12 Points To Master French Negative

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Let’s see how to make a sentence negative in French. In English, : you mostly use “not”. The French negative uses 2 words: ne pas. But there’s more…

First, let’s explain what affirmative and negative mean in French grammar.

What are Affirmative and Negative Sentences?

A negative sentence is a sentence whose verb is negated with the word “not” and an affirmative sentence is… The contrary :-)

I can speak French – affirmative sentence
I can not speak French
– negative sentence

In English, the negative form often take elision (meaning contracts) in writing: don’t, isn’t, aren’t, can’t…

In French, the regular way to make a sentence negative in writing is to use “ne + verb + pas”.

Je parle français => je ne parle pas français

In spoken French, the “ne” can contract to “n'”. But this part tends to glide or even disappear in modern French pronunciation. So you need to train your brain to grab the “pas”! The “pas” will be pronounced!

There are other negative words (French negative adverbs, negative adjectives and pronouns…) that we’ll study below.

Negative in French = “Ne”… “Pas”

You may already know that in order to make a verb negative in French, you surround it by “ne” and “pas”.

Je parle français => je ne parle pas français

The “ne” part of the negation will become “n'” in elision when followed by a word starting by a vowel or a mute h.

J’aime le fromage => je n’aime pas le fromage.

Placement in the sentence of the negative in French

French negative with one verb

If there is only one verb, it’s easy: ne (or n’) before, pas after.

Je regarde la télévision ==> Je ne regarde pas la télévision

French Negation “Ne…pas” Surround the Active Verb

If there are several verbs, in an infinitive construction or in a compound tense such as passé composé, the negation surrounds the “active” verb. The first verb.

1. Je vais partir => je ne vais pas partir.
2. Je suis arrivée => je ne suis pas arrivée .

Using “ne pas” + Infinitive

When you are applying a negation to a verb in the infinitive, the “ne pas” doesn’t surround the infinitive verb, but instead comes directly in front of it.

J’ai peur de ne pas savoir = I am afraid I won’t know.

Note what is hard here is that the English construction doesn’t match the French one at all.

The “ne” Part of the Negative Disappears in Spoken French

“Pas” is definitely the strong point of the common negation. In fact, in modern spoken French, the “ne” glides so much that it often totally disappears.

spoken pronunciation of French verb in negative

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The “ne” Part of the French Negative Disappears in Informal Written French

You are supposed to keep the “ne” of the negative when you write, but with the development of texting, we tend to leave it out in informal writing as well, such as texting, emails and sometimes even in books when writing down a dialogue.

  1. Ce n’est pas => C’est pas
  2. Je n’en sais rien => J’en sais rien
  3. Je n’y vais pas => J’y vais pas

Please note this is not “correct” French. Don’t write this way on your French test! But be aware that this way of spelling is more and more common.

3 remarks about the “pas” part of the French negative

The “Pas” part of the negative sometimes disappear in formal Written French

In formal writing, the “pas” is often omitted.

Cet homme ne peut chanter en public ==> Cet homme ne peut pas chanter en public.

It’s quite formal. I wouldn’t use it in spoken French or regular writing.

The French Negative Adverb “Pas” is Sometimes Used Alone

“Pas” can also be used without a verb. It’s kind of an abbreviation when we don’t repeat the whole sentence.

  1. Ça va ? Oui, pas mal, merci (= ça va pas mal)
  2. Il vient ou pas ? (= il vient ou il ne vient pas)
  3. On peut y aller boire un thé ? Non, pas juste boire un thé. (= on ne peut pas y aller juste boire un thé).
  4. Vous devez être enchantés ? Pas enchantés, mais nous sommes contents. (=nous ne sommes pas enchantés, mais…)

French Negative Adverb “Pas” with Stress Pronoun

The French negative adverb “Pas ” is used in short sentences with stress pronouns (moi, toi, lui, elle, nous, vous, eux, elles)

  1. Qui veut des brocolis ? Pas moi !
  2. Qui est venu à la maison ? Pas elles !

12 French Negative “pas” in Expressions

Many expressions use the French negative adverb “pas”…

  1. Pourquoi pas = why not
  2. Pas vraiment = not really
  3. Pas du tout = not at all
  4. Pas comme ça = not this way
  5. Pas si vite = not so fast
  6. Pas trop = not too much
  7. Pas souvent = not often
  8. Pas encore = not yet
  9. Pas de problème = no problem
  10. Pas vrai ? = isn’t it true?
  11. Pas sûr = not certain
  12. N’est-ce pas = right? Isn’t it so?

Note” The word “un pas” means a footstep.
Il fait un pas en avant = he takes one step forward.

Articles in the French Negative – “Pas De”

Now let’s see what happens to the articles in a negative sentence.

With the definite articles (le, la, l’, les) as well as its contractions (au, aux, du, des), there is no change.

  1. J’ai le vertige => Je n’ai pas le vertige.
  2. Je joue au rugby => Je ne joue pas au rugby.
  3. Je parle des filles => Je ne parle pas des filles.

However, the indefinite articles (un, une, des) and partitive articles (du, de la, de l’, des) become “de or d'” after pas (except when the verb is “être”).

  1. Je fais du jogging => Je ne fais pas de jogging
  2. J’ai un grand-angle => Je n’ai pas de grand-angle But
  3. BUT Je suis une fille – Je ne suis pas une fille (verb is “to be”)

7 Particular French Negatives

There are a number of French negative words used instead of “pas”

Ne + verb + jamais = never

Elle ne voyage jamais = she never travels

Ne + verb + plus = no longer

Elle ne l’aime plus = she is no longer in love with him

Ne + verb + personne = no one

Il n’y a personne = there is no one, there isn’t anyone

Ne + verb + rien = nothing

Elle ne mange rien = she eats nothing, she doesn’t eat anything

There are more negative adverbs like that, but many are old fashion…

1. Ne + verb + guère, ne + verb + point is the old fashion way to say “pas”…
Il ne le connaît guère/point = He doesn’t know him.

2. Ne + verb + nullement = absolutely not
Je n’ai nullement envie de lui parler – I have absolutely no desire to talk to him/her

Negative Adjectives & Negative Pronouns

“Aucun, Aucune” can be negative adjectives (they are then followed by a noun) or negative pronouns (they then replace the noun).

They will agree in number and gender with the noun they modify/ replace.

1. Je n’ai aucune amie = I have no (girl) friend.
2. Aucune chance ! = No way! Not a chance!
3. Aucun problème ! = No problem.
4. Des amies ? Je n’en ai aucune = (Girl) friends ? I have none.

“Personne” and “Rien” are negative pronouns.

1. Personne ne m’aime = nobody loves me.
2. Je ne vois personne = I see no one.
3. Tu veux quelque chose ? Non, rien = Would you like something. No, nothing.

Ne + verb + que Meaning ‘Only’

This negative French construct is weird because it doesn’t match at all the English way to express this notion.

I suggest you consider it like an idiom, something you have to learn by heart.

  1. Elle n’a qu’un enfant = She only has one child
  2. Je n’ai que dix Euros = I only have 10 Euros.

A formal, a bit old-fashioned translation would be “but” – she has but one child, I have but 10 Euros…

Note that the verb itself can be in the negative, so the construction “ne + verb + pas que” exists as well:

Tu n’as pas que ça ? = you don’t have only this?

Using a construction with “seulement” (only) may be easier, but you need to understand both.

J’ai seulement un enfant.
J’ai seulement dix Euros.
Tu n’as pas seulement ça.

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Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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