In order to write classic-style titles in a French text, the technique of using a préposition before the remaining words of the title is often used. A widely known example is Rousseau's "Du contrat social". Even tough that style is pretty old-fashionned, modern French texts might content such literary sugar, e.g. some news articles or research papers. A few examples, extracted from that website, could be:

  • "De l'incompréhension du propos";
  • "De la méconnaissance du Japon".

I was wondering how the style of those titles could be kept in an English translation and how to have an equivalent English aesthetic effect.

  • 4
    The English equivalent is, for example, On the Origin of Species Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 23:00
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic, requesting translatiion and style advice. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 23:08
  • @FumbleFingers thank you for your answer. It is a shame I forgot that example.
    – Char siu
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 23:15
  • @EdwinAshworth Actually, I browsed the web for an hour to find an answer to my question. That question and FumbleFingers answer may be useful for someone.
    – Char siu
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 23:15
  • 1
    @Lyudline: There's also Of Mice and Men and About a Boy. But they're not really good examples, and offhand I can't think of better ones. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 23:33

2 Answers 2


In this context, the preposition de in French means “about”. This is a relatively rare meaning of the preposition, which is usually closer to “of”. De at the beginning of a title in French comes from de in Latin. In Latin, de in this context means “about” and was often used at the beginning of titles, e.g. De rerum natura “On the Nature of Things”, De legibus “On the Laws”, De contemptu mundi “On Contempt for the World”, … In Latin, and later in French up to the classical period, this form of title was very common for works of philosophy and natural philosophy (i.e. science).

For these Latin titles I've given what seems to be the usual English translation. As you can see, the preposition on is traditionally used. On also traditionally commonly starts the title of books about philosophy and science in English: On Liberty, On the Origin of Species, …

But of is also used, for example Of the Interpretation of Nature, Of Liberty and Necessity, … Rousseau's work is classically translated as The Social Contract or Of the Social Contract.

Starting a title with de sounds as old-fashioned in French as starting a title with on or of does in English.


Starting a title with "On" or "Of" in English isn't old-fashioned at all. It is, however, an indication that the writer has some familiarity with literature.

Consider William Zinnser's classic book, "On Writing Well". The title was not considered "old-fashioned" when it was published in 1976, nor is its title considered old-fashioned now.

  • Do you have a source for it not being considered old-fashioned?
    – JJJ
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 22:44

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