Being Negative in French Expression

Do the French have a negative way of speaking? “Non – ce n’est pas possible !”, “Je n’ai aucune idée”, “J’y peux rien” are a few phrases you are not unlikely to hear in France. For those who consider the French the antithesis of certain populations, such as the bright, sunny Angelenos who offer a positive attitude and many affirmations, here are a variety of ways to show negation.

The Most Standard Negative Expression in French

The most standard negative phrase in French may already deter some, as it has two parts, the ne and the pas. These are placed before and after verbs, e.g., “Je ne sais pas.” This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that negations involving compound tenses and infinitives get a bit more complex, especially when object pronouns are thrown into the mix. Here are some examples of negative phrases:

Je n’ai pas éteint mon téléphone.
Vous n’étiez pas arrivés quand l’entracte a commencé ?
Ils ont cherché les actrices, mais ils ne les ont pas vues.
Elle ne va pas l’écouter.
Nous ne leur en avons pas parlé.
On leur a demandé de ne pas parler pendant le concert.
N’ayant pas assez d’argent, ils ont abandonné l’idée de voir ce spectacle.
C’est en ne partant pas trop rapidement qu’ils ont pu écouter le bis.

Generally, the ne and the pas are placed before and after the conjugated verb, whether this occurs in a simple or compound tense. They are also placed before and after a verb in its present participle form. Object pronouns are placed between the ne and the conjugated verb, except in constructions using the infinitive, in which case they precede the infinitive. They are also placed between the ne and the present participle. Most negative infinitives begin with a ne pas. In some older or very stylized texts, you may see the ne and pas framing the infinitive. The Dictionnaire de la langue française, published by the Académie Française in 1873 , designates “n’aller pas” as a variant of the verb “aller” that, “suivi d’un infinitif”, indicates “s’abstenir de”.  

Negative Expression in French | Image: Unsplash

More Emphatic or Restrictive Way to Show Negation

In addition to the ne... pas negation, French has others that are used in a more emphatic or restrictive way, or to negate a series of items. They function more or less in the same way as ne... pas, with adverbs of negation following the ne... pas pattern and some negations involving indefinite pronouns or adjectives shifting to take the place of subjects or objects within a phrase. Here are some examples:

Ils ne sortent jamais en ville.
On n’avait pas encore acheté les billets.
Il n’y aura plus de places.
On n’entend guère les acteurs.
Vous ne connaissez ni le directeur ni le dramaturge ?
J’ai l’impression qu’ils n’ont point étudié le texte.
Elle ne voit aucune place libre.
Nous n’allons rien voir.
Personne n’est derrière vous. xTu n’as vu Dominique nulle part ?

These sentences negate specific ideas, e.g., “never” for “often”, “not yet” for “already”, and “nowhere” for “everywhere”. The above sentences can be contrasted with their affirmative counterparts:

Ils sortent souvent en ville.
On avait déjà acheté les billets.
Il y aura toujours des places.*
On entend très bien les acteurs.
Je connais et le directeur et le dramaturge.
J’ai l’impression qu’ils ont très bien étudié le texte.
Elle voit quelques places libres.
Nous allons tout voir.
Tout le monde est derrière vous.
Tu as vu Dominique quelque part ?

*Note how the “de” in “plus de” becomes “des” in the affirmative phrase. “Plus de” is an expression of quantity, albeit a negative one, and therefore precedes a noun with no article necessary. Also, negations of partitive articles take “de” rather than a plural partitive article.

Of course, there may be more than one way of negating certain ideas; “jamais” can be the negation of “toujours” or “souvent”, for example. Conversely, “déjà” can be negated by saying “jamais” or “pas encore”, which give two very different degrees of negation.

Take a look at the following phrases and their English translations:        

FR: Elle a déjà répété la scène.
EN: She’s already rehearsed the scene.        

FR: Elle n’a pas encore répété la scène.
EN: She hasn’t yet rehearsed the scene.  
FR: Elle n’a jamais répété la scène.
EN: She’s never rehearsed the scene.

Turning the affirmative phrase into an interrogative phrase might help give a sense of the way in which third phrase above can negate it. “Elle a déjà répété la scène ?” in a certain context can mean “Has she (ever) rehearsed the scene before?” So keeping the meaning of your phrases in mind without being bogged down by the mechanics of negative phrasing is definitely important. However, there are some details in the construction of negative phrases that are worth noting. The negation aucune / aucun + de can replace the adjective aucune / aucun, as with the following:

Aucune des places n’est libre.
Aucun de ces acteurs n’a prononcé cette parole.

Another characteristic of ne... aucune / aucun, shared with the negations ne... personne and ne... nulle part is that they frame the infinitive in a construction with an infinitive complement.        

Il est important de n’aller nulle part avant la tombée du rideau.        
On souhaite n’offenser personne, mais il faudra aborder ce sujet difficile.        
Il est recommandé de ne faire aucun effort physique entre deux séances.  

Negation in a series of items uses the word ni, which can be repeated as many times as necessary and corresponds to the affirmatives et... et... , ou... ou... , and soit... soit... :

Je ne vois ni les acteurs ni le décor sur la scène. Je vois et les acteurs et le décor sur la scène.
On n’ira ni au concert ni au musée ce week-end. Ou ira ou au concert, ou au musée ce week-end.
Vous ne déjeunerez ni au restaurant ni au bistro. Vous déjeunerez soit au restaurant, soit au bistro.  

For elliptical responses involving negations, you can eliminate the ne:

Qui va nous accompagner ? – Personne.
Qu’est-ce que tu as dit? – Rien.
Quand est-ce qu’elle chante ? – Jamais.

Of course, you can contradict negative phrases. For this, you use the word “si”:

“Il ne prend jamais la parole pendant le premier acte.”
“Si.” (Yes, he does!)

This is much easier than contradicting a negative statement in some other languages, such as English, which confuses many native speakers and often takes a bit of clarification.

“He never remembers this line.”  
“Yes.”  — Yes, you’re right, he never does? Or yes, he does, you’re wrong?

I believe the correct response that confirms the negative statement in English is “No”, whereas a contradiction would be “Yes” but it’s confusing to English-speakers all the same, with a “Yes, he does” being much clearer.

How about an interrogative phrase:

“Does he never remember this line?”  
“Yes.”  — Yes, I affirm that he never remembers this line? Or yes, he does, you’re mistaken?
“No.” — No, he never does, you are correct? Or no, your statement is wrong, he actually does?

Using si in French is much clearer:
“Il ne se souvient jamais de ses répliques ?”

This shows that the actor does, in fact, remember his lines. In the case that the actor does not remember his lines, the answer would be “non”.

The “ne” is often dropped in French Casual Speech

One final thing to remember, after all of this discussion about the ne and whatever else may follow, is that in casual speech, the “ne” is often dropped. This occurs not only for ne... pas negation, but for the other negations that are described here. One example of the dropped ne in negation appears at the very beginning of this article, in the phrase “J’y peux rien”, an informal way of saying “Je n’y peux rien”, meaning that the person speaking cannot do anything about the situation at hand. While we cannot avoid the intricacies of negative statements in French, we can embrace their depth and variety, remaining open to all of the negative statements, questions, comments, and concerns that we come across in the French language.  

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