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If I wanted to say "to do something on and off" I'm unsure how to express the "on and off" part.

A literal translation might be "de faire quelque chose sur et en dehors" but I'm not sure if this is correct.

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Related: for an occasional activity rather than something that comes and goes, see Complément de temps qualifiant une action infréquente, mais pas un état infréquent – Gilles Jul 31 '14 at 18:35
up vote 2 down vote accepted

It depends on the time pattern: French and English don't break them up in exactly the same way.

For a habitual action like “I play tennis on and off”, you could say “Je joue au tennis à certaines périodes”; this has no implication on which of the on and off periods are the longer ones. Some other possibilities tend imply shorter on periods: “de manière sporadique”, “sporadiquement”, “de façon intermittente”, “par intermittence”. As for “de temps à autre” or “de temps en temps” or “à l'occasion”, they can mean “now and then” or “once in a while” (i.e. there are no lasting on periods, just the occasional game) as well as “on and off”.

For an interrupted activity like “I knit on and off, when I'm not helping a customer”, you can say “Je tricote par moments, quand je ne suis pas occupé avec un client”.

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Thanks for the comprehensive list. The sense I'm trying to get is "I have studied X on and off for the last 10 years" meaning a year or two of study, a break of a year or two, repeat... – mrbaboo Jul 31 '14 at 23:17
@mrbaboo “Par intermittence” sounds ok for this. But if it's for a CV you may want to be more specific with dates anyway. – Gilles Jul 31 '14 at 23:26
@Gilles, What is CV? – musicwithoutpaper Aug 2 '14 at 14:23
@musicwithoutpaper CV = curriculum vitae = résumé – Gilles Aug 2 '14 at 16:12

De temps en temps

De temps à autre

These two have the same meaning, it means 'from time to time'.
The latter is slightly more formal and could indicate a slightly lesser frequency.

De façon intermittente

It means directly 'intermittently'; it's more precise than the two above.

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If you want say something like switch on or switch off you must say :

Mettre quelque-chose en marche ou à l'arrêt.

You can't say :

Mettre quelque-chose en marche ET à l'arrêt.

because it's one or the other but not the two together.

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Tout simplement "allumer" et "éteindre" – cl-r Jul 30 '14 at 16:11
« To do something on and off » signifie faire quelque chose à certains moments mais pas à d'autres. Ça peut désigner une activité qu'on alterne avec d'autres, ou qu'on pratique à certaines périodes mais pas à d'autres. Traduire par allumer/éteindre est un contresens. – Gilles Jul 30 '14 at 17:28

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