Below is the quote from Candide:

Tu ne mérites pas d'en manger, dit l'autre ; va, coquin, va, misérable, ne m'approche de ta vie.

Why not "ne m'approche (pas) de ta vie" here? Can the "pas" be a random choice here? One can choose whether or not to insert it in the negative commands like such sentence? Please explain it to me in English, many thanks.


2 Answers 2


Until the 17th century ne on its own used to be enough to negate a verb and pas was optional. The use of ne isolated (without the negative adverb) can still found in Classical French (Voltaire, La Fontaine, Molière, etc.) but except in a few cases it has become quite rare nowadays. Nowadays it is the opposite, there is a tendency - mainly in oral language (but nobody knows what the norm will be 200 years from now) - to drop ne that has lost part of its negative content and to use pas (or other negative adverb, jamais, plus, etc.) alone.

When can ne be used alone nowadays?
In Modern French ne can be used alone only in a limited number of cases. The omission of pas is not compulsory, it is considered literary, more or less literary according to frequency.

  • With the verbs cesser, oser, pouvoir, savoir when followed by an infinitive. It is probably the most frequent case.

    • Il ne cesse de me harceler pour savoir quand je vais venir.
      Je ne peux/puis te le dire maintenant.
      Je ne saurais dire pourquoi.
  • With the verbs daigner, manquer it is also possible but less frequent.

    • Il ne manque de me rendre visite à chaque fois qu'il vient en France.
  • In a conditional clause starting with si. Quite literary.

    • Il ne pouvait pas s'endormir si je ne l'avais embrassé. (René Bazin De toute son âme - 1897).
      This is very literary, and most people will use pas. It is more frequent though in the phrases: si je ne m’abuse, si je ne me trompe.
  • In negative questions with an affirmative meaning starting with qui. Quite literary.

    • Qui ne rêve de faire un jour le tour du monde ?
  • When the verb is followed by an adverbial phrase of time meaning jamais. Quite literary.

    • Je n' avais de toutes ces années pensé que je reviendrais en France.

Ne is always used alone in some fixed phrases: qu’à cela ne tienne, n’avoir de cesse, ne dire mot, il n’importe, on ne peut plus [plys], on ne peut moins, on ne peut mieux, etc.

For reference:

  • 1
    Your answer is more convincing and source-rich, amazing. Thanks.
    – xiexie
    Aug 9, 2017 at 5:11
  • 1
    I just received the following in an informational email from the consulat général de France à Hong Kong et Macao: "Si je ne vote par internet, quelles sont les modalités de vote à l´urne ou par procuration?", so clearly some bureaucrats think it isn't too literary for an email! May 26, 2022 at 4:20
  • @AntonOfTheWoods The sentence you quote has either not been written by a French native or there is a typo made by a hurried employee who forgot the word pas. It is not a matter of being literary or not. The pas is compulsory here and ne cannot stand on its own to express the negation, the sentence is a subordinate clause introducing a condition. Quite the opposite: ne could be left out (si je vote pas par internet...), although that would sound very informal for an official email (omitting pas is OK between friends).
    – None
    Jun 5, 2022 at 14:14
  • @None, so that's not a conditional clause? Jun 6, 2022 at 0:36
  • 1
    @wazoox About the adverbs pas, point, etc... see here and here
    – None
    Jun 7, 2022 at 15:43

Ne was the original negative particle and is still present on its own in certain fixed expressions, like je ne sais quoi.

In more recent usage (compared to the 12th-century grammaticalization of pas, Voltaire is recent!), it doesn't strike me as random, but rather poetic.

It can still be used today with a similar effect; compare its appearance in « Beau comme le soleil », a song from the 1998 musical Notre-Dame de Paris:

Quand il me serre contre lui
je voudrais fuir, mais je ne puis.

Here the use of puis instead of peux also reflects the elevated register of a lone ne.

Another theory I might propose for that particular usage of Voltaire's is that de ta vie could function as a sort of grammaticalized negative particle. That is to say, if jamais can complete ne in place of pas, then it's conceivable that de ta vie, which has a similar meaning, could do so too. There is quite a variety of items that can fill that slot, and the Banque de dépannage linguistique article that Laure links to below shows de sa vie being used in the same way:

Il n’a de sa vie imaginé qu’il serait un jour un héros.

But I'm not quite sure I'm interpreting the Voltaire sentence correctly, since the structure could be approcher quelqu'un de X instead of de ta vie being temporal. Also, in Laure's catalogue below and in the links cited, it's not clear that this phenomenon would be at home in the imperative mood.

  • @Laure Hmm... the list of special cases is pretty long, and on the two BDL pages I see that there are even a couple more. Are you sure the usage is stranger than some of those, infrequent though they might be?
    – Luke Sawczak
    Aug 7, 2017 at 14:10
  • With your edit and the now that you have differentiated this stand alone ne with that of pouvoir I have no more reservations about your answer. Omission of pas is really a lot lore frequent with pouvoir. Some of the other uses of stand alone ne are hardly ever met nowadays.
    – None
    Aug 7, 2017 at 14:54
  • I do not think we can draw a parallel between jamais and de ta vie serving as a "grammaticalized negative particle" because what we would usually say would be: ne m'approche pas / plus/ jamais plus/ de ta vie, de ta vie would have to stay alongside whatever second half of the negation we' use. So we are really dealing with the second part of the negation being entirely left out.
    – None
    Aug 7, 2017 at 17:03
  • @Laure Indeed, I was considering putting "Nowadays this is not the case: you need to support de ta vie with jamais anyway" in the draft I had deleted before seeing the BDL page. But on the whole, I'm tempted to think that grammaticalization is a reliable explanation, since it accounts for so many of the negation completers now. Maybe this one didn't catch on... but it might be how it worked in Voltaire's time, in any case.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Aug 7, 2017 at 18:39

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