EDIT: Just realized I accidentally used puis instead of peux. Is that the only issue here? That was just a slip of the mind because I'm a bit out of practice. If I had used peux, would that invalidate the concerns?

In another question I mentioned a sentence beginning with "Je ne puis le trouver dans..." and it was pointed out in the comments that je ne puis is very formal.

I have been translating "I can..." and "I can't..." with "je puis..." and "je ne puis..." for as long as I've been speaking any French, but this commenter suggested "je n'ai pu..." instead, which to me is past tense and is a translation of "I couldn't..." or "I was unable to..."

Can someone expand on this? Is the present tense of pouvoir not standard usage?

  • 1
    “Je n'ai pas pu” is indeed the past tense and cannot be substituted for “je ne puis”. I think it works in the other context because the suggestion refers to the (presumably past) search in several dictionaries.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 17:48
  • 1
    Two problems with your quote, the puis and the absence of pas. Both are markers for formal French in this case.
    – GAM PUB
    Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 21:29

4 Answers 4


Present tense use of pouvoir

The present tense is completely fine and idiomatic:

Bien sûr, je peux !

Je peux le faire.

Demain, je ne peux pas.

In the negative, it can even be made to sound more colloquial by omitting the “ne”:

Demain, je peux pas.

It's omitting the “pas” that sounds stiff and formal:

Je ne peux le faire.

Or even worse but still correct:

Demain, je ne peux.

And of course:

Demain, je ne puis.

(Actually, I have difficulties imagining myself uttering “demain, je ne puis” without some pompous tone and hand gesture to go with it!)

The special case of “aucun

But in a sentence like yours (“I can't find it in any dictionary”), you cannot fit a “pas” so if you want to keep the present tense you have to say

Je ne peux le trouver dans aucun dictionnaire.

and, while it's already much better than “je ne puis”, it stills sounds a bit like “je ne peux”, whereas

*Je ne peux pas le trouver dans aucun dictionnaire.

sounds childish or downright incorrect.

Getting rid of “pouvoir” entirely makes the sentence feel less formal, even without “pas”:

Je ne l'ai trouvé dans aucun dictionnaire. [My original suggestion]

Je ne le trouve dans aucun dictionnaire. [Suggestion from @undu]

Past tense and “je n'ai [pas] pu

On its own, “je n'ai pas pu” also sounds fine but I suspect that it's not because of the past tense but because of the “pas”. And of course, it's just as difficult to use in a sentence with “aucun” as

*Je n'ai pas pu le trouver dans aucun dictionnaire

is also incorrect. While

Je n'ai pu le trouver dans aucun dictionnaire

suffers from the same undertones as the present tense version and still feels quite formal.


Depending on what you are trying to say, it might or might not be possible to construct a present tense sentence that fits the situation but there are certainly many uses of “peux” in informal settings.

  • 1
    Regarding the omission of ne or of pas, what about this? It discusses the ne littéraire in which I am apparently supposed to omit the pas from pouvoir in writing? Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 18:28
  • @Aerovistae I never heard the term “ne littéraire” or realized it was specific to these 7 verbs before but that's exactly what it is. It's possible but sounds very formal, certainly in spoken French.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 18:30
  • Some of your examples are extremely surprising to me simply because they are grammatically correct but apparently childish or colloquially incorrect despite being basic constructs that I didn't realize had any connotations. To pick one, Je n'ai pas pu le trouver dans aucun dictionnaire is something you say is incorrect, but seems entirely correct to me as a learner. What's wrong with it ? Is it the "double negative" of pas and aucun that's undesirable ? Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 18:35
  • @Aerovistae Yes, exactly.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 19:28

"Je ne puis" is actually very antiquated and not used in modern French.

"Puis-je... ?" is sometimes used as an extremely formal, somewhat tongue in cheek, way of interjecting politely, or even jokingly, in a conversation:

"Puis-je vous rappeler?" for instance means "May I call you back?" but in a very formal manner.

"Est-ce que je peux vous rappeler?" is more common and usually pronounced "Ess keu chpeux vous rappler?" (Do not forget that most French people do not pronounce the "eu" sound so as to speak faster).

  • You usually don't use "vous", being quite formal, together with a somewhat informal pronunciation...
    – Laurent S.
    Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 19:00


Basically, you should translate "can" this way :

I can = Je peux
I can't = Je (ne) peux pas
I could = je pouvais / j'ai pu
I couldn't = je (ne) pouvais pas, je (n')ai pas pu

I can't find

Be careful with this sentence, "can" is not translated here, since it wouldn't have the same meaning in french, so you should do this way :

I can't find my keys = Je ne trouve pas mes clés

  • What would the meaning be in French if I did use "pouvoir" there? Is it simply wrong / not idiomatic, or does it express some other shade of meaning? Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 17:29
  • @Aerovistae Sorry but what do you mean ? I don't understand your question :)
    – Random
    Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 18:37
  • "If "Je ne trouve pas me clés" is "I can't find my keys," what is "Je ne peux pas trouver mes clés"? Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 18:54
  • @Aerovistae It would be "I'm not able to find my keys"
    – Random
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 8:24

"Je ne puis" is for sure very formal. We use commonly "j'ai pu" / "Je n'ai pas pu" (litterally "I was able" / "I was not able to do") for the past time.

Actually, the use of the "Passé Simple" (Je peux, > Je puis) is formal. We usually speak about past things with the "Passé composé" time. (Subject + Auxilliaire + participe passé)

If you are speaking about something that happened, but is done/finished today, you'd say : "Je pouvais" / "Je ne pouvais pas".

Have I answered your question ?

  • 2
    “Je ne puis” n'est pas un passé simple, ce serait “Je ne pus”, c'est juste une variante désuète de “peux”.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 17:27

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