“Hey, do you want to work late tonight?”
“Could you help me move?”
“Would you like to continue struggling with French gender rules?”
Sometimes you have to say no. And it’s OK to say no.
Sometimes you may even want to make your “no” extra firm. You might raise your voice. You might gesticulate.
You might even say, “No way!” or simply, “Impossible!”
If, however, you want to soften things a bit, you might opt for a pleasant “No thank you,” or a hopeful “Not yet.”
Why would French be any different?
You have probably already learned all about non (no), which is basically the same as English except you add an “n” and say it with a fancy French accent.
But, as with English, that is by no means the only way to turn down, negate and deny!
Here we will help you expand your options the next time you want to tell your boss you do not want to work late or to gently turn down that friend who is moving.
“No” Scenarios to Consider and Practice
Context, context, context. Bible scholars, in noting the dangers of taking a passage out of context, often declare that a text without a context is just a pretext.
French vocabulary is the same way, especially when you are learning words that are closely related. Each phrase or word highlighted in this article essentially amounts “no,” but they have varying connotations and translations.
In order to truly master each one’s distinct features, you must be comfortable employing them in a real situation. The best way to practice these is to write or act out a dialogue using the form of “no” most appropriate to the context.
You can also see examples of “no” scenarios and other useful situations by learning with videos on FluentU.
Some possible situations might include:
- Someone offers you something you don’t want, like food when you are full.
- Someone asks if you have done something you have not done, like read a certain book yet.
- Someone tells you about a recent tragic event, like a shooting.
- Someone tells you that they have never done a certain thing, such as gone to France (and neither have you).
Throughout this post, we will explain what makes each “no” phrase different and when would be the most appropriate time to use it.
No Way! How to Turn Down, Negate and Deny in French
Putting Your Foot Down: Simply Saying No
Sometimes things are straightforward. Thus, we will first take a look at some basic words and phrases one might use in response to a question or statement.
Later, we will show you how to negate a full sentence and add more details. But first, start with the simple!
Once again, this is probably one of the first French words you ever learned. And, you guessed it! It simply means “no.”
Non will fit most general contexts and is no doubt a key word to know. Of course, as with English, changing your tone of voice will affect how strong your negation comes across.
Furthermore, as you will see in some later examples, non may also be combined with another word or phrase. We will show you what we mean!
Pas du tout (not at all)
While tone of voice certainly plays a role, pas du tout generally has a stronger connotation than simply saying non.
Pas du tout generally expresses deep disagreement and, since it means “not at all,” may be used with an amount, for example:
—Vous êtes avocat ? Vous devez gagner beaucoup d’argent ! (You’re a lawyer? You must make a lot of money!)
—Non, pas du tout ! C’est seulement ma première année au cabinet d’avocats et donc je ne gagne pas beaucoup. (No, not at all! It is only my first year at the law firm and therefore I do not make a lot.)
This example features an amount (money, in this case), and it makes sense since the second speaker seems a bit put off by the false assertion that anyone who is a lawyer must make a lot of money.
Note also that non accompanied the pas du tout, making for a strong “No, not at all!”
This one should not be very difficult to remember! It is spelled the same way and means the same thing in English! The way it is employed in French is similar.
For instance, you might say it in response to a shocking or surprising statement:
—Vingt personnes sont morts dans une fusillade ! (Twenty people died in a shooting!)
—Impossible ! Comment cela s’est-il passé ? (Impossible! How did that happen?)
It could also be used in a more literal sense when responding to an invitation.
If you are unavailable or unable to do something, you can say that it is impossible:
—Veux-tu dîner avec moi ce soir ? (Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?)
—Impossible. Je dois travailler. (Impossible. I have to work.)
Non merci (no thank you)
Sometimes, although someone may have good intentions, you have to turn them down. In English, you would probably say “No thank you,” and French is much the same way.
Non merci is used to politely decline something:
—Voudriez-vous un crôque-monsieur ? (Would you like a grilled ham and cheese sandwich?)
—Non merci. Je ne mange pas de la viande. (No thank you. I do not eat meat.)
Pas encore (not yet)
Pas encore is another way to soften your response. If you have not done or experienced something, but believe you will, pas encore is the expression to use. Its use, once again, parallels that of its English equivalent:
—As-tu lu ce livre ? (Did you read this book?)
—Pas encore. Je vais le commencer ce week-end. (Not yet. I am going to start it this weekend.)
Moi non plus (me neither)
Use moi non plus to affirm or connect with another’s negative statement. In other words, if someone says that they have not done something or not experienced something, and neither have you, moi non plus is a succinct way to draw that parallel:
—Je n’ai jamais mangé ça ! (I have never eaten this before!)
—Moi non plus. (Me neither.)
Mais non (but no)
Just as mais oui (but yes) may be employed as a stronger form of oui, so too may mais non express a more intense non.
Mais non is also used to emphatically contradict someone who is denigrating him or herself:
—Je suis si grosse ! (I am so fat!)
—Mais non ! Tu sais que ce n’est pas vrai ! (But no! You know that’s not true!)
Wait a moment! What is “yes” doing in an article about “no”?
And besides, I thought oui was French for “yes”!
I know it seems out of place, but si actually plays a key role in negating a previously stated idea. Si is employed in order to disagree with a question that seeks a negative response. OK, that may seem like a wordy explanation.
Take a look at this example:
Pierre: Mais vous n’êtes pas française, n’est-ce pas ? (But you are not French, are you?)
Rachel: Si, je suis française. (Yes, I am French.)
Did you catch that? Pierre asked Rachel if she is French, but notice that he assumed she was not. He opened the question with vous n’êtes pas française (you are not French).
However, Rachel actually is French and in order to clarify that, she employed si. Thus, si, while it is translated as “yes,” is used like “no” in that it negates the original question.
Denial, Denial: Negating a Sentence
Aaaah, denial. It’s not just a river in Egypt (I’m sorry, I just had to).
Anyway, sometimes non or one of its many forms is simply not sufficient. Let’s say you want to explain more fully why you are saying no.
That is where these constructions come in. If the first half of this article dealt with forms of “no,” then this second part deals with ways to say “not,” as in “I am not going to the concert tonight.”
Each of these constructions is made up of two words: ne and another word, which will make the meaning of each construction unique.
Although both words are technically necessary to be grammatically correct, ne is often omitted in casual conversation.
In any case, ne goes before the verb, and pas (or whatever the second part of the negation is) follows the verb.
With the passé composé, the order follows the pattern ne + verbe auxiliare + pas (or other word) + participe passé.
And, as there always is in French, there is an exception: with the construction ne…personne, personne actually follows the participe passé.
I know, that is a lot to remember, and you might be wondering how it all fits together. We will look at each negation phrase individually. They will make a lot more sense in context.
This is the simplest form and the first one most people learn. When used in a sentence, it is simply translated as “not.”
Elle doit prendre les transports en commun car elle n’a pas de voiture. (She must take public transportation because she does not have a car.)
Since this is the most common negation construction, there are many places to get practice with it. Try this quiz, for instance, which gives you a sentence you will have to negate by writing it out with ne and pas in the proper places.
Or try this activity, which has you translate a sentence from English to French by clicking on the right form of each word.
Just as ne…pas means “not,” ne…jamais means “never.” Just as it sounds, this construction is stronger than the more common ne…pas and is used to say not simply that something has not happened (or is happening, will happen, etc.), but that it has never happened.
Les extra-terrestres n’ont jamais visité la terre. (Extra-terrestrials have never visited the earth.)
No offense if you think aliens have visited the earth; I needed to think of an example of some kind!
Ne…personne (no one/nobody)
Want to express another ultimatum? Just as ne…jamais expresses the idea of “never,” ne…personne expresses the idea of “no one” or “nobody.”
Now, this one can be a bit confusing because, while personne as it is used here means “no one,” une personne means, as it sounds, “a person.” We will show you what this looks like:
Elle n’a dit à personne son secret. (She told no one her secret.)
Note that personne actually comes after the participe passé, unlike the other constructions.
Chaque personne doit écrire un essai. (Each person must write an essay.)
Here the context (chaque, each) tells us that personne means “person.”
Finally, if you want to really be firm, we have ne…rien, which means “nothing.”
On n’a rien entendu. (We heard nothing/we didn’t hear anything.)
To get practice with several forms of negation such as these, check out this quiz, which also gives some good explanations on why the right answer is correct.
To learn even more negative constructions, take a look at this Quizlet set.
Wow. Who knew saying “no” could become so complicated?
It may even seem unnecessary, but as you move deeper and deeper into French, you will find that picking up some of these words and expressions will allow you to more fully and precisely express yourself in French.
So let me conclude with a couple (positive) negatives myself:
Le français peut être difficile, mais ce n’est pas impossible ; n’arrête jamais de l’apprendre !
(French may be difficult, but it is not impossible; never stop learning it!)
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. To learn more, visit her LinkedIn page.
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