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French Grammar Lesson 9

No, no, no! (How to use “Not” in French)

One of the most puzzling things English-speakers need to learn about French is the way sentences are negated. For example, let’s take the sentence, “I know” (en français, “Je sais.”) If you want to say the opposite, you would of course say “I don’t know” (“Je ne sais pas.”) What are those extra words? “Je” means “I.” “Sais” means “know.” But what about “ne” and “pas”?

As it turns out, that is just how you negate a statement. In English, you could say “I know not” – although your friends might wonder why you’re talking like you’re about to audition for King Lear.  In French, though, it absolutely does take all four words to convey that same meaning. “Ne” goes right before the verb and “pas” right after it.

Here are some short affirmative sentences and their negative counterparts, to give you a sense of the construction.

Je prie (I pray)
Je ne prie pas (I do not pray)

Je rêve (I dream)
Je ne rêve pas (I do not dream)

Je pleure (I cry)
Je ne pleure pas (I do not cry)

Je nage (I swim)
Je ne nage pas (I do not swim)

Occasionally you’ll find that the verb form changes a bit when you negate the sentence. But you’ll learn all these little oddities as you advance further in your study of French. For now, just be aware of the nepas construction so you’ll know what it means when you encounter it. And ne stressez pas – don’t stress!

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