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I'm a bit confused about the following sentence (from Robert Merle's Malevil): "Il ne me faut pas moins que ce souvenir heureux pour ne pas céder au désespoir..."

I assume it means "I need no less than this happy memory to not give in to despair". (Anything less happy wouldn't have been enough.)

I think what's tripping me up is that I'm used to thinking of negating "falloir" as having the connotation of "must not" (as opposed to "not must", if you will), but here the "pas" seems like it goes with "moins" more than "faut". I'm surprised I had never really thought about this before, but negating "falloir" is more complicated than I thought:

  1. Il ne faut pas... (One mustn't...)
  2. Il ne faut pas longtemps... (It doesn't take long, not it mustn't take long.)
  3. Il n'en faut pas moins que... (Néanmoins, il faut que...)
  4. Il ne me faut pas y aller toute suite. (I don't have to go there right away, not I mustn't go there right away.)

I'm sure I can come up with other examples. Is there a nice way to think about all these different forms of negating falloir?

  • Sentence n.4 sounds odd to me... As does the positive form "Il me faut y aller"... – Random Jul 22 '16 at 9:00
  • In formal speech and in some regions of France, "il me faut y aller" is more commonly used than "il faut que j'y aille". The negative form does seem odd though. – DaWaaaaghBabal Jul 22 '16 at 9:09
  • Ah, interesting, I pulled those from a linguee.fr search. Good to know that they sound odd. – Alan O'Donnell Jul 22 '16 at 9:59
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TL;DR : when applied to a noun, the positive form expresses a need while the negative form indicates the absence of need. When applied to a verb, the positive indicates an obligation while the negative expresses an interdiction. Make sure the negation is applied to falloir and not to another part of the sentence.

You're right, in this particular case "pas" is applied to "moins". "Pas moins que" and "rien de moins que" are used for emphasis ; both translate as "nothing less than", but you could remove them without really affecting the meaning. Your translation is totally correct.

The same applies to your 3rd example : "n'en... pas moins" basically means "still". The negation is applied to "moins" : what follows is "not less valid" despite whatever "en" designates.

In your 4th example, your translation is wrong : "il ne me faut pas..." could be rephrased as "il ne faut pas que je..." : "il ne me faut pas y aller seule" = "il ne faut pas que j'y aille seule" = "I mustn't / shouldn't go alone". Actually, while "il me faut [verb]" is common, "il ne me faut pas [verb]" isn't ; your original sentence feels odd.

You need to make the difference between verbs and nouns, just like when using the positive form : in most cases, "il ne faut pas [verb]" means "one mustn't..." while "il ne faut pas [noun]" means "one doesn't need...". When one wishes to express the absence of obligation instead of an interdiction, another phrasing should be used like "il n'est pas nécessaire de". You can compare this to English : "must not" is unambiguously an interdiction while "don't have to" means it's not required.

  • Really helpful answer--I had actually already asked a whole separate question about the "n'en... pas moins" idiom, but your little explanation of case 3 is wonderfully concise! – Alan O'Donnell Jul 22 '16 at 11:07
  • I see no example in your reply or the OP examples with "il ne faut pas [noun]". Perhaps are you using "noun" where "adverb" might better match your point? – jlliagre Jul 22 '16 at 12:18
  • "Il ne faut pas de sucre pour faire une omelette", "il ne faut pas deux heures pour faire la vaisselle" (although here, arguably, the noun is used for an amount of time and plays the role of an adverb). Thinking on it, i've been a bit simplistic : for example, "il ne faut pas être sorcier pour comprendre" means "you don't need to be a wizard to understand...". The logic I explained remains a valid rule of thumb in most cases, context should help you make sense of things when you encounter an exception. – DaWaaaaghBabal Jul 22 '16 at 12:45
  • Il ne faut pas never means one should not. That is not how to approach it. – Lambie Jul 22 '16 at 20:33
  • Indeed, but I only mentioned "should" for this particular sentence, in the context of a woman refusing to go somewhere alone ; "mustn't" seemed a bit strong for that particular case. The French version is uncommon anyway... – DaWaaaaghBabal Jul 22 '16 at 21:45
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Depending on the context and the expression, il faut has several translations : one need, one must, one should, it is required, it is suitable, it takes, ...

In all of your examples, falloir might be translated by "require":

Il ne faut pas y aller. → It is not required/allowed to go there.

Il ne faut pas longtemps pour y aller. → It doesn't require a lot of time to go there.

Il n'en faut pas moins que vous y alliez. → "*It doesn't requires less than you going there", it really means: You should go there anyway.

Il ne me faut pas y aller toute suite. → It is not required for me to go there right away.

The third sentence is tricky because it is a set expression. Unlike the others, you cannot remove the negation and keep a meaningful sentence:

"Il en faut moins que vous y alliez" would not be understood nowadays.

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