The one, the only.
A diamond in the rough.
A once in a lifetime opportunity.
We like feeling special. We like being unique.
Whether applying for college, a job or simply meeting someone new, we are urged to “stand out from the crowd.”
But “only” can also be a lonely word. The only survivor. The only French speaker in a room of monolingual Americans.
The word can be limiting. I only have one. I only have enough money for this.
Whether using the restrictive for positive or negative reasons, “only” is a simple word that is common and powerful. In French, there are two main ways to say “only”: seulement and ne . . . que.
Here, I will show you how to use these phrases properly in a sentence to make your French a bit more “special.”
Why Are Seulement and Ne . . . Que Important?
“Only” is one of those words that is key to expression. Although it does not refer to something concrete (such as “book” or “cup”), the term serves an important function in communicating something exclusive or restrictive. It is a word that comes up more often than we think.
In fact, while writing this article, I have been reading “Le Cinquième Fils” (“The Fifth Son”) by Elie Wiesel. I myself have noticed anew how often these phrases are interwoven into the text of French writing (or speaking).
Just a few examples include “Il ne se sent à l’aise que parmi les personnages morts ou imaginés“ (He only felt as ease among dead or imaginary characters), “Je n’avais qu’un désir” (I only had one desire) and “si seulement on pouvait me ramener au bercail” (If only one could bring me back to the fold).
Ne . . . que and seulement are used often, and they are essential to understanding and using French. Both have the same meaning and are usually translated as “only.”
However, they are used a bit differently. Here, I will walk you through how to structure sentences with each, giving plenty of examples, and getting you well on your way to mastering this part of French!
How to Use the French Restrictive Phrases “Seulement” and “Ne . . . Que”
Seulement is generally more informal and conversational than ne . . . que, meaning you are more likely to hear this used in a dialogue or basic short story. Seulement can be thought of as simpler because it is only one word.
The adverb form of seul (alone), seulement usually follows a verb.
For instance, one might say:
Elle travaille seulement pendant la semaine. (She only works during the week.)
However, placement can change the meaning, so put seulement right where you want to emphasize “only.” Sounds confusing, right? I will show you what I mean (do note that seulement never goes before the conjugated verb):
Elle a payé seulement un euro pour le métro. (She paid only one euro for the metro.)
Here we are emphasizing the good deal she got, as in she paid a mere euro for the metro. So we place seulement directly after the verb payer. Note that the word order in our English translation is the same as in the French.
Elle a payé cinq euros seulement pour le métro. (She paid five euros only/just for the metro.)
Here we are emphasizing how expensive the metro was; she paid five euros and all she got out of it was fare for the metro. This is why we wait to put seulement after the amount.
In the first sentence, we are emphasizing the small amount she paid; here, we are emphasizing what she got for that money. Again, the word order in English is the same as the French. (However, in this case, in English, “just” makes a more smooth translation.)
Examples with seulement
Il avait seulement le temps pour me rencontrer pour dix minutes. (He only had enough time to meet me for ten minutes.)
This one is pretty straightforward. We use seulement to communicate the fact that his time was limited. We put seulement right after the verb because the emphasis is on “he” and the time he had.
À l’épicurie, on doit acheter seulement des fraises et du lait. (At the market, we only need to buy strawberries and milk.)
Here, seulement goes after the infinitive acheter because we are emphasizing the limited number of items we must buy.
Les enfants veulent manger seulement du chocolat. (The kids only want to eat chocolate.)
Again, seulement comes after the infinitive because the emphasis is on the action of eating.
Ne . . . Que
As you can see, whereas seulement is a single word, ne . . . que is made up of two which literally mean not . . . that. This makes ne . . . que more formal and literary than seulement. In terms of meaning, however, the two are equivalent and are both translated as “only.”
Ne . . . que is a sentence construct, meaning we put a word or words in between ne and que to construct a phrase. I will show you what I mean.
The basic word order looks like this:
ne + verb + que + rest of thought.
For example, one might say—
Vouz n‘avez qu‘un sac? (You only have one bag?)
We put our verb, avoir, right between ne and que.
However, like with seulement, placement can impact meaning; while ne always goes between the subject and the conjugated verb, que may shift a bit. Let’s look at an example:
Elles n‘ont mangé qu‘au restaurant. (They ate only at the restaurant.)
As in they did not eat anywhere else. They ate, but the restaurant was the only place where they did so. To express this, we put que directly before the prepositional phrase au restaurant.
Elles n‘ont que mangé au restaurant. (They only ate at the restaurant.)
As in they did not do anything else or go anywhere else. The only activity they did was eating at the restaurant. Here, we put que directly before the verb manger because we are emphasizing that eating is the only thing they did. In other words, we are focusing on the action, not the location.
Examples with Ne . . . Que
I know. It can seem complicated and confusing, but as you see how native speakers use ne . . . que, it will become more natural. As always, it takes time and practice. Let’s start by looking at a few more examples.
Je ne veux qu‘aller en Provence. (I only want to go to Provence.)
Here, we put que right before aller because that begins the phrase explaining what the subject wants to do: aller en Provence (go to Provence).
Tu ne penses qu‘aux jeux vidéos! (You only think of video games!)
Here, que follows the general word order, going directly after the conjugated verb. This makes sense as well because aux begins the phrase that tells us that the only thing the narrator thinks about is: aux jeux vidéos (about video games).
Je suis certaine qu’il ne boit que du thé. (I am certain he only drinks tea.)
Similarly, que goes after the main verb boit and begins the phrase du thé.
Practice Switching Them Up!
Since seulement and ne . . . que are interchangeable, one of the best ways to become comfortable using them is to take sample sentences and switch them.
For instance, if I replace seulement with ne . . . que in the sentence:
Maintenant, j’ai seulement une autre phrase à écrire. (Now I only have one more sentence to write.)
Maintenant, je n‘ai qu‘une autre phrase à écrire.
Try doing that or vice-versa with the following sample phrases (don’t worry, the answers are below):
- Nous ne sentons à l’aise que dans notre ville natale. (We only feel comfortable in our hometown.)
- On n‘aime que la pizza aux champignons. (We only like pizza with mushrooms.)
- Tu habitais seulement aux États-Unis. (You have only lived in the United States.)
- Je ne sors que les après-midis. (I only go out in the afternoon.)
- Il achète seulement ce qui est nécessaire. (He only buys what is necessary.)
So, did you notice a pattern? Seulement goes where que was and vice-versa. Remember, ne always precedes the conjugated verb.
Take a look at what those five sentences would look like if we switched the two (translations are not included here because seulement and ne . . . que are translated in the same way):
- Nous sentons à l’aise seulement dans notre ville natale.
- On aime la pizza seulement aux champignons.
- Tu n‘habitais qu‘aux états-unis.
- Je sors seulement les après-midis.
- Il n‘achète que ce qui est nécessaire.
Try doing these same exercises with the podcast Français Facile (Easy French). Unfortunately, the answers are directly under each sentence, so scroll down slowly if you actually want to try your hand at “the switch.”
Finally, to really get a handle on these, it is important to read and listen to French materials a lot. There is simply no better way to master these concepts than to see them at work, and note how they are used.
The more your brain is exposed to them, the more natural using them yourself will become.
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong Francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
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