Lawless French Forum – Bonjour !

Clear all

Bonjour et bienvenue au forum Lawless French !

To start a new discussion, please choose a folder and then click the blue "Add topic" button.

Understanding this ne ... que sentence

Joined: 9 months ago
Posts: 1
Topic starter  

I am reading book in French and here is the sentence:

Il ne savait que répondre.

So I originally translated this as .... He only knew to respond. But that doesn't really make sense. When I Google translate, it says "He didn't know how to answer" and the English version of the book says "He was lost for words".

Within the context of the book, the "He didn't know how to answer" and "He was lost for words" makes sense. But why wouldn't it have to be "Il ne savait pas que répondre" for it to be an actual negation of "to know" vs the "ne ... que" meaning only ??


Thank you in advance,

Topic Tags
Member Admin
Joined: 7 years ago
Posts: 248

Bonjour Susan - this is one of those tricky combinations of words that can mean different things. As you say, the first thing one thinks of is the restrictive ne ... que, meaning "only." But that's not the case here.

Instead, you have the ne littéraire (certain verbs only need "ne" for negation) plus the interrogative pronoun que, meaning "what."

And this is why it's so important to think about context. As you noted, "He didn't know how to answer" is what makes sense in this context - and indeed, that is what the French says. 🙂


More Lawless French

Subscribe to my twice-weekly newsletter:

French Tips and Tools

Stay up to date with Lawless French

Any Questions?

 Get help on the forum.

More Lawless French

 Subscribe to my twice-weekly newsletter.

Support Lawless French

  This free website is created with love and a great deal of work.

If you love it, please consider making a one-time or monthly donation.

Your support is entirely optional but tremendously appreciated.