I know that "un/une" in an direct object becomes "de" before a noun in a negative sentence. Example:

  • J'ai vu un lion.
  • Je n'ai jamais vu de lion.

I thought that the same happened when an adjective precedes the noun, but I just heard:

  • Je n'ai pas un bon niveau (d'italien).

So I guess that the singular indefinite articles preserve their original form before an adjective?

  • Excellent question!
    – lmc
    Jul 19 '19 at 9:32

No, but your example seems to be a particular case in which you don't have to replace "un" by "de" even if the sentence is negative. If the negation is "partial", i.e. if it does not concern directly the object but another element of the sentence (the adjective of the objet e.g.), the indefinite article keeps its original form.

See : http://research.jyu.fi/grfle/051.html (§4, in French)

  • I was surprised with this exception to the rule. I have never heard of it before. Another good example (mentioned in the link you posted): "Je n’ai pas acheté des pommes, j’ai acheté des cerises". Jul 18 '19 at 20:19
  • Yes, you still have a "niveau" in Italian. The sentence might even be (bragging) Je n'ai pas un bon niveau en italien, j'ai un excellent niveau !
    – jlliagre
    Jul 19 '19 at 13:12

I This answer (user Ibidem) provides a perfect reference ("de" or "des/un/…") for an explanation of the basic question, that is whether to use « de » or « des/un/… » and answers the question fully. However, a step by step examination of the essential points and some details is provided in the present answer for the particular case of the indefinite article, so as to present a directly reachable whole for the reader, specially the reader lead in the future by the same quest.

The proposed reference makes explicit that there is no automatic transformation of « un » into « de ». It is only matter of context whether to use « de » or « un ». This is obtained from the explanations on the "présupposé", this reference being given as "p.59" in the initial reference. This explanation is reformulated here as it applies to the indefinite article.

If the context is free of what is called a presupposed fact ("présupposé") about the determined noun, that is a fact or supposed fact known to all in the verbal exchange, you use "de". Otherwise (existence of a presupposed fact) you use either « de » or « un/une » depending on what you want to say; what you want to say when not using « de » is that what was expected or what could be more or less expected has not been realised and instead something else took place, which you can mention but do not have to, and you talk then of "négation partielle".

The presupposed fact can be one of three essential types (I add the second type, which could be perhaps lumped with the second);

explicit : simply agreed upon before the action or merely stated

  • — As-tu vu un lion, dans la dernière cage ?
    — Je n'y ai pas vu un lion mais une troupe de lions, la dernière cage est maintenant un petit enclos à lions.

implicit : not in the immediate context but in the wider context of the knowledge common only to the locutors

  • — Je n'ai pas acheté un tonneau de bière, il n'y en avait plus ; j'ai pris du vin à la place. (The regular weekly grocery shopping involves the buy of beer keg and the family knows that the beer for the meals comes from that keg.)

implicit : not in the immediate context but in the wider context of general knowledge.

  • Nous n'avons pas eu un accueil avec des colliers de fleurs, nous n'étions pas assez important pour ça.

II Comments about "Je n'ai pas un bon niveau (d'italien)."    The answer to this question is entirely contained in n° 4 of the reference ("de" or "des/un/…"), which says this;

La négation peut aussi être partielle en ce sens qu’elle ne porte pas sur l’objet direct du verbe, mais sur un autre élément de la phrase, par exemple sur l’adjectif qui caractérise l’objet (et non pas sur tout l’objet).

translation : There is a context for a "négation partielle" when what is negated is not the object but another element, such as for instance the adjective modifying the object (but not the "whole " object).

  • Il ne faut pas y accorder une grande importance. [On peut y accorder de l’importance, mais pas trop.] (example from the reference)

In "Je n'ai pas un bon niveau (d'italien)." there is no question of an unexistent proficiency level in Italian, but the assertion of the unexistence of a good one, in other words only the denial that it should be good.

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