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Some Aspects of French Negation


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Two-part Construction

French has a two-part negation for verbs, consisting of the ne particle (a global negation), and one of several other words clarifying the type of negation:

  • ne ... pas > "not"
  • ne ... rien > "nothing"
  • ne ... jamais > "never"
  • ne ... jamais rien > "never anything"
  • ne ... personne > "nobody"
  • ne ... aucun(e) > "not any"
  • ne ... plus > "not any more, no longer or no more"
  • ne ... guère > "not much, not any" (archaic)
  • ne ... que > "only"
  • ne ... point > "not, not at all" (mostly literary)

Simple Verbs and Position of the Negation

Usually, the element ne comes before the verb which is marked for tense. Thus a simple verb is usually positioned between the ne particle and the qualifying part of the negation:

Example:

  • « Je ne sais pas. » > "I don't know."
  • « Il ne fume plus. » > "He doesn't smoke anymore."

Note: ne always comes before object pronouns - me (myself), te (you), le (him/it), la(she/it), lui(him/her/it):

  • « Nous ne les invitons plus. » > "We don’t invite themanymore."

The Elided ‘e’- ne and n’

As with other words ending in a vowel in French, the e of the ne particle is elided(contraction)when directly preceding a word beginning in a vowel (or with a silent ‘h’ then a vowel):

  • « Il n’hésite pas. » > "He doesnot hesitate."

Compound Verbs and Position of the Negation

Compound verbs are composed of the past participle of a verb [i.e. mangé (eaten), parlé (talked), which remains unchanged in terms of tense] and an auxiliary (supporting) verb such as have avoir (have) and être (be).

It is the auxiliary verb which is marked for tense, and so it is the auxiliary verb which becomes sandwiched between the first part of the construction, ne, and the second (qualifying) part of the negation:

  • « Je n’ai pas dormi chez moi. » > " I didn’t sleep at home." 

There is an exception, however, when personne (no one) and nulle part (anywhere) are used with compound tenses, with these secondary negation particles following the whole compound verb (and thus following the same negation construction as that of simple verbs):

  • « Nous n'avons vu personne. » > "We didn't see anybody."
  • « Je n’ai vu les enfants nulle part. » > " I didnot see the kids anywhere."

Ne..que (only) in compound tenses can take both positions, depending on the intended meaning, as it is strictly speaking an adverb and not a negation:

  • « Je n’ai pris qu’une pomme. » > "I only took one apple."
  • « Je n’ai pensé qu’à vous. » > "I only thought of you."

In fact, with ne...que the negation construction is not strictly necessary, and the same thought can be expressed positively with the word seulement (only):

  • « J’ai seulement pris une pomme. » > "I only took one apple."

Spoken and Written Usage

In colloquial French it is common to drop the ne altogether in fast speech (but not in writing).

It is also common in current literary style to omit the pas particle with the verbs vouloir (towant), pouvoir (to be able to) and savoir (toknow).

Thus we have:

  • « Je ne sais pas. » (correct)
  • « Je sais pas. » (spoken)
  • « Je ne sais. » (literary — equivalent to "I know not.")

* * * * *

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