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I recently asked in chat about this Windows notification I saw:

L'imprimante n'a pu imprimer

Like me, Reyedy found this omission of pas a little too literary for the context. But Pas un clue went on to find several more examples:

Votre achat n'a pu être effectué

La page n'a pu être chargée

L'URL n'a pu être chargée

Here's a present-tense one from Firefox:

La requête ne peut aboutir

What's the deal? If this is normal, how did the formula work its way into technological contexts and become embedded? Is there a regional difference, perhaps? Does it sound odd to others and if so why?

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Using n'a pu in spoken French would be extremely formal and surely surprise the person listening. We essentially always say n'a pas pu or better a pas pu in most occasions.

On the other hand, dropping pas in written French (at least in France but I don't think there are regional differences) is still very common and unsurprising to me. What used to be rare was using pas with pouvoir, and while the difference lessens, it is still rarer that the shorter form according to Google Books:

enter image description here

Only a few verbs are subject of this frequent omission, they are cesser, oser, pouvoir and savoir according to the OQLF BDL:

Bien que l’adverbe de négation ne soit généralement employé avec un autre adverbe de négation, il est possible, dans certains contextes, de l’employer seul. Il en est ainsi avec les verbes cesser, oser, pouvoir et savoir, principalement lorsqu’ils sont suivis d’un infinitif.

With other verbs, the form with pas took the lead a while ago, e.g.:

enter image description here

There are gazillions of hits with n'a pu se rendre and I'm sure many parents are using this form when writing mots d'excuse to their child's school. No technology bias involved here.

Nevertheless, the trend is in favor of the form with pas so the degree of familiarity with it likely increases within the younger generations.

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  • Like you, I think it's a very common form when writing official letters or mots d'excuses, but don't you think the registre de langue tends to be less formal for automatic messages? Generally, it looks as neutral as possible, and what surprised me with this phrasing is that it doesn't sound neutral, but rather a bit too "human". Beware of Skynet... – Reyedy Sep 14 at 6:41
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    @Reyedy Answer developed. The age looks to play a role here. – jlliagre Sep 14 at 7:54
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    Nice development! I think it does, indeed. That's the beautiful evolution of languages! – Reyedy Sep 14 at 8:18
  • Thanks for the detailed answer! – Luke Sawczak Sep 15 at 3:01
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    These automated messages are, in some way, quite close to the "mots d'excuses" where the "n'a pu" is so frequent. They are, in their own context, an apology for being unable to function as designed or as expected. So in that sense, the tone is maybe not as neutral as we could expect from "machines", it is not so different and the "n'a pu" fits quite well. – Greg Sep 15 at 13:52

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