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Understanding this ne ... que sentence  

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SusanInFrance
Member
Joined: 2 months ago
Posts: 1
3 October 2020 12:01  

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,
Susan


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lkl
 lkl
Member Admin
Joined: 6 years ago
Posts: 241
5 October 2020 11:21  

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. 🙂


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