What is a negative?
A negative question or statement is one which contains a word such as not, no, never or nothing and is used to say that something is not happening, is not true or is absent.
1 Using negatives
In English we use words like not, no, nothing and never to show a negative.
I’m not very pleased.
Dan never rang me.
Nothing ever happens here!
There’s no milk left.
Not is often combined with certain English verbs – for example, can’t, won’t, didn’t, hasn’t.
He isn’t joking.
She didn’t say.
In French, if you want to make something negative, you generally use a pair of words, for example, ne … pas (meaning not). The verb goes in the middle.
ne … pas not
ne … rien nothing, not … anything
ne … personne nobody, no one, not … anybody, not … anyone
ne … jamais never, not … ever
ne … plus no longer, no more, not … any longer, not … any more
Je ne fume pas. I don’t smoke.
Ne changez rien. Don’t change anything.
Je ne vois personne. I can’t see anybody.
Elle n’arrive jamais à l’heure. She never arrives on time.
Il ne travaille plus ici. He’s no longer working here.
ne changes to n’ in front of a word that starts with a vowel, most words beginning with h and the French word y.
In English, did is often used to make a statement negative.
I went to his party. → I didn’t go to his party.
We saw David at the weekend. → We didn’t see David at the weekend.
Note that the French verb faire is never used in this way.
non plus is the equivalent of English neither in phrases like me neither, neither do I and so on.
‘Je n’aime pas les hamburgers.’ – ‘Moi non plus.’ ‘I don’t like hamburgers.’ – ‘Me neither.’
Il n’y va pas et moi non plus. He isn’t going and neither am I.
The French word ne is missed out when negatives are used without a verb to answer a question.
‘Qui a téléphoné?’ – ‘Personne.’ ‘Who rang?’ – ‘Nobody.’
‘Qu’est-ce que tu fais cet après-midi?’ – ‘Rien.’ ‘What are you doing this afternoon?’ – ‘Nothing.’
In everyday conversation French native speakers often miss out the word ne. Be careful about doing this yourself in formal situations.
Je peux pas venir ce soir. I can’t come tonight.
Il me l’a pas dit. He didn’t tell me.
Grammar Extra!
Sometimes you will find two of these negative expressions combined.
Ils ne font jamais rien d’intéressant. They never do anything interesting.
Je ne connais plus personne à Nice. I don’t know anyone in Nice any more.
2 Word order with negatives
Negative expressions in French ‘sandwich’ the verb in the present tense and in other tenses that consist of just one word. ne goes before the verb and the other half of the expression comes after the verb.
Il ne boit jamais d’alcool. He never drinks alcohol.
Il ne pleuvait pas. It wasn’t raining.
In the perfect tense and other tenses that consist of two or more words such as the pluperfect, there are two possibilities:
ne … pas, ne … rien, ne … plus and ne … jamais follow the pattern: ne (n’) + avoir or être + pas/rien/plus/jamais + past participle
Elle n’a pas fait ses devoirs. She hasn’t done her homework.
Je n’ai rien dit. I didn’t say anything.
Pierre n’est pas encore arrivé. Pierre isn’t here yet.
ne … personne follows the pattern:
ne (n’) + avoir + past participle + personne
Je n’ai vu personne. I didn’t see anybody.
For more information on the Perfect tense, see The perfect tense.
A negative sentence may also contain a pronoun such as te, le, lui and so on that is the direct or indirect object of the verb, or a reflexive pronoun. If so, ne comes before the pronoun.
Je ne t’entends pas. I can’t hear you.
Ne lui parle pas! Don’t speak to him/her!
Tu ne te souviens pas de lui? Don’t you remember him?
Il ne se lève jamais avant midi. He never gets up before midday.
For more information on Direct and Indirect object pronouns and on Reflexive pronouns, see Personal pronouns: direct object, Personal pronouns: indirect object and Reflexive verbs.
When a verb is in the infinitive, ne … pas, ne … rien, ne … plus and ne … jamais come together before the infinitive.
Il essayait de ne pas rire. He was trying not to laugh.
J’ai peur de ne pas réussir. I’m afraid of not succeeding.
After these negative expressions, un, une and des (the indefinite article) and du, de la, de l’ and des (the partitive article) change to de.
Il ne reste plus de biscuits. There aren’t any biscuits left.
For more information on the Indefinite article and the Partitive article, see The indefinite article: un, une and des and The partitive article: du, de la, de l’ and des.
3 non and pas
non (meaning no) is the usual negative answer to a question. It can also correspond to not in English.
‘Tu veux nous accompagner?’ – ‘Non, merci.’ ‘Do you want to come with us?’ – ‘No thanks.’
Tu viens ou non? Are you coming or not?
J’espère que non. I hope not.
pas is generally used when a distinction is being made, or for emphasis.
It, too, often corresponds to not in English.
‘Qui veut m’aider?’ – ‘Pas moi!’ ‘Who wants to help me?’ – ‘Not me!’
‘Est-il de retour?‘ – ‘Pas encore.’ ‘Is he back?’ – ‘Not yet.’
‘Tu as froid?’ – ‘Pas du tout.’ ‘Are you cold?’ – ‘Not at all.’
Pas question! No way!
Key points
Negatives indicate when something is not happening or is not true. French uses set expressions or word pairs to indicate this.
The two parts of these negative expressions ‘sandwich’ the verb in tenses consisting of only one word.
ne comes before any object pronouns or reflexive pronouns.
Before infinitives, ne … pas, ne … rien, ne … plus and ne … jamais come together.