Negation in French: The basics of Ne Pas

Celine Segueg

Negation is an important tool in every language, and negation in French is no exception. At its core, negation expresses the opposite of a positive or affirmative statement. This fundamental piece of language allows speakers to say that something didn’t or won’t happen, to convey absence, or to deny or refuse something. For example, the expression “I read” can be negated by stating “I do not read.”

Basic negation in French relies on the words ne and pas, which together are equal to the basic English negation word not. In this post, we’ll explain how to use ne pas to express negation in French. Let’s dive in!

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Basic sentence structure with ne…pas

Because French negation is expressed using two words, it’s imperative to apply the right word order in a negative sentence when using ne pas. You may see this expression written as ne…pas, in which the ellipses (the three dots) indicates that another word is placed between ne and pas.

Generally speaking, the word between ne and pas will be a conjugated verb: this verb expresses the action that is being negated. The verb’s subject is placed before the word ne. Thus, the order of words in a negative sentence will be: subject + ne + conjugated verb + pas.

  • Il parle. Elle ne parle pas. – He speaks. She does not speak.

When the verb begins with a vowel or a silent h, ne is abbreviated to n’ to avoid vowel clash and maintain a smooth rhythm of spoken French.

  • Nous essayons ces chandails. Nous n’essayons pas les maillots. – We are trying on these shirts. We are not trying on the swimsuits.

Intermediate sentence structure with ne…pas

So far we just looked at straightforward verb conjugations with ne…pas, in which the conjugated verb is placed on its own between ne and pas. But how do we use ne…pas in statements with multiple verbs?

Ne Pas with compound tenses

The first example of an intermediate sentence structure using ne…pas is in the case of compound tenses, which are constructed of an auxiliary verb and a past participle. The best-known of the compound tenses in French is le passé composé, but there are six more that function similarly: the auxiliary verb is always conjugated in a simple tense, and followed by the verb’s past participle.

In these cases, negation in French follows the same syntax rule we saw above, with the conjugated auxiliary verb placed between ne and pas. The past participle then comes after the negation.

  • Les enfants ont mangé leur dessert, mais ils n’ont pas mangé le repas. – The children have eaten their dessert, but they have not eaten the meal.
  • Je suis parti à midi, mais je ne suis pas parti à temps. – I left at noon, but I did not leave on time.

Ne Pas with multiple verbs

This same concept we saw with compound verb conjugations applies in sentence structures where we have a conjugated verb followed by another verb in the infinitive form. This could be when we express wishes or obligations, using vouloir + infinitive or devoir + infinitive, or in other constructions such as the near future using aller + infinitive. Here again, it’s always the conjugated verb that goes between ne and pas, with the other verb forms following the negation.

  • Ils vont offrir des entrées gratuites pour des élèves, mais ils ne vont pas offrir assez d’entrées pour tout le monde. – They will offer free entries for the schoolkids, but they will not offer enough entries for everyone.
  • Nous voulons partir en vacance en juillet. Nous ne voulons pas partir en mars! – We want to go on vacation in July. We don’t want to go in March!
  • Tu dois ajouter beaucoup d’eau, mais tu ne dois pas ajouter beaucoup d’huile d’olive. – You need to add a lot of water, but you don’t need to add much olive oil.

Using Ne Pas together with no verb between

There’s a subtle difference between the structure we’ve just seen, and this next one where we actually put ne pas together preceded by the conjugated verb and followed by the other verb in infinitive.

Using ne pas together really makes it emphatic, whereas the normal structure we saw above is simply a negative version.

  • Tu dois ne pas ajouter beaucoup d’huile d’olive. – You must not add much olive oil.
  • Je souhaite ne pas rater ta visite la prochaine fois. – I hope to not miss your visit next time.
  • Si le propriétaire ne répare pas ta toilette, tu peux ne pas payer ton loyer en guise de pression. – If the landlord doesn’t fix your toilet, you can not pay your rent as a form of pressure.

Advanced sentence structure with ne…pas: Additional pronouns

As you become more comfortable with the various verb tenses in French, as well as more advanced grammatical structures, you’ll notice that sometimes there is more than one word between ne and pas.

In short, pronouns can appear inside the ne pas negation, including reflexive pronouns, indirect object pronouns, and direct object pronouns (including the direct object pronouns y and en). In any one phrase, up to two pronouns may appear between ne and pas alongside the conjugated verb.

In these cases, the word order of the French negative phrase is: subject + ne + reflexive pronoun / indirect object pronoun + direct object pronoun + conjugated verb + pas + any additional verb forms.

  • Tu ne le vois pas ? – You don’t see it?
  • Pourquoi vous ne m’en avez pas donné ? – Why didn’t you give me any?
  • Je ne te lui ai pas présenté. I did not present her to you.

Don’t worry, in our specific lessons on the various French pronouns, we make a point of explaining sentence structure within this ne pas negation!

Omitting the Ne in informal speech

Although it’s grammatically incorrect, in informal spoken French the word ne is often omitted entirely. If you want to sound like a native speaker, especially in certain areas of France or Quebec, just drop the word ne when expressing negation out loud.

  • Je sais pas. – I don’t know.
  • J’ai pas mangé. – I haven’t eaten.

Remember that this rule is only for informal spoken contexts! When speaking formally or when writing, it’s always best to default to the standard ne…pas negation.

Other instances of Ne in French

The focus of this post has been entirely on simple negation in French using ne pas. Still, we should also mention that this same ne is sometimes seen in other contexts. These uses constitute lessons on their own, but we’ll nonetheless mention them here so you’re aware of their existence and don’t confuse them with negation using ne…pas.

The first is with other French negative adverbs besides the standard ne pas we’ve seen here. These ne expressions follow a similar sentence structure to what we’ve introduced here with ne…pas, but they have specific meanings.

  • Je ne parle guère français, même si je l’étudie à tous les jours. – I rarely speak French, even though I study it every day.
  • Ma sœur ne parle que l’anglais, même si elle habite à Montréal. – My sister only speaks English, even though she lives in Montréal.

The other common appearance of ne is called the ne explétif. This use of ne is used for emphasis and to accentuate the negative implication of something else in the sentence. It’s generally used in certain subjunctive phrases, although it’s not grammatically necessary.

  • Je t’achèterai un croissant, à moins que la boulangerie ne soit fermée. – I’ll buy you a croissant, unless the bakery is closed.

Conclusion: French negation with Ne Pas

In this post, we’ve covered the essentials of using ne pas to express negation in French. In particular, we introduced a variety of negative sentence structures, from basic to advanced, to ensure you always know which words to include between ne and pas, and which go outside of these negation words.

The most important rule to remember is that the conjugated verb that we’re putting in negative is always between the ne and pas. We saw the only exception, when ne pas can follow the conjugated verb in a multi-verb phrase in order to really emphasize a negative intent.

We rounded out the post with a section on omitting the ne in informal speech, as well as a quick overview of other sentence structures where you may encounter ne used a bit differently.

In short, this post has provided a straightforward introduction to the essential use of ne pas for expressing negation in French. Now keep on practicing and observing ne pas used in different contexts, and you’ll quickly master this fundamental tool of French negation!