How to form the negation in French

How to form the negation in French

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated February 15, 2023

Being able to express negation is important in any language. Even as a beginner in French, this is a skill you’ll need to acquire quickly. Thankfully, this essential grammar rule is quite straightforward and easy to learn, especially in its basic form. Once you know where to place the two negative words with verbs in simple and compound tenses, you’re all good to go! And to make your life even easier, most alternative negative forms also tend to follow the same pattern and rules as the basic form. Find out all you need to know about the negation in French below.

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Basic words and rules of negation in French

In order to form a basic negative sentence in French, you need two simple words: ne and pas, which are placed on each side of the verb:

Je trouve le livre intéressant (I find the book interesting).

>> Je ne trouve pas le livre intéressant (I don’t find the book interesting).

If the verb starts with a vowel or the consonant h, then the word ne becomes n’:

Je n’habite pas à Paris.

>> I don’t live in Paris.

Elle n’aime pas le vin. 

>> She doesn’t like wine.

Even though this is grammatically incorrect, it’s common to drop ne and to keep only pas to express the negation in spoken French:

Je connais pas Paris.

>> I don’t know Paris. 

Let’s now review the rules in greater detail, according to the tense of the verb.

Basic negative form with simple tenses

As we know from the French present tense, the negative words ne and pas are placed on each side of the one and only verb that make up simple tenses:

Verb TenseFrenchEnglish
Present tenseJe parle français.>> Je ne parle pas français.I speak French.>> I don’t speak French.
Imperfect TenseJe jouais au football à l’école.>> Je ne jouais pas au football à l’école.I used to play soccer at school.>> I didn’t use to play soccer at school.
Future TenseJe travaillerai au bureau demain.>> Je ne travaillerai pas au bureau demain.I will work in the office tomorrow.>> I won’t work in the office tomorrow.
Imperative TenseRépondez à la question.>> Ne répondez pas à la question.Answer the question.>> Don’t answer the question.

Basic negative form with compound tenses

The rule is still basically the same, the only difference is that the negative words are placed on each side of the auxiliary verb or modal verb, rather than the main verb:

Verb TenseFrenchEnglish
Passé composéJ’ai vu ce film.>> Je n’ai pas vu ce film.I saw that film.>> I didn’t see that film.
Near FutureJe vais rester à la maison ce soir.>> Je ne vais pas rester à la maison ce soir.I’m going to stay at home tonight.>> I’m not going to stay at home tonight.
Modal verbs like pouvoir (can), devoir (must) or vouloir (to want)Je peux discuter de la situation avec vous.>> Je ne peux pas discuter de la situation avec vous.I can talk about the situation with you.>> I can’t talk about the situation with you.

Other negative forms in French

In French, as in English, you may want to express negation in a more specific way — for instance, to answer a particular question about frequency (never, not often), place (nowhere), people (nobody) or objects (nothing). Let’s review how to do just that.

Negative adverbs

Negative adverbs follow the same general rules, in particular when it comes to position. The word ne is still used, but the word pas is replaced by another, as per the element of negation you wish to focus on. The table below list the most common negative adverbs you need in such cases:

Negative adverbFrenchEnglish
ne… jamais (never)Écoutes-tu quelquefois la radio ?
Non, je n’écoute jamais la radio.
Do you sometimes listen to the radio?No, I never listen to the radio.
ne… plus (not anymore)Vas-tu encore à ce club de gym ?
Non, je ne vais plus à ce club de gym.
Do you still go to this gym club?
No, I don’t go to this gym club anymore.
ne… pas encore (not yet)– Avez-vous déjà mangé dans ce restaurant ?
– Non, je n’ai pas encore mangé dans ce restaurant.
– Have you already eaten in this restaurant?
– No, I’ve not eaten in this restaurant yet.

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Negative pronouns

Negative pronouns are not only used to express the negation, but they also have a function in the sentence, as the subject or the object of the verb. Their position can therefore vary according to their grammatical role. They are still paired with the word ne, which remains in front of the verb.

Negative pronounFrenchEnglish
ne… personne (nobody)– Connais-tu quelqu’un ici ?
– Non, je ne connais personne.
– Do you know somebody here?
– I don’t know anybody.
personne ne (nobody)– Quelqu’un a-t-il compris ?
– Non, personne n’a compris.
– Has somebody understood?
– No, nobody understood.
ne… rien (nothing)– Avez-vous vu quelque chose ?
– Non, je n’ai rien vu.
– Did you see something?
– No, I saw nothing.
rien ne (nothing)– Quelque chose est-il arrivé ?
– Non, rien n’est arrivé.
– Did something happen?
– No, nothing happened.

Negative adjectives

Negative adjectives are followed by a noun, to which the negation applies. Like negative pronouns, they can have different grammatical roles and positions in the sentence and are also paired with ne:

Negative pronounFrenchEnglish
ne… aucun + noun (not one)Je ne veux aucun problème.I don’t want any problem.
aucun + noun ne (not one)Aucun client n’a signé le contrat.No customer signed the contract.
ni + noun ni + noun ne (neither… nor…)Ni Marc, ni Stéphanie n’ont visité ce musée. Neither Marc nor Stéphanie have visited this museum.
ne… ni + noun ni + noun (neither… nor…)Je n’ai appelé ni mon père ni ma mère. I called neither my father nor my mother.
ne… nulle part (nowhere)Nous n’allons nulle part ce week-end.We’re going nowhere this weekend.

The special case of ne… que

Although this pair includes the word ne, it doesn’t actually serve as a negation. Instead, it expresses the idea of a limit. As such, ne que can be translated as “only” and is always followed by the noun it limits:

Il n’a qu’un exercice à finir.

>> He has only one exercise to finish.

12 common negative expressions in French

Many French idioms with the negative word pas can be used on their own, for instance, to say how you feel, to confirm a point or to express degrees of agreement. The table below lists 12 of the most common expressions of the kind:

Pas de problèmeNo problem
Pourquoi pas ?Why not?
Pas vrai ?Isn’t it true?
N’est-ce pas ?Isn’t it so? Right?
Pas malNot bad
Pas sûrNot certain
Pas vraimentNot really
Pas tropNot too much
Pas beaucoupNot a lot
Pas du toutNot at all
Pas comme çaNot like this
Pas si viteNot so fast

Be positive about using negative sentences in French

Now you have  all the tools you need to negate sentences in French. The twelve standalone expressions we taught you at the end will also come in handy in everyday interactions. So, go out there and say yes to using the negation in French!

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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