Je ne sais point

What's the deal with point being used this way?

I see this word in books and articles from time to time. For example, today I was looking up the original conclusion of Joseph-Louis Proust when he was working with oxides of metals, circa 1795, and found that published the following:

"Il ne diffère donc point en cela du plomb, de l'étain de l'oxygène etc. et enfin de presque tous les combustibles connus."

Here, the antecedent of il is fer (iron), as he was discussing reacting iron with oxygen.

I see this word from time to time and it seems to me to have the same function as pas, hence the title of this thread. As far as I know, duolingo makes no mention of this use.

September 4, 2019


It's just a fancy/old fashioned way to say "pas". It's used either to sound smart or in proverbs, religious texts and stuff like that. E.g : Tu ne tueras point (= you shall not kill).

September 4, 2019

Okay, thanks. I've also read a few other older scientific publications and I see that some use pas; some use point. Sadi Carnot uses "pas" regularly, in his ground-breaking 19th-century treaty on thermodynamics. Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu (1830), from which Rudolf Clausius deduced what would later be called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, published as Über die bewegende Kraft der Wärme (1851).

September 4, 2019

that's very interesting. The first basically says what Zarrouguil says, that it's old. The second, however, says that pas is less strong than point and gives examples.

It may be that Proust wanted to emphatically point out that iron is not objectively different than tin, etc., in its manner of oxidation, whereas Carnot was saying more general things.

September 4, 2019

angus, you read some very fascinating books! :-)

September 4, 2019

haha. Thanks. I'm glad it's not just Lieutenant Commander Giordi LaForge and I who enjoy reading 19th-century treatises on thermodynamics. :)

When I can, I try to read them in their original languages. Fortunately, that stuff was mostly either English, German, or French to begin with. (There is quite a bit of Italian and Russian as well, but I have to read translations of those.)

September 4, 2019

Sounds like good stuff!

I'm not sure your quote really applies to you, given all that you do, but I certainly can relate to it! ("Procrastination was, she said, the cause of all my sorrow. I don't know what that big word means. I'll look it up tomorrow.")

September 4, 2019

Ah! Thanks for reading. It's unattributed but it comes to me from Larry Hagman (who played J. R. Ewing on Dallas, and before that Major Nelson on I dream of Jeannie). Hagman would only sign autographs in exchange for a song, a poem, or a quote. I gave him Robert Frost's Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening (in its entirety!) Afterward I jokingly said, "Now I'll give you my autograph for a song, a poem, or a quote." He smiled and obliged, telling me the one about procrastination, then actually made me sign my name. He is the only celebrity who ever asked for my autograph.

September 4, 2019

angus, that's a wonderful story! Thank you! "Stopping by the Woods" is a beauty, I'm impressed you knew all of it to quote on the spot!

September 5, 2019

It is basically the same as "ne . . . pas," perhaps a little stronger. It's old-fashioned now, and might get a bit of a chuckle if you used it today, especially in speech.

If you're interested in "geeking out" on it, originally (back to Old French), only the "ne" was used to negate. Later, intensifiers were added. So "ne . . . pas" meant "not a step," "ne . . . point" meant "not a dot," "ne . . . mie" meant "not a crumb." Later, the entire construction "ne . . . pas" evolved to mean, simply, "not," and nearly all the other forms vanished.

September 4, 2019

Interesting background. Following your reply I searched a bit and found this dissertation by a linguistics grad student which gives a similar story.

Apparently this phenomenon has a name: Jespersen's Strengthening Hypothesis. haha. An English writer from the mid 1500s explains it thusly:

So that pas, poynt, or mye be used for a more clere expressying of negacion, and as though the speker wolde byde by the thing hiche be denyeth: in so moche that, if the speker do but fayntly denye a thyng, they use than to leave out pas, poynt, or mye...

September 4, 2019

What a great find!

September 4, 2019

I think I found a mistake. On the bottom of page 83 there is a differential equation (1). No derivation is shown, but the next equation (2) has the integrated form. You cannot get from (1) to (2). If you start with (1), multiply both sides by dt and integrate, you will arrive at x - x₀ = ½ r t²

I'm pretty sure that equation (1) should read dx/dt = rx. The integrated form of this yields what is shown in equation (2). I guess the linguistics faculty might not catch something like that.

Man, I must have a great deal of free time today.

September 4, 2019

It's been over 20 years since I almost failed multivariable calculus, but isn't the derivative of e^x itself e^x? If so, how could the derivative of equation 2 (i.e., x(t) = x*e^rt) not have "e" in it (as does the original, and your revised, equation 1)?

That section of the dissertation does read like a "Calculus for Dummies" section, as though a mathematician were trying to condense all of calculus into a few paragraphs to convince the linguists that the mathematical hocus-pocus that follows is indeed grounded in reality. So mistakes / typos in that section would not surprise me.

September 5, 2019

Yes, the exponential is the derivative of the exponential function. To get back to (1) you must take the antilog on both sides of the equation, which is a logarithm.

If you start with dx/dt = rx, then multiply both sides of the equation by dt and divide both sides by x you can write

dx/x = rdt

Then integrate both sides of the equation, on the left from x₀ to x and on the right from 0 to t.

This yields ln(x) - ln(x₀) = rt - 0

Using the properties of logs (i.e., the difference between to logs equals the log of a quotient) the left side can be re-written:

ln(x/x₀) = rt

Then take the antilog of both sides:

x/x₀ = eʳᵗ

Then multiply both sides by x₀ to arrive at equation (2).

I found a couple of other errors as well, but that on stood out at first glance. I think it was probably a typo. The ancient French and Vulgar Latin may be full of errors, but I wouldn't know it. :)

None of that should distract from the usefulness of the dissertation. I think a great deal of work went into it and it was an informative read for me. It went far beyond answering my question.

September 5, 2019

Oh, sure, Jespersen's Strengthening Hypothesis. Any schoolchild could have told you that. :-) (sarcasm)

I learned about the evolution of "ne" in my graduate school classes in Old French. It was never presented from a linguistics point of view with supporting evidence, however, just as a known fact. Very cool find on your part!

September 4, 2019

I think I have a pretty good feel for this now. Thank you.

Des lingots pour tous !

September 4, 2019

un lingot pour toi! Grand merci pour clarifier la difference enter "pas" et "point".

September 4, 2019

ne...pas-not (je ne lis pas/i do not read) ne...jamais-never (je ne lis jamais/i never read) ne...point-at all (je ne lis point/i do not read at all)

September 4, 2019

It's stronger than pas, rather like "at all," compared to "not." Je ne sais pas. - I don't know. Je ne sais point! - I do not know at all! or I have no idea!

September 4, 2019
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