Thursday, January 24, 2008

Journalism in France and America

Today I was reading the news when I came across two articles on the same subject, one from The New York Times and one from Le Monde. After glancing over each one, it occurred to me that the syntax of the French article seemed more complex than the English article’s; although it’s difficult to take into account the difference between the languages when making such a judgment. I decided to compare their first sentences:

PARIS — Société Générale, one of the largest banks in Europe, was thrown into turmoil Thursday after it disclosed that a rogue employee executed a series of “elaborate, fictitious transactions” that cost the bank more than $7 billion, the biggest loss ever recorded by a single trader.

La Société générale, l'un des piliers du système bancaire français, l'une des références mondiales de la finance, a créé la stupeur, jeudi 24 janvier, en annonçant la mise au jour d'une fraude massive portant sur 40 à 50 milliards d'euros de positions accumulées, commise à l'insu de ses dirigeants dans la salle de marchés de l'établissement financier, et qui a coûté à la banque autour de 4,9 milliards d'euros.

First, the French sentence is longer, containing 69 words to the English sentence’s 46. But the English article is longer overall, at 1219 words to the French article’s 799. Second, the English article contains 27.7 words per sentence; the French article contains 21.89. Thus considering statistics only—which is superficial—the English article appears to be more complex, if overall length and words per sentence are the sole criteria.

But of course these are not the sole criteria. Analyzing the syntax of the sentences reveals that the English sentence is less complex than the French. In fact, it contains two phrases and two subordinate clauses; only two of these are separated by commas from the independent clause. The French sentence, on the other hand, contains four phrases and one subordinate clause, all of these being separated by commas. In other words, the French sentence, while not difficult on an absolute scale, is structurally harder relative to the English sentence.

Now, enough with syntactical analysis. Are the ideas in the French sentence any more difficult than those in the English? Perhaps. Note that the English sentence contains no figurative language; the French sentence, on the other hand, contains the phrase “l'un des piliers du système bancaire français”—literally, “one of the pillars of the French banking system.”

Moving on, we find that the English article contains only one paragraph of more than two sentences. Most of its paragraphs contain one sentence. The French article contains four paragraphs of more than two sentences (and the entire article is about four hundred words shorter than the English one). In general, then (insofar as we may judge from these two articles) the French journalists seem to prefer longer paragraphs and more complex imagery than American journalists. I think that may say something about the American educational system; at the least it indicates that average American newspaper readers are less inclined than their French counterparts to put up with sentences that demand much of anything from their intellects. Unfortunately, of course, these observations are on shaky ground, being drawn from only two articles. A better study would track articles on the same subject in various newspapers over a period of several months, calculating things such as their readability statistics, their syntax, and their use of rhetorical devices.

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