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*NE*… A two-letter word can be a source of serious confusion for new French learners! What is it exactly?
It is un adverbe called the “ne explétif.”
When do we use it?
Right after some verbs and conjunctions.
It is used in situations where the main clause has a negative meaning (in the sense of negation), or expressing situations of warning, doubt, or fear.
The ne explétif has a tendency to be forgotten in some cases. You can find it more often in formal French than in slang or colloquial French.
Nevertheless, regardless of your French fluency level, you need to be able to recognize its function whenever you encounter it.
Let us take a few examples:
J’ai peur qu’il ne soit trop tard.
I am afraid it may be too late.
La nuit tomba avant que nous n‘ayons pu trouver un lieu pour dormir
The night fell before we could find a place to sleep.
N’imputons point à l’inquisition plus de crimes qu’elle n‘en a commis
Let us not attribute to the Inquisition more crimes more than it has committed.
If la subordonnée (the subordinate clause) contains a negation, then the “ne” can go with “pas“, as in the following examples:
Ils ont peur qu’il ne soit toujours en vie.
They are afraid that he may be still alive.
Ils ont peur qu’ils ne soit pas encore en vie.
They are afraid that he may not be alive anymore.
Tu ne voleras pas, à moins que tu ne sois roi.
You shall not steal, unless you are a king.
Compare the last sentence with with “à moins que” (“unless”):
C’est difficile à prédire, à moins que tu ne sois un devin
It is difficult to predict, unless you are a seer
Finally, make sure that you do not confuse the “ne” explétif, with the “ne” of French literature, which we may cover in a next post.