While we’d all like to skip through life saying “yes” and looking on the bright side, the fact is that language without negatives would really bog us down. Without “no”, how could we turn down food that we’re allergic to, disagree with someone, or simply state the obvious like “it’s not raining right now”?
At its simplest, present-tense French negation is expressed using the structure ne... pas.
Ne... pas: two words that, together, mean not.
We use double negatives in French. I apologize for that. I know that your parents and teachers hammered “no double negatives” into your head while you were growing up – but it’s just the way that things are in French. Rather than worrying about it, just enjoy the feeling of rebellion when you double up your negatives in French!
The words ne and pas sandwich the verb, so that the first negative word is placed in front of the verb and the second one is place after.
This is particularly easy with very simple sentences:
Il ne chante pas.
He doesn’t sing. / He isn’t singing.
Elle ne danse pas.
She doesn’t dance. / She isn’t dancing.
Nous ne mangeons pas.
We don’t eat. / We aren’t eating.
(Just to mix things up a bit, in informal spoken French, the “ne” is often dropped, so that “Je ne veux pas” becomes “Je veux pas”. We won’t worry about that too much for now!)
When a verb starts with a vowel, ne become n’. It’s all about the flow – the music, if you will.
Je n’écoute pas.
I don’t listen. / I’m not listening.
Vous n’entrez pas.
You don’t come in. / You’re not coming in.
Of course, not all sentences are quite that simple. To properly structure negative sentences, we also have to look at the article that follows the verb.
le / la / l’ / les (“the”) after the verb?
No problem, just sandwich the verb with the negative words, the way that you do with simple sentences:
Je mange les croustilles.
I eat the chips. / I’m eating the chips.
Je ne mange pas les croustilles.
I don’t eat the chips. / I’m not eating the chips.
(Oh admit it, you’d rather eat the chips than not eat them!)
Je regarde le film.
I watch the movie. / I’m watching the movie.
Je ne regarde pas le film.
I don’t watch the movie. / I’m not watching the movie.
(You can watch the movie while eating the chips.)
Il écoute le professeur de français.
He listens to the French teacher. / He is listening to the French teacher.
Il n’écoute pas le professeur de français.
He doesn’t listen to the French teacher. / He isn’t listening to the French teacher.
(Well, that’s his loss.)
un / une / des (“a, an, some”) after the verb?
Faites attention! Be careful! When a verb is followed by an indefinite article, you need to use “pas de” or “pas d’”.
Tu as un chat.
You have a cat.
Tu n’as pas de chat.
You don’t have a cat.
Mon amie a une maison.
My friend has a house.
Mon amie n’a pas de maison.
My friend doesn’t have a house.
J’ai des amis.
I have friends.
Je n’ai pas d’amis.
I don’t have (any) friends.
I want, I can, I must, I will
In French, as in English, we can use “want (to)”, “can”, “will” or “must” as helper verbs.
|Je veux danser. (vouloir + infinitive)||I want to dance.|
|Je peux danser. (pouvoir + infinitive)||I can dance.|
|Je dois danser. (devoir + infinitive)||I must dance.|
|Je vais danser. (aller + infinitive)||I will dance.|
To make these sentences negative, you simply have to sandwich the conjugated verb between ne and pas.
|Je ne veux pas danser.||I don’t want to dance.|
|Je ne peux pas danser.||I can’t dance.|
|Je ne dois pas danser.||I must not dance.|
|Je ne vais pas danser.||I will not dance.|
(If you really want to dance, though, don’t be shy. Life’s too short to keep from dancing.)
While – as in all things French – there are other ways of saying things, other structures, exceptions and differences, you’re now equipped to turn a positive into a negative.