1

"We will beat our opponent not by being stronger than them, but by being cleverer than them."

Nous allons battre notre adversaire pas en étant plus forts qu'eux, mais en étant plus intelligents qu'eux.

Is "pas" the correct translation of "not" here? Or should it be "ne pas" or "non"?

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Before I specifically answer your question, I need to make a little summary, as this is one of the very idiosyncratic points of French grammar.

The "mystery" of French negatives

The trick is to remember that the words "pas, plus, jamais" were not created negatives. They have a positive meaning.

pas => little (no longer used in this way)

plus => more

jamais => ever

Hence:

Plus il boit, moins il pense. => The more he drinks, the less he thinks.

Si jamais tu le vois,... => If you ever meet him,...

As tu jamais vu cela? => Have you ever seen that?

The only proper negative in French is "ne".

Hence:

Ne... pas => "not a little" => not

Ne... plus => "not more" => no more (quantity), no longer (time)

Ne... jamais => "not ever" => never

It is very simple, really.

What makes it confusing, is that modern usage tends to forget it:

Vas-tu accepter? -- Jamais! Plutôt mourir!

Non, mais j'ai jamais vu ça!

So, in essence, the meaning of the word "jamais" has been completely reversed. It is like if you said "ever", instead of "n-ever"! Only the context allows you to tell which is which.

The recommendation here would be, in written language, to strictly respect the standard construction.

Conclusion: There could be argument on whether your version is acceptable or not (because French grammarians have thrown their arms up in despair about this); but the standard, unambiguous version should be:

Nous allons battre notre adversaire, non pas en étant...

Singular/Plural

Ah, and another little detail: the English facility of having a singular noun used as a plural is frowned upon in French.

So you would have to say either:

Nous allons battre notre adversaire, non pas en étant plus forts que lui, mais en étant plus intelligents.

Or:

Nous allons battre nos adversaires, non pas en étant plus forts qu'eux, mais en étant plus intelligents.

I also removed "que lui/qu'eux", as this was redundant (but at this point, it becomes a matter of opinion).

Your question was very interesting, so it deserved a long answer.

  • 1
    Very good answer. A small comment, pas didn't really mean "little" but "step", and is of course still very commonly used with that (forgotten) meaning in: il n'avance/ne marche pas. – jlliagre Oct 23 '16 at 8:38
  • Absolutely: it didn't want to mention it, otherwise my answer would have been unbearably long. See also rien", which comes from Latin "res", "a thing", hence: "je ne vois rien" => "I do not see a thing" => "I see nothing". In obsolete French "goutte" (drop) served the same purpose: as "je ne comprends goutte". – fralau Oct 23 '16 at 8:50
  • Rather je n'y vois goutte, with comprendre, rien was more logical. – jlliagre Oct 23 '16 at 12:40
  • I agree, goutte would fit well with voir, entendre, etc.. But since entendre, could mean both understand and hear, I believe we would get here in discussions of taste and colours! – fralau Oct 23 '16 at 13:43
  • Thanks for the detailed answer! I understand now that "pas" alone does not suffice, but why can't we use just "non", or "ne pas"? Is there an explanation for that? – user11550 Oct 23 '16 at 16:53

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