In the French high school and university system, when students write an essay about a precise topic (e.g. "Is discussing renouncing violence?", Bac 2021), and the content of the essay is judged as not treating this precise topic (resulting in general from the misunderstanding of the topic by the student), the essay is said to be "hors sujet" ('off topic').

Being off-topic ("être hors sujet") is a very serious issue, and has normally for consequence a very low grade (from 2/20 to 6/20), no matter the quality of the essay.

(1) Is there an equivalent expression in English, i.e. an expression with a similar usage (in terms of contexts of use and frequency of use)?

Or is "hors sujet" a Franco-French expression, with no good equivalent in English-speaking countries?

(2) How to best translate the French academia-related expression "hors sujet" in English?

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    Doesn't hors jeu mean 'off-side'? I would think you could stay with 'off-topic'. Apr 21 at 6:49
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    This is a specialist question, which requires not so much language expertise as familiarity with with the examining board's marking rules. If all or most teachers in schools use the same expression, it is likely to be derived from the official marking procedures. By the same token, a British sixth form teacher will know whether there is such an expression. Of course, the question is complicated by the proliferation in the U.K. of different examination boards and examining systems AND different Kingdoms!
    – Tuffy
    Apr 21 at 7:36
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    @starckman You're welcome. Examination boards generally provide their markers with a list of the key points that should/could in some way be covered in response to an essay question or passage for comment. I know of a case where a brilliant girl's highly original answer was downgraded because it did not cover any of the points on the checklist. The school challenged and the chief examiner looked at it and wrote apologetically to the school telling them it was the most brilliant essay he had read that year. But I can't recall the word for the checklist. Sorry
    – Tuffy
    Apr 21 at 8:20
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    Does this answer your question? Formal expression for "talking about something unrelated" Any stipulative terminology specific to an individual examination board or scholastic institution is, as Tuffy implies, off-topic on ELU, a site devoted to standard usages. Apr 21 at 10:24
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    @EdwinAshworth Thank you. It does not answer because my question is really about a particular situation : being off topic when writing an academic essay.
    – starckman
    Apr 21 at 10:29

4 Answers 4


Tuffy has already written a valuable and insightful comment in response to the question(s).

Off-topic is not inappropriate as an English substitute. Even Wikipedia translates it as off-topic.

Beside the point and out of scope are also used.

If you are looking for a one-word, you may use extraterritorial, in the figurative sense though. Also, you may note that "hors sujet" itself is not a one-word in French.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer. I upvoted it, but did not accept it, because it responds to the 2) question, but not really to the 1) question. I understand I might not necessarily have a definitive answer on 1), but still consider that my question has its place on this forum since it is not so specific as being about an "individual examination board or scholastic institution", but about a broad marking tradition, and since translation can rarely been separated from cultural/sociological context
    – starckman
    Apr 22 at 4:14
  • An essay can have something off topic. Beside the point and out of scope, no. Wrong context.
    – Lambie
    Apr 22 at 16:56
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    @Lambie I did not get the two last sentences of your comment.
    – starckman
    Apr 23 at 2:02
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    @starckman, while it is true that this answer does not explicitly address (1), you can take the way it answers (2) to imply that the answer to (1) is 'no'.
    – jsw29
    Apr 23 at 15:22
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    @Lambie, it is fairy obvious that by 'the two last sentences' the OP was referring to the two phrases that were punctuated as sentences, even though they were indeed not grammatically complete sentences.
    – jsw29
    Apr 23 at 21:57

OK, so this is about writing an essay as part of an exam. But despite that, discussions about essay writing not within an exam setting also use this idea of off topic. What matters is the term essay, not the term exam or examination to judge whether this works or not in an essay context.

Here is just one example from the Internet that discusses the idea of staying on topic and going off topic when writing an essay. (Sorry, but seems so babyish to my ear but I guess it needed posting to show the usage.)

Staying on Task and Addressing Your Essay Topic

Have you ever composed a beautifully written (brilliantly thought out) essay only to receive a disappointingly low score because you didn’t address the topic? No matter how great your essay is, you’ll never receive a high grade if you don’t address the topic and stick to it. On most standardized tests, for example, writing an essay that is off topic will earn you a zero.

Straying off topic happens to the best of us, but there are plenty of strategies you can use to avoid this common pitfall. [Bolding mine]

The word off topic appears many times in that article:

  • avoid writing an off-topic essay
  • off-topic ideas
  • look for [and remove] any off-topic information

addressing a topic in an essay

  • The French term hors sujet means off topic.

And this term is used in other English-speaking countries as well.

Another example, from Australia:

And then England: Imperial College London

When answering essay questions, focus on answering the question. It’s easy to go off-topic if you don’t plan ahead, so prepare a structure for your answer in advance. You might find it helpful to plan all your answers at the start of the exam, while your mind is fresh.
sitting examinations

[off topic takes a hyphen when it precedes a noun]

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    In these examples, off topic is used in the context of instructions on writing essays, which is relevant to the question, but only indirectly. The question is whether there is a short formula that is standardly used to condemn an essay as off topic, without any need for a further explanation.
    – jsw29
    Apr 23 at 22:07
  • Someone removed my comment. So, I will repeat it. I went to university in France and final exam papers are never handed back to students. Generally, one wouldn't say "condemn an essay". I have no idea what "une copie" (exam paper) looks like when graded. That said, an exam in France is never just an essay. Anyway, off topic is not just applied to essays but to any written answer to a question as well as plenty of other contexts. You only get to see your paper if you make a fuss about your grade. Otherwise, all you see is your grade posted in a list of grades by name on a bulletin board.
    – Lambie
    Apr 24 at 13:48
  • @Lambie "an exam in France is never just an essay". In France, at least for the baccalauréat and for some school subjects, in particular philosophy, the exam is an essay. The topic for the philosophy exam of the bac 2021 is published here huffingtonpost.fr/entry/…. At the university, it may also depend on the subject, but many exams consist in writing an essay about a topic, given in the form of 1 or 2 sentences
    – starckman
    Apr 25 at 3:10
  • @starckman Of course, you know more about lycée exams than I do as I did not attend a lycée in France, only university. But my point about marking (grading) exams still stands. Students don't get to see their exam papers (les copies). AND there is only one translation into English for hors sujet. And hors sujet is used in many contexts, not just as a comment on a "dissertation". Et puis, ça suffit, non?
    – Lambie
    Apr 25 at 15:30

If someone is set a task and does not actually do what was asked, it can be said that they did not meet the brief or fulfill the brief. A brief in this sense means ([Cambridge Dictionary])

a set of instructions or information.


The client for this challenge was none other than Miss USA -- and proud Jersey girl -- Alyssa Campanella. Their challenge was to create a beautiful cake that celebrated her and the things she loves.

Chad said his elaborately decorated cake was streets ahead of Ryan's, and criticized his rival's lack of piping and detail. ... Ryan, on the other hand, had produced several cakes that made reference to Alyssa's lifestyle and interests. ... [The] verdict was that Chad had produced a great-looking cake that didn't meet the client's brief, while Ryan's cake met the brief but wasn't beautiful enough. (Huffpost)

For this anthology, editors Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia commissioned six Spanish-speaking novelists to write stories inspired by Shakespeare and six Anglophones to do the same for Cervantes. ... As is bound to be the case with an anthology, some contributors meet the brief better than others. In a few cases the theme feels artificially attached. (The Grauniad)

  • While this phrase may be used in some settings, it is most definitely not something that a typical instructor in an English-speaking country would write on a student's essay. A student who saw such a comment would probably wonder what it meant. The OP is seeking a standard, established way of expressing this idea, not a creative, original one.
    – jsw29
    Apr 23 at 15:25
  • @Lambie I think these two comments + your answer, together, respond to my question. If the two comments were added into the answer, I would like to accept it.
    – starckman
    Apr 24 at 0:57

“Is there an equivalent expression in English?”

I would say no for University exam marking because practice differs between different English-speaking countries, different Universities, and within universities. We are not French and, contrary to popular national stereotypes, we do our own thing. At least in Britain, and when I was last involved.

Let me illustrate this with an actual example. Many, many years ago I used to do some teaching for the Open University, marking assignments at a distance. One year there was a physical meeting of the tutors on the course in question at Milton Keynes or wherever, and we were all asked to mark the same specimen script — an answer to a specific question. Half of us gave it a very low mark, and half a high mark. Why? Because those of us who marked it down (myself included, of course) thought that it was an answer to the question the student was hoping for, not the one set. To give it a phrase in English:

The student wasn’t answering the question set.

No formal academic expression, no formal regulations, the idiots who let the students con them (aka were kind and sympathetic) went their own sweet way.

But the system does (or perhaps did) have its advantages, although that would be off-topic, I think.

  • If you read about essay writing, you will see "stay on topic". Ergo, off topic can work too. This was about essay writing. "question set" is not right here.
    – Lambie
    Apr 23 at 16:23
  • @Lambie — Even in science, for all the time I was at British secondary school (high school) and most of my time as a university lecturer, we had written examinations with say, four questions to answer, each of which involved writing an essay. e.g. "Write an essay on the role of weak interactions in protein structure." "Essay" might be replaced by "account" or the question might be rephrased as "Describe the role…" If the student wrote about covalent bonds, he was "off-topic" or not "answering the question set". They were all "essay questions" back then. "Question set" is right.
    – David
    Apr 23 at 16:39
  • It's just seems a bit overly specific. I don't question its usage. And in terms of essay writing, but how can you say that English-speaking markers (or graders) wouldn't write "off topic" in the margin of a student's essay? Of course, marking practices are different but not the lingo to refer to why points are deducted, for example. Exams or not, the word off topic is closely associated with essay writing in terms of how to write one and why one might not be good. Or one of its points might not be on topic.
    – Lambie
    Apr 23 at 17:02
  • @Lambie — Oh, I'm very comfortable with "off-topic". I was just thinking what I used to write in term exams that were returned to students. It was always "Answer the question set, not the one you were hoping for!" It was part of making the point that practice was individual. I imagine examiners for standardized national school exams in Britain have to use specific terms, but I wouldn't know about that.
    – David
    Apr 23 at 17:07
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    Well, in France, you don't get to see your final exam papers, unless you make a fuss about an unfair mark. I never saw one, in three years at university there. That said, it seems really obvious to me that a professor might very well write: D, off topic in the States or the UK :) For example.
    – Lambie
    Apr 23 at 22:53

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