French Grammar

Expressing negatives in French

The structures and examples of usage

Structures of the negative

Just like English, French has more than one way of converting an affirmative sentence into a negative sentence.  
Let's start with English. The affirmative statement He has some Belgian chocolates, can be put into the negative in different ways, either He doesn't have any Belgian chocolates, or else He has no Belgian chocolates. In the first case the negation is applied to the verb, in the second it is applied to the direct noun object. Negation can also be applied to the subject. 
However the verbal form of negation is much more common in English, and it's just the same in French.

Normal negation - applied to the verb

The most common way of putting a statement into the negative, is to add the negative particles ne and pas to the verb.

1. The standard structure

In a standard French sentence, the negative structure is always the same unless the object is a pronoun

Subject > NE > Verb1 > PAS  > Verb2 (+ Verb3) (+ direct object), as in
Il > n' > a > pas  > mangé (sa pomme)
Verb 1 is the first verbal element, the one that is conjugated: it may be the main verb (in the simple present, future etc, such as mange, mangerai ) or else it will be an auxiliary (ai, aura, veux, vais, etc).  Verb 2 is a participle or/and an infinitive, depending on the tense, if one or both of these are needed
Subject NE Verb1 PAS Verb2 (+3)
or n'
Il doit avoir mangé
Le garçon va manger

2. When the object is a pronoun

The structure is slightly different in statements in which the object is a pronoun.
2.1. In standard tenses, where Verb1 is a form of the auxiliary as avoir, or is the main verb itself (with no auxiliary)the structure is.
Subject > NE > Pronoun obj. > Verb1 > PAS  > Verb2 (=past participle)
Subject NE Pronoun Verb1 PAS Verb2 
le mange
l' ai
Nous les avons mangés
Les policiers nous auront vus
2.2. In other cases, where Verb1 is a modal auxiliary such as aller, pouvoir or vouloir, or an independent first verb such as espérer, souhaiter, oser or préférer, the structure is.
Subject > NE > Verb1 > PAS  > Pronoun obj. >Verb2 (=infinitive) 
Subject NE Verb1 PAS Pronoun Verb2 (+3)
/ n'
pas le voir
vous aider
Nous espérons les perdre
Les policiers oseront les arrêter

There are three alternatives to pas that are found quite commonly in modern French: jamais (never) , plus (no longer, no more) and guère (hardly).
They are used just like pas, in appropriate circumstances.
le mange
Nous les avons mangés
Je les ai PLUS vus

/ n'
JAMAIS le voir
Les policiers oseront les arrêter
Votre femme va PLUS vous croire
Ils peuvent GUERE se comprendre

4. questions
In negative questions, which are not all that common, the subject of the question in French has to be a pronoun, so the structure is always the same:
 NE > Verb1 > Subject pronoun > PAS  (> Verb2) (+v3) (+object) 
1. N'avez-vous pas fini de manger?
   Haven't you finished eating ?
2. Ne voulez-vous pas profiter de cette opportunité ?
   Don't you want to make the most of this opportunity ?.
3. Le Président, n'a-t-il pas fini de parler ?
   Hasn't the President finished speaking?
4. N'a-t-il pas d'amis parmi les membres influents?
   Doesn't he have any friends among the influential members?

The alternative -  negation applied to a noun

In French, negation can applied to a noun which is the subject or the direct object of a statement. The example given in English at the top of this page could be translated into French as Il a quelques chocolats belges, In French, we can apply the negation to the object, and the result is Il n'a aucun chocolat belge.
Important: It is important to remember that in French, unlike English, the key part of the negation, the particle NE, remains attached to the verb. The secondary element, which is pas in verbal structures, is replaced by one of the following:
Adjectives: aucun /  nul / guère de / plus / ni ... ni
Pronouns : personne / rien
Use of these is most easily shown by a mixed bag of examples, with negation applied either to the subject or to the object
Negation on the subject
1. Personne n'a eu la bonne réponse.
   Noone got the right answer.
2. Rien n'est plus facile.
   Nothing is easier.
3. Aucun candidat n'a réussi en 2015.
   No candidate succeeded in 2015.
4. Plus une maison ne restait intacte après le séïsme
   Not a single house was intact after the earthquake.

Negation on the object.
5. Je n'ai vu aucun médecin ce matin.
   I didn't see any doctor(s) this morning.
6a. Il n'y a guère d'espoir.
   There's not much hope
6b. Il n'y a guère plus d'espoir.
   There's not much hope any longer.
7. Ils n'ont rien compris. or  Ils n'ont compris rien.
    They didn't understand anything.
8. Il n'y avait nulle raison de le croire.
   There was no reason (at all) to believe him.
9. Je ne me fais guère d'illusions. 
   I'm not deluding myself.
10. Ce gâteau ne contient ni beurre ni huile . 
   This cake contains neither butter nor oil.

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