What is a Negative Verb?
When you start out learning French, you will learn several verbs, perhaps some regular and some irregular, some more useful than others; but you spend most of your time learning how to say you are doing something. After a short time, you’ll find yourself asking, "What if I don’t want to do this?" This is where negative verbs come in. They aren’t about being pessimistic about something, they are simply ways to say you are not doing something, and thankfully, they don’t require any sort of special conjugation patterns.
The Basic Pattern
In English, we use the adverb "not" as our primary way to make a verb negative. The sentence "I’m watching a movie" becomes "I’m not watching a movie," and nothing changes, except for that one word, yet the meaning of the sentence is exactly the opposite. French follows the same basic pattern, except that there are two words we must use. Here is the basic pattern of a French sentence:
sujet + verbe + complément
The sujet (subject) and verbe (verb) are the main parts of the sentence, and exist in every single one. The complément (similar to the English predicate) contains extraneous information, and for the purpose of making a verb negative, can be ignored, leaving us with only the sujet and the verbe. To make a verb negative in French, we add two parts, ne and pas. They are both adverbs, and you need both parts to make the sentence negative correctly. The first, ne, is more of a marker, indicating that the sentence is negative. It does not have a direct translation in English, as we only use one adverb in our negations. The second, pas, translates to "not," and as we will see later, can be replaced by other words to create sentences with "never, nobody, and nothing," as well. Here is how these parts are inserted into a sentence:
sujet + ne + verbe + pas
The ne always goes before the verb, and the pas (or other negative word) always goes after. One important detail to remember is that, as often is the case in French, if ne is followed by a word that starts with a vowel sound, such as the verb avoir (to have), it is changed to n’ instead.
Other Negative Adverbs
As previously mentioned, there are other possible negative adverbs as well. Like English, the list is quite large, but here are some of the most commonly seen patterns:
ne + verbe + jamais (never)
ne + verbe + personne (nobody/no one)
ne + verbe + rien (nothing)
Simply using the same pattern, but replacing the pas with one of those adverbs can give you more variety with your negative sentences.
Here are a few examples of the different patterns, along with their English translations:
Je ne parle pas allemand. (I don’t speak German)
Tu ne manges jamais les fruits. (You never eat fruit)
Elle n’aime personne. (She doesn’t like anyone; lit. translation, She likes nobody)
Vous n’habitez pas à Chicago. (You all don’t live in Chicago)
Nous ne faisons rien. (We aren’t doing anything; lit. translation, We are doing nothing)
Ils ne regardent pas la télé. (They aren’t watching TV)
You can see the same pattern, ne + verbe + pas/jamais/personne/rien, in each of the examples. Two of them show the ne abbreviated to n’ before a vowel sound. Take note that the verb habiter (to live) starts with the letter H, but because that letter is silent, it is still considered a vowel sound. This is similar to the exception "an hour" in English, with "an" going before a silent consonant.
These are only some of the basic negative patterns in the French language, but it is a good introduction to the concept. As you study more verb tenses and forms, you will find other ways to do similar things, but the basic ne + verbe + pas structure will always work for you. Keep things simple and you will always be able to make your French sentences do, or not do, exactly what you want them to.