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When I read French books, this word makes me confused all the times. Its meaning varies up on a sentence, sometimes refers to only, however, sometimes means not.

In my opinion, if it's used without pas, it always means “only”, however, it means negation when it's used with pas`.

For example,

Il ne contient qu'un seul amas riche de galaxies

→ It contains only one cluster of galaxies

Il ne contient pas d'argent.

→ He doesn't have money.

Nevertheless,

On ne peut avoir de dépendance.

→ We cannot have dependence !!

Could you explain it along with the examples? I want to understand it clearly in order to read and write French.

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This answer of mine on another question might be of interest. –  Stéphane Gimenez Jan 1 at 17:45

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Ne as a part of double negation:

  • ne ... pas
  • ne ... aucun
  • ne ... jamais
  • ne ... plus
  • ne ... rien
  • ne ... personne

These ways of negation are often mutually exclusive, for example:

Ne ... pas cannot be used with aucun, jamais, or personne.

  • Wrong: Je n'ai pas aucun ami.
  • Right: Je n'ai aucun ami. I have no friends.
  • ne ... que means "only"
  • ne ... pas que means "not only"
  • Je ne regrette qu'une chose. I regret only one thing.
  • Je ne regrette pas qu'une chose. I don't regret only one thing.
  • ne in formal French:

Cesser, oser, and pouvoir don't need pas:

  • Elle ne peut venir avec nous. She can't come with us.

"On ne peut avoir de dépendance" is exactly this case.

Source of examples:

Other links you might find useful: 1, 2, 3

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These explanations are simplified from Grevisse's Le Bon Usage, 14th ed. §§1010-1026

Historically, ne was the only expression of the negation, it functioned somewhat like not in that regard. With time, what were originally emphatic (pas being the most common) or additional adverbs (rien, jamais) etc. came to become required, leading to ne+pas or another adverb being the normal expression of negation (ironically in modern colloquial French, ne is now dropped instead).

The original usage remains generally possible, however, as you note in your last example (and pouvoir is in fact one of the verbs that most naturally allows the construction), but is generally associated with a rather literary or elevated style, or with a limited number of expressions where it is obligatory, such as n'importe qui, Il ne boit ni ne mange, je ne sais que faire etc.

Besides the complex issue of what are known as ne explétifs (§§1023-4), where the ne has little to no semantic connection to negation, Grevisse (§1018) freely admits that ne que is an oddity. But it is one with a prestigious pedigree, since it traces right back to the Latin non aliud quam, which actually expressed that the two items thus connected were not different, hence, the same. This eventually evolved (though Grevisse doesn't detail the semantic evolution) into a sort of "negated negative", hence "only".

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