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French Expletive Ne - Formal French

Ne explétif

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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.


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

   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.)


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 denyplusmore
redouterto dread
 
* Incidentally, these conjunctions and verbs all take the subjunctive.
° These require the ne explétif only in negative or interrogative constructions.
 
Test on ne explétif
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