Constrained Writing


In 1996 I first heard about a book written without the letter E (Gadsby, by Wright, published 1939). Then a couple of years later I met a French colleague and was telling him about my comic book in French that exclusively uses French-English cognates and one new French word per page. It reminded him of constrained writing, particularly “lipograms”, and he introduced me to the work of Georges Perec, who wrote various works with or without certain vowels. We exchanged DNA poetry. More recently I dabbled in pilish, adding the constraint of writing in haiku verses.

A recent blog post about OULIPO reminded me about my fascination with such things.

The experience of writing my comic in French is quite different to my dabblings in German and Dutch, due to the differences in cognates (similar looking words with similar meaning) in the different languages.  In French it is hard to generate much text initially, but there is soon an abundance of identically spelt nouns, adjectives and verbs (albeit with slightly different endings).  In Dutch and to a lesser extent in German it is possible to write 20-odd words of meaningful text entirely using exact cognates.  But eventually you hit a wall where there are not many verbs to work with.  I’m still figuring out how to get past that wall before I commit to drawing the (publishable) artwork for and publishing a first episode in those languages.


Mots Croisés (Crosswords)



I was recently in Perth for a couple of weeks, so made the most of the opportunity to visit le forum in Fremantle.  It is a lovely little French bookstore in an almost abandoned small shopping mall at the edge of the shopping area of the city.

I came away with a large bundle of books, mostly for reading as a foreign language, but also a couple of crossword books for children.  People may have the impression that crossword books for 8-year olds would be easy for language learners, but that is not the case.  Children seem to be exposed to and know many more nouns than the typical language learner.  I worked my way through a few crosswords in my new Mots Fléchés book for 8-year olds and it revealed the huge gaps in my vocabulary.  Each crossword had a particular theme.  I did ok on common animals (lion, tigre, zebre, léopard, éléphant), European cities and words about Asia (sumo, sushi, sari, panda), but completely failed on words about the snow, medicine or the kitchen.

My other purchase, “Jeux de mots” for 8+, was easier, due to the dense French-style crossword grids that have clues like “the first and 4th letters of the alphabet”, “double vowel”,  “the first two letters of italien”,  “the second person singular of the present tense of avoir”.  (I’ve translated the clues here.)  These provide lots of hints for the other words of the puzzle.  There were also many more core vocabulary words like man, woman, place, with, pretty etc.

I’ve done other crosswords in French or for French in the past.  One book starts with small crossword triangles with simple words up to 3 letters long and 3 clues in total, and works its way up to 12 by 12 grids and the more difficult verb tenses.  I seem to have lost the original though, so I can’t tell you its name or publisher.  ELI has a book entitled “Jeux faciles en français”, which is for primary school children.  They have a page of vocabulary, such as the numbers from 1 to 10, then a join the word to the item, followed by a crossword and word search.  This pattern repeats for each set of vocabulary.  I remember enjoying this kind of activity as a 5-year-old, so perhaps it works for young kids.

I have a couple of books of vocabulary games including crosswords by Maurie N. Taylor, published by the National Textbook Company.  These are for English-speaking students of French, and are not immersive, but can help cement vocabulary.  However, I think that given the amount of vocabulary and language knowledge assumed in the books, that less English could have been used in the book to give more practice.

I also do crosswords in Dutch sometimes.  The children’s ones are possibly marginally easier for me than the simplest adult ones, but again, the adult ones usually provide more cross-clues, which offsets the slightly more difficult language.

I believe it is possible to create immersive crosswords for use at the earliest stages of language learning – certainly for European languages.  I do this in my comic book.  The crossword uses the episode’s target vocabulary and incidental cognate vocabulary, as well as the sentences in the story that have just been read, to provide reading practice and vocabulary production practice without reverting to English.