The sneakiest word in the French language

It is the secret agent of the French language. Car il passe souvent inaperçu.

It is only two letters long, and most of the time isn’t even pronounced. Yet it changes everything.

Have you guessed?

Ne.

The little negation word. One of a couple, ne pas, which preface or encircle a verb and transform its meaning from positive to negative.

Fumer. Ne pas fumer. Je fume. Je ne fume pas.

Simple, right? Its role and place in French grammar are perfectly clear. Until it goes undercover.

I didn’t learn this at the Alliance Française or in any French grammar book. I went out on the street and found that in practice, the ‘ne’ is simply dropped in spoken French.

Ce n’est pas becomes c’est pas. But it doesn’t really matter (ce n’est pas grave) unless you’re a stickler like me. Because you are saved by the unmistakeable ‘pas’ which is your very big clue that there’s a negative in there.

‘Je ne sais pas’ becomes ‘j’sais pas’ or, to my non-native ears, what sounds like ‘chez pas’. (At first I wondered, who is this Pas and where does he live? Guess I’ll never know.)

So it’s complicated. But, hey, if them’s the rules, so be it. I can work with that.

Mais non! Ce n’est pas si simple.

To make matters more complicated, in literary French, the ‘ne’ often stays but the ‘pas’ is dropped. There’s a whole lot of rules as to when this happens, which you can read about here.

Et ça se complique. ‘Ne’ is often combined with a whole bunch of other words to indicate negation of some sort: jamais, rien, aucun, personne. Then dropped, like a hot potato, in spoken French.

Person? What’s with that? Une personne, ie a person, becomes (ne) personne, ie nobody.

Another variant is ‘ne plus’, which means no longer. Je ne fume plus. When the ‘ne’ disappears, as is its wont, it becomes ‘je fume plus’. Can we English be forgiven for finding this contradictory? I mean, plus is more, n’est-ce pas? In French, the rather subtle distinction is that when plus means more you pronounce the s, and when it means less you just say ‘plu’.

None of this can be learned in a book.

Et toi? What French words so you find most confusing? Do you ever find yourself, like me, trying to wrap your head around grammar rules?

16 thoughts on “The sneakiest word in the French language

  1. I used to find it confusing at the baker when I would ask for a favourite pain aux cereales to be told that ils restent plus. I would wait patiently, imagining that she would set of to get one of the plus that she had mentioned at some point.:)

  2. I am learning that spoken and written French are two different animals! Vive la grammaire française! I have yet to find a satisfactory translation for “GRRR” when studying certain aspects of French grammar, but I love it even when it’s frustrating. I have been learning French for 2 years in anticipation of a vacation there later this year. (yes, I’m a bit of a nerd) Your blog is awesome, I love reading your perspectives!

    jetgirlcos visiting via Forty, c’est Fantastique

    1. So glad you’re enjoying it! And if you’re prepared for the frustrations of spoken vs. written French, you’ll enjoy your time in France all the more. Looking forward to hearing about your travels in this wonderful land.

  3. Yes, we do drop “ne” all the time ! But sometimes it sounds more acceptable to say it, depending on who you are talking to. And I can remember my mum telling me as a kid to “watch my language”. Very often I say something like “Je n’ sais pas”, which is in between and might sound a bit better. But it is also probably because I live in southern France where they tend to use fewer “contractions”.
    The funny thing is that when my students have to transcribe the conversations we record for students of French as accurately as possible (on France Bienvenue where we want people to hear “real” French), they feel very uncomfortable when writing negative verb forms without “ne” because we never do that when we write. Same thing with ça and cela because they have been told not to write ça. But we say it all the time !
    Thanks for your comments on my blog. I really appreciate your perspective and I hope that my readers who can speak English also visit your blog.
    Anne

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I can sympathize with your students – it just feels wrong to go against the rules when writing French. My husband, who is French, stopped worrying about accents on computer keyboards years ago but I always feel remiss when I send a message that’s missing the correct ‘ç’ or ‘é’ or ‘à’…. I like to read your blog to check my understanding of French – usually it’s right but it’s still fun and from time to time, I learn something new. And I remember when learning French many years ago, thinking how helpful it would be to have a transcript to help understand the verbal exchanges. Great tool for learning!

  4. Great one, Mel – I’ve always felt sorry for the little ne – it seems to be dropped left right and centre. But when you don’t see it it’s easy to miss the negative, and I think you’re right to be a stickler for it!! 🙂

    1. Thanks for standing up for the poor little fellow! Despite my best efforts, though, my stickler standards are slipping and I find myself dropping it too. Cheers!

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