Small french lesson: "Ne...que"

Hello Duolinguists, So I've been translating some french texts to english and noticed an error of translation virtually every translator who encountered this kind of subtle phrasing made. The phrasing is "Ne...que" and I figured explaining it might interest some of you.

"Ne...que" is used to express the fact that one only does one thing. For example:

"Je ne peux que marcher sans souliers."

means: "I can only walk without shoes".One could also say, "Je ne peux marcher que sans soulier" (notice how the "que" changed its position), which now means "I can walk only without shoes". We can see how the "que" actually takes the place of "only" here, which is its meaning in this phrasing, and that its position slightly changes the meaning.

The confusing part for readers is that "Je ne peux marcher sans soulier" (without "que") is a fancy way of saying "I can't walk without shoes", which has the opposite meaning just by removing "que". Note that the fancy way I'm talking about is using "Je ne peux" instead of "Je ne peux pas". "Pouvoir" is the only verb I can think of that you can use this way, so don't go around saying "Je ne comprends le français". One actual sentence I've seen in the immersion is "On ne peut qu'aimer autre chose", which people translated as "We can't love anything else" when it actually means the opposite "We can only love something else", and now you know it. Note that I used the verb "pouvoir" throughout my explanations, but this phrasing works with virtually every verb ("Je n'aime que, je ne mange que, je ne danse que....)"

Finally, I will add that this phrasing is quite formal and much more present in the written language, as one might guess. It is quite unlikely to hear it in everyday life and you'd be better off to say "Je peux seulement" to convey this meaning.

I hope this was clear enough and that you enjoyed the lesson. If you have any questions, please ask and I'll answer:)

EDIT: A video linked in a comment made me realize something. I am from Québec so I do not speak french the same exact way french people do (although we have the same written french). French people (i.e. from France) speak a lot more like they write, so they WILL use that phrasing using que, while in Québec it sounds fancy. And they won't use "seulement". We don't even really use seulement here in Québec I just figured even "que" was too fancy for french people, but apparently not, so my bad. For information, here in Québec we use "juste". So we would say for exemple "Je mange juste des pommes", to say "I only eat apples". There you go:)


December 18, 2014


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It's like the English "but", which can be used in the same manner, as a shorthand for "nothing but". It's rarely used that way nowadays, but I'm sure many will be familiar with this quote: 'tis but a scratch. Scratch? Your arm's off!

Yes, this is how I hear it in my head - "Quand on n'a que l'amour'' - When we have but love - When we only have love.

Or of course "On ne vit qu'une fois'' - ONVQF. The French for YOLO! :-)

What a weird acronym, once translated!...

Does it litterally mean " One only lives one time"?

Yes absolutely! Or "One lives but one time" :-)

Hey thanks for taking the time to explain all of that, that was pretty awesome, and it probably cleared things up for a lot of people (including me)!

And you might want to check the important EDIT I made to the lesson!:)

Well done! I confirm we French use "ne... que" a lot, so "je ne peux qu'approuver"!

It can be used with other verbs too, without pouvoir.

Il n'y a qu'une personne. There is only one person.

Je ne mange qu'une pomme. I only eat one apple.

Exactly, like I said "Note that I used the verb "pouvoir" throughout my explanations, but this phrasing works with virtually every verb" :)

And you might want to check the important EDIT I made to the lesson!:)

Merci pour votre explication @malex0994. Un lingot pour vous!

And you might want to check the important EDIT I made to the lesson!:)

Je ne parle ni écris pas bien le français, merci pour votre aide!

Je ne parle ni n'écris bien le français

Merci Sitesurf, tu nous aides toujours, tout les temps! Merci pour partager ton connaissance.

tout le temps - tes connaissances

I'd add Merci de* hehe

Je n’écris pas parce que je dois étudier beaucoup le français. Merci encore Sitesurf!

The more you write, the more you get corrected, the more you improve your French! Happy learning!

This video mentions this concept in a fun way!

Thank cool video, it made me make an edit to my lesson actually:)

Thank you! Although, about the part where you said that only saying ne is fancy, but I've seen a lot of times where they actually leave ne and only say pas, is this 'ne-only-thing' just for pouvoir or what? If anyone could clarify this it would be highly appreciated.

Again, thanks for the great lesson.

Saying "Je peux pas, Je mange pas, je crois pas" is indeed the way to go in informal speech. If you wanna sound even more fluent: "J'peux pas, J'mange pas, J'crois pas..." And that's a total different thing than "Je ne peux" or "Je ne puis", the latter being some old form of the verb "pouvoir". These actually sound like a romantic knight speaking:P There's an article on this on the french wikipedia

You'll see that there are examples using other verbs, but that the syntax for these is particular (with Si, for example). I wouldn't have thought of these and they sound like old fancy french to me, something you'd see in old literature with noble people speaking or something.

I'd recommend to keep that somewhere in your brain, were you to encounter that in a book, but to forget about it altogether when you speak. I hope it helped clarify things:)

I just saw another one today in my book «Le petit nicholas à des ennuis»

«il n'y a que cinq tomates dans un kilo?» - "There are only 5 tomatoes in one kilo?"

Oh, oh, another from a little movie I'm watching.

«Des dents, des dents ! Mais nous n'en avons que neuf mon précieux.»

Oui c'est juste! Mais quelles grandes tomates!

Maybe they're very tall tomatoes? No? Nobody buying that? ;-)

Quelles tomates mutantes ! C'est a cause de tout l'énergie nucléaire en France. :-)

toute l'énergie

Thanks:) And you might want to check the important EDIT I made to the lesson!

Thanks again. This time drawing attention to the regional difference. As lynxlynxlynx has mentioned ne....que is like using English but in a convoluted way. Understandable however it makes you stop and look (or think about what was just said to the detriment of hearing what comes after)

Juste seems more conducive to understanding.

Explication très claire Alexandre ! Bonne journée ;-)

Tant mieux, bonne journée à vous aussi!:)

Et vous aimeriez peut-être regarder la modification que j'ai apportée à la fin de la leçon!:)

Merci beaucoup!

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