Ne littéraire

Je ne peux écrire - ne littéraire
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Literary ne

In formal, usually written French, there are certain verbs and constructions that can be made negative with just ne – the inclusion of pas or some other negative word is not required.

Ne littéraire with specific verbs

Seven verbs can use the ne littéraire, and they can be divided into three groups:

1) Cesser, oser, and pouvoir never need pas and are commonly used without it.

Vous ne cessez de vous plaindre !   You never stop complaining!
Je n’ose leur dire la vérité.   I don’t dare tell them the truth.
Nous ne pouvons aller à la réunion.   We can’t go to the meeting.

2) Bouger, daigner, and manquer can take the ne littéraire, but usually don’t.

Alix ne bouge avant midi.   Alix never moves before noon.
Il n’a daigné y assister.   He didn’t deign to attend.
Elle ne manque de positiver.   She doesn’t fail to think positively, to look on the bright side.

3) Savoir is unique. It can use the ne littéraire in three instances:

a. When it means "to be uncertain"
  Je ne sais si c’est une bonne idée.   I don’t know if it’s a good idea.
b. In the conditional
  Je ne saurais vous répondre.   I’m afraid I can’t answer you.
c. With an interrogative word
  Je ne sais quoi dire.   I don’t know what to say.

(Note that b and c also apply to other verbs – see 1 and 2, below.)

 But savoir can’t use the ne littéraire when it means "to know a fact" or "to know how to do something." With those meanings, it needs pas.

Je ne sais pas l’heure.   I don’t know the time.
Je ne sais pas conduire.   I don’t know how to drive.

Ne littéraire in specific constructions

The ne littéraire is also allowed in three other constructions.

1) In si clauses, with just about any verb:

On ne le fera si tout le monde n’est d’accord.   We won’t do it if everyone doesn’t agree.
Il commence à 19h, si je ne me trompe.   It starts at 7pm, if I’m not mistaken.

2) In questions (usually hypothetical or rhetorical):

Qui n’aimerait voyager à Tahiti ?   Who wouldn’t like to travel to Tahiti?
Que ne ferais-je pour vous ?   What wouldn’t I do for you?

3) With certain expressions of time used with compound verb forms:

  • cela fait ___ que
  • depuis que
  • il y a ___ que
  • voici ___ que
  • voilà ___ que
Il y avait deux mois que je n’avais dîné en ville.   I hadn’t eaten out in two months.
Voilà un bon moment que nous ne nous étions vus.   It had been a long time since we’d seen each other.

  En aparté: There’s another ne that lives without pas: the ne explétif

There are also many ways to use pas without ne.

 Related lessons

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Ne littéraire - Formal French Negation
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4 Responses

  1. Fr Martin Wallace OP 18 September 2017 / 16:22

    Seen on buses in Ottawa: “L’agression … ne sera tolérée.” Is this the literary ‘ne’? I have seen similar signs elsewhere with ‘pas”; the meaning is obviously the same.

    • lkl 29 September 2017 / 8:17

      Are you sure it’s not Aucune agression …? I’ll ask a native speaker, but I don’t think that’s correct as you’ve typed it.

  2. JStrydhorst 5 February 2016 / 4:54

    For ‘savoir’, example 3c, should it not be ‘que’ with the ne littéraire, “Je ne sais que dire.” and ‘quoi’ with the regular negation “Je ne sais pas quoi dire.”?

    • lkl 5 February 2016 / 7:17

      Bonjour Jared,

      Good question, but no. Je ne sais que dire would read as “I only know to say” because ne … que means “only.”