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When I was at school in England in the late 60s, we were taught in French that it's common not to include 'pas' with 'savoir' in the negative, e.g. 'Je ne sais'. Our teachers were English.

Now that I am in a class to improve my French, my teacher (who is French) tells us that the negative construction of 'savoir' without 'pas' is not used in France; conversely, exclusion of "ne" is common in the vernacular, e.g. "J''ais pas".

In a recent post (Origine de cette tournure de phrase qui utilise le verbe « savoir ») on this web site, this construction is presented: 'on ne saurait discuter'.

What is the real story behind usage of 'pas' with 'savoir'?

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I'm a french speaker and normally the negation should be "ne" or "ni" but the problem was that this sounds very low in comparison with the "not" in english for example.

To let clearly known to your interlocutor that is a negation, in an early stage of the langage, a word has been added to describe exactly what you do not. For example, with the verb to walk (marcher), the negation was constructed "Je ne marche pas" (in english "I walk no step"). In french a "pas" is a single footstep (For example "a stepper motor" is "un moteur pas-à-pas").
In the same way in old french you can said "Je ne mange mie" ("I eat no bread"). La "mie de pain" is the bread crust.

In the same way "Je ne vois point" ("I see not a point", a "point" in french is a dot) is still used today , and "Je ne bois goutte" ("I drink no drop").

In my understanding, it is quite strong because "Je ne mange mie" would say "I don't eat anything, not even bread crumbs". Maybe must I say the smallest part possible just above nothing (Have a look at the added words : a drop, a dot, a tiny portion of bread, a single footstep) and even that you can't walk, drink, eat or see.

Note : "Je ne mange mie" and "je ne bois goutte" aren't used anymore by native speakers (and probably unknown for 99%+ of them). Even "Je ne mange mie" sounds strange in french. "Je ne bois goutte" also.

From all of this "added" words ("pas", "point", "mie" & "goutte", and probably others) only the two firsts remains in the language and it is now a part of the normal negation. "Je ne mange pas", "Je n'étudie pas", "Je n'ai pas d'argent" ou "De l'argent ? je n'en ai point !" ("Money ? I haven't !").

When you said, "je ne sais", "je ne peux", "je ne puis" you have difficult to hear that is a hard negation. Indeed the three (and in my opinion it is true for all verbs) are correct but only used today in the write form (or between "educated" person) and as we said in french "dans un langage soutenu" (elevated language ?) like "Je ne vois point"*. "Point" is more "elevated" that "pas". For exemple the latin expression "Extra Ecclesiam nulla sales" ("outside the Church there is no salvation") is usually traduced in "Hors de l'Eglise, point de salut". Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extra_Ecclesiam_nulla_salus

So for example "L'oublier, je ne peux." (Thinking of an old love, "Forget him/her, I can't") is correct but is near "d'une figure de style" due to the missing part "pas". The missing "pas" in place of a weakening effect has an stronger one. Of course, if you spoke about something less important you said / write : "L'oublier, je ne peux pas."

Sorry for my poor english ;)

  • I'm a native french speaker too and I like the explanation at the beginning of your reply about "pas" or "point" (it looks like "mie" has been left aside) (I'm in the 99% not aware of these old forms). But what about "je ne mangue guère" (formal lang.) or "je ne mange plus" (normal lang.) ? – Julien Jan 30 '18 at 16:27
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What is common in modern French is to drop the ne, not the pas.

Je ne sais

is possible but old fashioned and almost only used when followed by something else, like the formal je ne sais que dire (standard French: je [ne] sais pas quoi dire) or you example which is also formal on ne saurait discuter.

So your French teacher is right, je ne sais pas is often shortened in je sais pas, and in casual French even pronounced Chais pas.

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TL;DR : Use both ne and pas, if needed you can use only ne

Using only pas is common, but faulty

You may have noticed that in english and a lot of languages, you have a n... negation: not, nicht, niet, ne...

We had the same in french: ne, but it went along an object:

Je ne bois goutte / I do not drink a drop

Je ne mange mie / I do not eat bread

That's how the negation was formed. Now, why is there a pas you may ask? Well, it comes from the form:

Je ne marche pas / I do not walk step

where pas is used as in "Je fais quelques pas dans ma chambre".

While the french was evolving, this pas was the conjonction that stayed, and it is now a part of the ne ... pas negation.

So if you want to be correct, you would use both ne and pas or only ne depending of the situation (or ne plus another adverb: ne ... jamais, ne... plus, ...)

In the commonly-used french, it is true that people tend nowadays to use only pas:

Je veux pas / J'aime pas / Je sais pas

But note that this is not the correct way.

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Both are right depending on the context. If you just want to say « je ne sais pas. », then you never omit the “pas” but as you said we may omit the “ne” in familiar language.

But there are time we may omit the “pas” if the sentence is longer, like in:

  • Je ne sais par quel miracle…
  • Je ne saurais me prononcer…
  • Je ne sais si je veille ou si je rêve encore. (Jules Massenet)
  • Il a un « je ne sais quoi » qui me trouble.

Also note that Belgians and Swiss (and perhaps others) frequently use the verb “savoir” with the meaning of “pouvoir”.

Je ne sais pas lire ça.

Meaning “I can’t read this”.

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