Formal French Negation: Ne... point

Woman writing postcards in a street cafe
Westend61 / Getty Images


There are three negative structures particular to formal French. While they are not unheard of in spoken French, they are most commonly found in writing, especially literature.

Ne... point

Point is the literary or formal equivalent of pas, thus ne... point is simply the structure used to negate a statement in formal French. Like other formal expressions, you can also use ne... point for humoristic effect.

  • Je ne sais point.

    I don't know.
  • N'oublions point les sacrifices de nos ancêtres.

    Let us not forget the sacrifices of our ancestors.
  • Ventre affamé n'a point d'oreilles. (proverb)

    Words are wasted on a starving man.
  • Va, je ne te hais point.

    Go, I don't hate you. (Corneille, Le Cid, Act III, Scene 4)

Other Structures

The other two formal negative structures consist of ne without pas or any other negative word. They are the ne explétif and the ne littéraire.

The ne explétif is used after certain verbs and conjunctions. I call it a "non-negative ne" because it has no negative value in and of itself. It is used in situations where the main clause has a negative (either negative-bad or negative-negated) meaning, such as expressions of fear, warning, doubt, and negation.

The ne explétif is disappearing to some extent and is more common in literary than in colloquial French, but it is still important to be able to recognize it so that when you do see or hear it, you understand that it does not make the subordinate clause negative (negated).

  • Elle a peur qu'il ne soit malade.

    She's afraid that he is sick.
  • J'évite qu'il ne découvre la raison.

    I'm avoiding his discovering the reason.
  • Nie-t-il qu'il n'ait vu ce  film ?

    Does he deny seeing this movie?
  • Il est parti avant que nous n'ayons décidé.

    He left before we decided.
  • Luc en veut plus que Thierry n'en a.

    Luc wants more than Thierry has.

    Ne... pas

    Note that if the subordinate clause is supposed to have a negative (negated) meaning, you can just use ne... pas as usual.

    • Elle a peur qu'il ne revienne.

      She's afraid that he will come back.

      Elle a peur qu'il ne revienne pas.

      She's afraid that he won't come back.
    • Je n'y vais pas de peur qu'il ne soit là.

      I'm not going for fear that he will be there.

      Je n'y vais pas de peur qu'il ne soit pas là.

      I'm not going for fear that he won't be there.
    • C'est facile à moins que tu ne sois trop faible.

      It's easy unless you're too weak.

      C'est facile à moins que tu ne sois pas fort.

      It's easy unless you're not strong.

    Words with Ne Explétif

    Don't mix up the ne explétif and the ne littéraire—they are used with completely different verbs.

    This list is not exhaustive but contains the most common French words that expect the ne explétif.

     
    Verbs*Conjunctions*Comparatives
    avoir peurto be afraid  à moins queunlessautreother
    craindreto fearavant quebeforemeilleurbetter
    douter°to doubtde crainte quefor fear that  mieuxbest
    empêcherto preventde peur quefor fear thatmoinsless
    éviterto avoidsans quewithoutpireworse
    nier°to deny  plusmore
    redouterto dread
     
    * Incidentally, these conjunctions and verbs all take the subjunctive.

    ° These require the ne explétif only in negative or interrogative constructions.

    Ne Littéraire

    What we call the ne littéraire is the phenomenon in literary writing (and, to a much lesser extent, spoken French) whereby certain verbs and constructions need ne but not pas in order to be negative. The use of pas in these constructions is not prohibited, simply optional.

    The ne littéraire is used with seven verbs:  Cesseroser, and pouvoir never need pas.

    • Il ne cesse de parler.

      He never stops talking.
    • Je n'ose le regarder.

      I don't dare watch it.
    • Elle ne peut venir avec nous.

      She can't come with us.

    Bougerdaigner, and manquer may be used without pas, but this is less common than with the above verbs.

    • Il ne bouge depuis 8 heures.

      He hasn't moved in 8 hours.
    • Elle n'a daigné répondre.

      She didn't deign to respond.
    • Ils ne manquèrent de se plaindre.

      They didn't fail to complain.

    The seventh verb, savoir, is a special case.

    It doesn't need pas when it means "to be uncertain"

    • Je ne sais si c'est juste.

      I don't know if it's fair.

    is in the conditional

    • Je ne saurais t'aider.

      I wouldn't know how to help you.

    is used with an interrogative word

    • Je ne sais quoi faire.

      I don't know what to do.

    However, savoir does need pas when it means to know a fact or how to do something:

    • Je ne sais pas la réponse.

      I don't know the answer.
    • Il ne sait pas nager.

      He doesn't know how to swim.

    In addition, the ne littéraire may be used with just about any verb in si clauses:

    • J'y serais allé si je n'avais eu peur.

      I would have gone if I hadn't been afraid.
    • Tu auras faim si tu ne manges.

      You'll be hungry if you don't eat.

    Expressions with Ne Littéraire

    Ne littéraire can be used with the following expressions related to time plus a compund tense: cela fait (amount of time) quedepuis queil y a (amount of time) quevoici (amount of time) que, and voilà (amount of time) que.

    • Cela fait 6 mois que nous ne nous étions vus.

      We hadn't seen each other in 6 months
    • Voilà longtemps qu'il n'a travaillé.

      He hasn't worked in a long time.

    And the ne littéraire can also occur in questions:

    • Qui ne serait triste aujourd'hui ?

      Who wouldn't be sad today?
    • Que ne donnerais-je pour un emploi ?

      What wouldn't I give for a job?

    Don't mix up the ne littéraire and the ne explétif—they are used with completely different verbs.