Sometimes you just need to say “no.”
Like when your friends dare you to suck on a sour lemon slice for a full minute.
Or when you’re very happily married and a flirtatious guy asks to see you again.
Or when a cool French girl asks to practice her English with you while you’re on a 2-week trip to France.
(Don’t fold on that last one, by the way—your time fully immersed in French is just too precious!)
You can clear up a lot with la négation (negation), plus it allows you to talk about things you don’t like, to decline an invitation and even to correct untruths about the world around you.
Negation in French isn’t too complicated once you get the hang of it, but there are some big differences in formation between French and English. In fact, even some English negation rules are completely opposite in French—double negatives are allowed!
So let’s start with the basics and build from there, okay? (Hint: Don’t pull out your “no”s just yet—go ahead and say “yes!” to this one.)
The Beginner’s Guide to French Negation
Saying “No” in French and Using Basic Negation
Let’s get down to negation in its most basic form. The simplest way to negate something in French is to simply say non (no).
Note that the pronunciation of this word follows regular French pronunciation rules; the second n is not pronounced, but rather the o is nasalized instead.
Next, let’s negate a basic sentence. To make a sentence negative in French, we use the words ne and pas. These two words surround the main verb in simple tenses (i.e. when there’s only one conjugated verb in the sentence). Check out these examples.
Je ne parle pas espagnol.
(I don’t speak Spanish).
Il ne va pas à l’école demain.
(He’s not going to school tomorrow).
When the verb is conjugated in a compound tense such as the passé composé, the ne and pas surround only the first verb (also known as the “auxiliary verb” or the “helper verb”).
Nous ne sommes pas allés à la fête.
(We didn’t go to the party).
Ils ne sont pas arrivés hier.
(They didn’t arrive yesterday).
Something important to note, though: When the verb following ne starts with a vowel, the ne is shortened to simply n’. Check it out:
Je n’aime pas ce film.
(I don’t like that movie).
Il n’a pas lu ce livre.
(He hasn’t read that book).
Some important notes on basic negation
While speaking, it’s very common for French speakers to drop the ne so that only the pas remains. This is informal, but it’s very common in spoken French.
For example, “Je ne sais pas” (I don’t know) would be spoken as “Je sais pas” in casual French.
Secondly, when there’s an indefinite article (such as un or une) or a partitive article (such as du, de la or des being used to mean “some”) after a negative, the article changes to de.
J’ai des livres → Je n’ai pas de livres.
(I have some books → I don’t have any books).
Finally, to negate infinitives in a sentence, both pieces of the negative adverb (ne and pas) precede the infinitive verb.
Il est nécessaire de ne pas manger avant de faire du sport.
(It is necessary to not eat before doing sports).
Tu m’as dit de ne pas lire ce livre.
(You told me not to read that book).
Ne pas ouvrir la fenêtre.
(Don’t open the window).
Additional Ways to Say “No” in French
But wait! The fun doesn’t stop there! There are many more ways to use negative constructions in your everyday sentences.
While the ne… pas construction that we’ve covered above is technically a negative adverb, there are more. This means that other adverbs can be used in the place of pas or alongside pas in negative constructions to negate the action of the verb.
In other words, they’re used in the exact position that pas would be in the phrase, or just after pas if it too is included in the negative construction.
Check out these additional negative adverbs:
- pas encore (not yet)
Je n’ai pas encore vu ce film.
(I have not yet seen that movie).
- pas toujours (not always)
Il n’a pas toujours habité en France.
(He has not always lived in France).
- pas du tout (not at all)
Elle n’aime pas du tout le café.
(She doesn’t like coffee at all).
- ne … jamais (never)
Nous n’avons jamais visité la Chine.
(We’ve never visited China).
- ne … nulle part (not anywhere)
Tu ne l’as trouvé nulle part.
(You didn’t find it anywhere).
- ne … plus (not anymore)
Ils n’écrivent plus de lettres.
(They don’t write letters anymore).
Like adverbs, adjectives can be used in the place of pas in the negative construction. This is different from using a negative adverb, however, because the adjective must negate a following noun and therefore doesn’t follow the helper verb if there is one.
In fact, both these negative adjectives (aucun and nul) have the meaning of “not any” and are used to mean that there isn’t any of the noun that follows.
Additionally, these two negative adjectives must agree with the gender of the noun that follows. This means that aucun changes to aucune when followed by a feminine noun, and nul changes to nulle in front of a feminine noun as well.
Secondly, nul can only be used with uncountable nouns such as “water,” “money,” “love” and “sadness.”
Check out our two negative adjectives in action!
Je n’ai aucun livre.
(I don’t have any books).
Il n’a aucune confiance en elle.
(He doesn’t have any confidence in her).
Ils ne voient nul mal.
(They don’t see any harm).
Nous n’avons trouvé nulle eau.
(We haven’t found any water).
Negative pronouns are much the same because they can be used in the place of pas in a negative construction. For example, below we’ll take a look at personne (nobody/anybody) and rien (nothing). Negative pronouns are different in three ways, though.
1. They negate the pronoun that replaces the noun.
2. When used after the verb, they can follow either the helper verb or the main verb in compound tenses.
3. They can be moved to the beginning of the sentence.
Confused yet? Let me explain.
Let’s say I want to know if you saw Pierre at a party last week. I might ask:
As-tu vu Pierre à la fête la semaine dernière ?
(Did you see Pierre at the party last week?)
Now, maybe you didn’t go to the party. So you might respond:
Je n’ai vu personne.
(I didn’t see anyone).
In this situation, personne is acting as a pronoun because it is technically replacing the noun Pierre.
Got it? Good. Let’s look at another negative pronoun replacing a noun. In this case, the negative pronoun rien (nothing) will replace l’université (the university).
— As-tu visité l’université hier?
(Did you visit the university yesterday?)
— Non, je n’ai visité rien. / Non, je n’ai rien visité.
(No, I didn’t visit anything).
As you can see, rien comes after the main verb (visité) in the first option, and after the helper verb (ai) in the second. Both are correct.
Now, hold on! What about negative pronouns at the beginning of the sentence?
Yes, siree, French learner. These negative pronouns can be used as the subject (the doer of the verb). Check it out:
Personne n’est venu hier.
(No one came yesterday).
Rien ne peut m’arrêter.
(Nothing can stop me).
Just one more negative construction, I promise!
The expression n’importe means “no matter,” “any” or “whichever” in French and can be followed by an interrogative adjective, adverb or pronoun.
Also note that when the construction includes quel (which), the word must agree in gender with the following noun. Check out these examples below.
Je veux n’importe quel livre.
(I want any book).
Tu dois prendre n’importe quelle décision.
(You have to make whichever decision).
Je peux visiter n’importe quand.
(I can visit any time).
Fais-le n’importe comment.
(Do it any which way).
Nous pouvons avoir notre rendez-vous n’importe où.
(We can have our meeting anywhere).
N‘importe qui peut le lire.
(Anyone can read it).
Il écoute n’importe quoi.
(He listens to anything).
Practicing French Negation
Whew, that was a lot to take in, wasn’t it? Well, better follow it up with some practice.
Head on over to Lingolia for a mix of exercises on all the negative constructions we’ve covered. Some have you choose the correct word of negation between two options, and other types of questions have you rewrite positive sentences as negatives.
After that, UTexas has some slick fill-in-the-blank exercises as well, where you can check your answers.
Just don’t quit, okay?
See what I did there?
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