Je ne le sais que trop bien.

Les résultats n'en seront que plus désastreux.

When I want to emphasise the degree/extent of something, I say something like above, using the restrictive « ne ... que » construction, and putting stress on « que » in speech. In these two sentences, « ne ... que » qualifies and emphasises « trop » and « plus » respectively.

I wonder if there is an instance where you use the « ne ... que » construction like these to emphasise a degree/extent and yet « que » is not immediately followed by « trop » or « plus »? Or are these two pretty much the only possible words?

I cannot seem to find a dictionary entry or a source dealing with this particular topic.

  • This is my first time seeing it as you use it... I'll be interested to read the answers. – Luke Sawczak Apr 30 '17 at 17:52
  • I’m not sure if the “ne..que” is being used to emphasize the “seule” or visa-versa (or even if this obvious redundancy is “permitted” and/or what you had in mind [hence the comment]), but I think the redundancy in something like “Je n’aime qu’une seule femme” makes it more emphatic than “J’aime une seule femme. cf:this ngram – Papa Poule Apr 30 '17 at 18:36
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    @PapaPoule No, “je n'aime qu'une seule femme” is very different. It's an ordinary way to say “only one”, that doesn't add much emphasis compared to “j'aime une seule femme” — what it does is to shift the emphasis from the positive (I love this woman, and by the way I love no other) to the negative (I don't love any other woman, and by the way I do love this one). The construction with an adjective is different, and very literary. – Gilles Apr 30 '17 at 18:44

In general this is not a very common construction in everyday French, it is rather literary.

Ne le savoir que trop (bien is optional and not very common) is an exception, it's a bit of an idiom. The Trésor de la langue française has an entry for ne le savoir que trop — two, actually, one that it defines as “having had the bitter experience” and one for which it gives a more general meaning that simply reinforces “I know”. Indeed this expression can be used even by someone who hasn't had the direct experience, although it might be considered an exaggeration in this case.

In general, I think that because this construction (ne … que + adjective) indicates emphasis, it's natural to combine it with a superlative, unless the adjective is already a comparative. (A superlative comparative is possible in French — “beaucoup plus grand” — but it feels too much here.) Trop is not the only possibility, straight superlative marker such as bien, fort and très (the normal superlative marker in modern French) are also possible, but rarer. The comparative is the most common case, I think. This includes ne … que plus … and irregular forms of comparative such as ne … que mieux, but also semantic comparatives expressed with a verb.

On peut juger Delacroix d'après les feuillets de son Journal : il n'en sortira que grandi.   Auteur non déterminé, in Revue politique et littéraire, vol. 50, p. 360, 1912

I can't find either a quote or a sentence I would naturally write that wouldn't have either a comparative or a superlative.

  • Merci. I didn't realise this locution had a literary flavour. If you use it in casual conversation, does it sound weird? The first construction, in particular. is one of my pet phrases... – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens May 2 '17 at 4:43

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