The Ne without Pas

If you listen to spoken French quite a lot, you will notice that the ne often gets dropped in negations. “Je les vois pas”, “Ils sont pas encore arrivés”, and “Il l’aura pas eu” are all commonly spoken sentences. But what of sentences that have a ne with no pas, such as “Elle a peur que les invités n’arrivent trop tôt”? What is the subject of the sentence – elle – afraid of exactly?


What Is Ne Explétif?

This last sentence uses the ne explétif, an adverb that does not change an affirmative phrase into a negative phrase, but that is used for stylistic purposes, to express the presence of a negative idea. It is used in subordinate clauses, introduced by the conjunction que, which are mainly subjunctive or comparative.

The sentence above containing the ne explétif expresses a fear of guests arriving too early. Perhaps the hostess is still running around, placing the finishing touches on her party. Since the ne explétif appears in sentences that express fear, we see them used after main clauses containing verbs such as craindre and trembler. We also see the ne explétif used in sentences that express avoidance, caution, or comparison. It is used primarily in written texts, although its use with some conjunctions, such as à moins que, is not infrequent in spoken French, e.g., “Ils arriveront à la gare à 15h17, à moins que le train ne soit en retard”. The ne in this sentence is referred to as explétif, as it is not a required syntactic or semantic component. Yet while its presence does not change the meaning of the sentence, it is stylistically significant, suggesting elegance and refinement.

The ne explétif has origins in Latin, as the Académie Française points out on its website in response to a question submitted to its “Dire, Ne pas dire” section: “Ce ne est un héritage du latin qui distinguait Timeo ne veniat, « J’ai peur qu’il (ne) vienne » (c’est-à-dire « Je crains sa venue ») de Timeo ne non veniat, « Je crains qu’il ne vienne pas »”. The adverb ne in Latin introduces a negative subjunctive clause when it is used to give a negative command or to express a negative purpose. This ne may be translated from Latin as “that ... not”, “so that ... not”, “in order that .... not”, “lest”, “to avoid”, and “to prevent”. We find its influence in medieval and early modern French literature with the appearance of the ne explétif in works such as the thirteenth-century poem Le Roman de la rose: “Le col plus blanc que n’est nois” (ln. 4753) and Jean Racine’s seventeenth-century play Phèdre: “Quoi ! craignez-vous déjà qu’ils ne soient écoutés ?”

Source: Académie Française

Although the ne explétif is fading from use, with Maurice Grevisse himself having taken delight in its decline (as stated in’s article on this topic), it remains a significant presence in literary works and formal discourse. It is worth not only recognizing but understanding, since it is important to distinguish between phrases such as: “Nous révisons le texte de peur que notre directeur ne nous fasse répéter la scène encore une fois” and “Nous révisons le texte de peur que le directeur ne nous fasse pas répéter la scène encore une fois”. The use of the ne explétif vs. the ne ... pas construction in the subordinate clause would imply very different contexts, suggested by whether the actors involved in rehearsals would or would not like another run-through.

Subjunctive with the ne explétif

We find the ne explétif in subordinate clauses using the subjunctive mode. These are introduced by main clauses expressing fear, doubt, avoidance, and caution, as well as in other conjunctive phrases ending in que that normally introduce a subjunctive verb.

Express Fear and Doubt

Verbs expressing fear and doubt with which the ne explétif may be used include the following:

avoir peur

These express a negative idea without taking on a negative form:

  • Les parents redoutent que leur enfant n’ait le trac quand il joue son rôle dans le spectacle.

In fact, we avoid using the ne explétif in subordinate clauses introduced by verbs expressing fear in the negative form:

  • Le directeur ne craint pas que l’acteur oublie ses lignes.

With verbs expressing doubt and negation we do, however, use the ne explétif for sentences that are negative, interrogative, or negative and interrogative:

  • Nous ne doutions pas qu’il oubliât ses lignes.
  • Le directeur désespère-t-il que nous n’apprenions bien nos lignes ?
  • Ne conteste-t-il pas que le directeur n’ait choisi le meilleur acteur ?

But in their affirmative forms, these verbs of doubt and negation will not introduce a ne explétif:

  • On doute que le choix soit fabuleux.

Express Avoidance and Caution

The ne explétif is also used if a verb in the main clause has the sense of avoiding, stopping, prohibiting, or cautioning. Such verbs include the following:

prendre garde

  • On évita que le public ne vît nos préparations derrière la scène.
  • Ces problèmes techniques empêchent que le spectacle ne commence à l’heure désignée.
  • Ils prirent garde que les musiciens ne jouassent doucement pendant le récitatif.

Certain conjunctive phrases that you may recognize from studying the subjunctive may also introduce the ne explétif:

avant que
à moins que
depuis que
sans que*

Although not constantly recurring in oral discourse, is not rare to hear these conjunctive phrases used with the ne explétif in a conversational setting:

  • On prépare une grande surprise avant qu’elle n’arrive.
  • Nous pensons passer la journée au parc, à moins qu’il ne pleuve.

* There is some debate among grammarians about using sans que with the ne explétif, as some consider it erroneous, while others specify that it must be used with a negative verb in the main clause. I have included it here, following the example of the Académie Française. This discrepancy could also reflect regional differences in uses of the ne explétif e.g., Canadian vs. French.

Comparatives with the ne explétif

The ne explétif is also used with expressions of comparison. This occurs mainly with inequalities and thus includes the following comparatives:


We can use these for comparisons of superiority and inferiority that emphasize differences:

  • Ils travaillent davantage que ce qu’on n’attendait.
  • La scène se déroula autrement que la troupe ne l’eut répétée.

When we use comparatives to express opinions, we may use the pronoun le before the verb. This le is considered a neuter pronoun, although it looks and acts masculine in modern French: L’éléphant est plus gracieux sous l’eau qu’on ne le croit habituellement.

If we do use comparatives of equality with the ne explétif, each clause will be in the negative.

  • Les conséquences ne sont pas aussi graves qu’on n’avait imaginé.        


In general, it is useful to remember that the ne explétif does not negate the verbs with which it is used, but that it is often used to express negative ideas, such as fear, doubt, and impediment. Its comparative uses are distinguished by the differences that it emphasizes. Keeping these characteristics of the ne explétif in mind, the meanings of sentences that use it will become clear, and people’s fears, doubts, cautionary measures, and opinions will become clear as well.


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