The Many Facets of Negation in the French Language

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It takes a grammatical expression in two parts to confer a negative aspect to a phrase in French. Native French speaking people do not study any of this, but still practice it perfectly. Myriam Birch explains more in this educational article.

By Myriam Birch

It takes a grammatical expression in two parts to confer a negative aspect to a phrase in French.
The negation for verbs in French is composed first of the 'ne' particle (a global negation), and second of one of several other words clarifying the negation's type:

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

Placement of the Negation with Simple Verbs

Normally, the element 'ne' precedes the verb that is marked for tense. Therefore, a simple verb is usually placed between the 'ne' particle and the characterizing part of the negation:
For instance:

  • 'Elle ne parle pas.' = 'She does not talk.'
  • 'Il ne voyage plus.' = 'He does not travel anymore.'

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

  • 'Ils ne nous ecrivent plus.' = 'They don't write to us any longer.'

    Elision of 'e': ne and n'

    Similarly, to other words terminating in a vowel in French, the 'e' of the 'ne' particle is elided (condensed) when immediately coming before a word starting with a vowel (or with a silent 'h' then a vowel):

  • 'Ils n'hibernent pas.' = 'They do not hibernate.'

    Position of the Negation with Compound Verbs

    Compound verbs are compounded by the past participle of a verb, i.e., 'laisse' (left), 'touche' (touched), which remains unaltered in terms of tense, and an auxiliary (sustaining) verb such as 'avoir' (have) and 'être' (be).

    As it is the auxiliary verb that is marked for tense, it gets inserted between the first part of the structure, 'ne', and the second (qualifying) component of the negation:

  • 'Je ne suis pas encore parti.' = 'I didn't leave yet.'

    There is an exception, still, when 'nulle part' (anywhere) and 'personne' (no one) are used with compound tenses. These secondary negation particles come after the whole compound verb (and thus follow the same negation construction as that of simple verbs):

  • 'Elle n'a cru personne.' = 'She didn't believe anybody.'
  • 'Je n'ai vu mes parents nulle part.' = ' I did not see my parents anywhere.'

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

  • 'Il n'a publie qu'un livre.' = 'He only published one book.'
  • 'Nous avons parle qu'à lui.' = 'We talked only to him.'

    In fact, with 'ne . que' the negation construction is not totally essential, as the same concept can be expressed positively with the word 'seulement' (only):

  • 'Il a seulement paye 15 centimes.' = 'He only paid 15 cents.'

    Spoken Habits vs. Written Form

    In conversational French, it is normal to leave out the 'ne' completely in fast speech (but not in written format).

    It is also usual in modern literary style to drop the 'pas' particle with the verbs 'vouloir' (to want), 'savoir' (to know) and 'pouvoir' (to be able to).

    Thus we have:

  • 'Je ne veux pas.' (correct)
  • 'Je veux pas.' (spoken)
  • 'Je ne veux.' (literary - equivalent to 'I want not.')

    How can I possibly recall of all this, you might say? A great deal of drilling will get you there. Native French speaking people do not study any of this, but still practice it perfectly. You must too. However, when you need to translate technical, financial, or legal documents from English to French, I would recommend that you hire the help of a professional translation company. It will save you time and difficulties, and in the end is worth the investment.

    About the Author:

    Myriam Birch (MA Oxon) is a freelance author, editor, proofreader, and translator, who works with Tectrad's quality control team. Tectrad is a professional translation company, since 1990 offering a wide range of services such as French English translation, Italian translation and others. Article Source: A Language Guide - http://www.a-language-guide.com

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  • Article By: Myriam Birch

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