lines) using the main underlying concepts of the text should follow.
3.6. Then state the ensuing problematic (write one question to guide your whole interpretation of the text until the conclusion). (1/2 lines).
3.7. Sketch the outline of your commentaire (give the headings of main parts showing how they are elements of the answer to the problematic).


The comments will be a series of paragraphs.

4.1.1. Begin the paragraph with a heading sentence inserting the concept of the quotation given later in same paragraph (1 sentence). The heading sentence should make the link with the heading of the main section to which it belongs clear. Do not start a new paragraph after that.
4.1.2. Explain what you mean in the heading sentence. (2/3 sentences). Do not start a new paragraph after that.
4.1.3. Introduce and give the quotation. Do not start a new paragraph after that.
4.1.4. Show how the quotation illustrates the heading sentence, and, whenever possible, how the paragraph is linked with and points to your controlling thesis. (1/2sentences). Do not start a new paragraph after that.
4.1.5. Write a transition to proceed to next paragraph. (1 sentence).

Example: (C.T.: The text—a description of the area around Jamestown as discovered in 1607—is a distorted rendering of reality to meet the high expectations of the London Virginia Company).
B- The so-called land of plenty
    Another myth associated with America which has somehow survived to this day is that of America as the land of plenty. It is worth mentioning here that the author of this report on the early days of Jamestown is trying to make the mythical image of America as a land of abundance and the reality of the American soil coincide. He mentions "three fertile iles, about it many of their cornfields," most probably to comply with the views of America from Europe, and perhaps to reassure the share-holders of the Virginia Company. But here the myth of America as a land of plenty was sustained only because the earth was made fertile by the work of the Indians.
C- The kind "savages": suspicion, violence
    An ambiguous image of the Indians prevailed among Europeans at the time. He was seen either ...


5.1. In the first part of the conclusion, summarize your points briefly. ("Thus, we have seen that...").
5.2. In the second paragraph clearly state your controlling thesis —use (a) (new) concept(s) that expresses the outcome of your argumentation, especially the last large section of your comments. Develop your controlling thesis (3 or more sentences).

 6. Do/Do not

6.1. Always make sure that there is a logical link from one idea to the next, from one remark to the following quotation, from one paragraph to the next, from the introduction down to the controlling thesis.
6.2. Do not paraphrase; do not repeat the text.
6.3. Do quote the text at least once in each paragraph. When you quote, use quotation marks and give the quotation entirely, do not drop words!
6.4. Do not write whole paragraphs about the historical background of the text. It is only repeating a lesson, not casting light on the text.
6.5. Do not pass value judgments.
6.6. Do not use present tense as freely as in French. Mind your tenses (T).
6.7. Who are "they"? (WAT)
6.8. Margin on the right.
6.9. Do not end a paragraph with a quotation.
6.10 EACH PARAGRAPH should focus on ONE CONCEPT only.

7. Hints

7.1. Use concepts and print them in bold type in your headings, and in heading-sentences (first sentence in each paragraph)
7.2. Remember that headings are to help you organize your material, but your reader does not read them. So transitions and heading sentences are essential.
7.3. Use "According to the author, ..." or similar phrases ("The writer insists that..., " "the author claims that...", "the writer suggests that ...," "If we are to believe the author, ..." in order to make it clear that you do not share the writer’s views, that you are not gullible, that you keep a critical mind.
7.4. Always check the tenses of the verbs in your commentary. Use past tenses whenever possible.
7.5. Define key concepts and notions (Manifest Destiny, agrarianism,...) in the course of your commentary
7.6. Briefly introduce prominent characters mentioned in the text (Jefferson, Polk, O’Sullivan...) in the course of your commentary.

8. Check-list

8.1. Is there at least one long, untruncated quotation from the text commented on for each paragraph of my comments?
8.2. Are the titles of books, newspapers and magazines underlined and the titles of articles between inverted commas?
8.2.1. Ex.: This is an excerpt from Wilbur Jacobs’s "Frontiersmen and the American Environment," published in American Environmentalism: Readings in Conservation History, edited by Roderick Nash (1990).
8.3. In order to avoid paraphrasing, did I use basic concepts (concepts) typical of American civilization?
8.4. Did I explain—briefly—each key-concept or technical word?
8.4.1. Ex.: ... The writer clearly alludes to Manifest Destiny—the notion that westward expansion, the progress of civilization into the wilderness, the superiority of the white man’s civilization, religion and use of the land was part of a divine plan for America—as he tries to justify the appropriation of Indian lands by the settlers. ...


9.1. The United States est singulier en anglo-américain.

The United States is a utopia in the making.

9.2. "A" majuscule à American, qu'il soit nom ou adjectif.

Americans believe in the American Dream.

9.3. Cas possessif :  le "s" du pluriel régulier sert de "s" au cas possessif.

The Americans' main concern is the state of the economy.
La principale préoccupation des Américains est l'état de l'économie.

The American's main concern is the state of the economy.
La principale préoccupation de cet Américain est l'état de l'économie.

9.4. Les fautes à la mode :

To lead

Utilisation erronée de "lead" au passé.
To lead, I led, led

What led you to think I was ill?
Qu'est-ce qui t'a fait penser que j'étais malade ?

What leads you to think I'm wrong?
Qu'est-ce qui te conduit à croire que j'ai tort ?

To what extent (et non to what extend)

To succeed  -  Ø success

He said he wanted to succeed and he succeeded. Ø Success was his reward for his hard work and ingenuity.
Note:  no "the" [Ø] before success as it is an abstract, undefined noun.

Mention d'une date précise

Dire : This speech was delivered by Jefferson on December 20, 1806.
Ne plus dire : This speech was delviered by Jefferson in December 20, 1806.



Date, nature, author, historical background.

The document to be commented upon is an article entitled "Reconstruction." It was written by Frederick Douglass (1817-1895),  the best-known  black abolitionist, and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, at a time when the reconstruction of the South was the central issue on the American political scene.

A short account of the text

Here, the author tackles the difficult issues of + main concepts from the text. He also deals with + concepts from the text.


We may therefore ask ourselves if ...
It follows then that we may wonder to what extent ...
The obvious issue raised by this document is therefore to know whether ...

Sketching the outline

In order to address this question, we shall first focus on ...  because .... We shall then deal with ... because …. Consequently, we shall discuss … to see how it may lead to a tentative assessment of all these points.

In what follows, we will focus our attention first  upon ... then ... then ...
Finally we will suggest  that ....

As we shall see in what follows, ....


Heading sentence

It can safely be said that …
The author  tries to call attention to the fact that  …

Explaining the heading sentence

In other words, ....

Introducing a quotation

In the text, the author aptly points out that  "........." (lines 23-25).
The author insists that "........." (lines 23-25) .
The writer observes that "........." (lines 23-25) .
Jefferson writes: "........." (lines 23-25) .

Explaining the meaning of a quotation.

The writer here clearly points out that  ...


The above leads into a related issue:  ...
As we have already seen, ... but ...


Summary of the paragraphs

We have seen that ...
In summary, …
All things considered then, …
To round things off …

The controlling thesis

What interests us about this text is the way it  clearly investigates the issue of …
One is bound to conclude that...
We might then say that..
We arrive at the conclusion that …

CONNECTORS/ Link words

in contrast to
because of
neither ... nor  ...
if  ...  then  ...
for exAmple
in other words
yet - nevertheless - in spite of - although - though - even if - even though
moreover - furthermore -
therefore - consequently - thus