The following came from this French.SE question; I don't understand the bolded sentence very well:

Il était une fois une petite fille que tout le monde aimait bien, surtout sa grand-mère. Elle ne savait qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir. Un jour, elle lui offrit un petit bonnet de velours rouge, qui lui allait si bien qu'elle ne voulut plus en porter d'autre. Du coup, on l'appela Chaperon Rouge.

deepL translator translates the sentence to mean: "She did not know what to do to please her.", which makes perfect sense with the story. But, I'm having trouble seeing how deepL arrived at this translation.

I would have expected that the bolded sentence means "She only knew what to do to please her". That is, my brain sees "ne ... que". I would have expected deepL's translation of "She did not know what to do to please her" to be something like "Elle ne savait pas ce qu'elle entrepris pour lui faire plaisir".


  1. Is DeepL's translation correct? If so, why is it "savait qu'entreprendre" instead of "savait ce qu'entreprendre"? (I would have expected "what to do to please her" to be translated with "ce que". I have only seen "savoir + que" in sentences like "Je sais que tu est fatiguée"; that is, where the "que" is a clause that replaces a direct object). If DeepL is not correct, what is the correct translation?
  2. If DeepL's translation is correct, then whenever I see "ne ... que", how will I know if it means "only", or if it means something different?
  3. How would you properly say "She did not know what to do to please her?" in French?


A user in the comments says that DeepL is correct in its translation (that is, that "Elle ne savait qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir" does indeed mean "She did not know what to do to please her"), and that the answers to this question should answer the question I am asking here. This edit is to clarify why that linked question doesn't help me answer the questions I have.

The linked question says that "pas" is sometimes dropped from "ne .. pas" when using the verb "savoir".

I'm not sure how this applies to my question. My best guess is that the user is saying that I can re-write my sentence to include the pas: "Elle ne savait pas qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir".


  1. I still don't see how this means "She didn't know how to pleasure her", because the qu' confuses me.

I understand sentences like "Il ne sait pas que je suis fatigué". That is, the que introduces a clause, and this qui-clause acts like a direct object.

But "qu'entreprendre" has an infinitive. So, it looks like "Il ne sait pas que danser", which has a structure I've never seen.

The best guess I have about keeping the "que" while also keeping the "pas" is if I make the "que" into "ce que", as in "Il ne sait pas ce que j'aime". But there is no "ce" in "Elle ne savait pas qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir", and even if it did say "ce qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir", I still don't understand an infinitive following "ce que".

So, I still don't understand this sentence if you add the pas back in, and I don't understand it because the qu' confuses me.

  1. My question asks "whenever I see "ne ... que", how will I know if it means "only", or if it means something different?", and I still don't have an answer to this.

If it is true that the key to answering my question has to do with "pas" being dropped when using Ne..Pas with savoir, I still don't understand when "Ne.. Que" means "only" and when it doesn't.

Does it mean that any time I see "Ne...Que" used with "Savoir", that I should replace it with "Ne .. Pas"?

  • Should I, for example, read "Je ne sais que parler l'Anglais" to instead be "Je ne sais pas parler l'Anglais"? I would have though the former meant "I only know how to speak English" and the latter means "I don't know how to speak English".

Is it impossible to said "I only know X" using ne..que?

  • Deepl is correct (often is). I expect this question and following answers will answers your query. There too.
    – None
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 13:18
  • @None Those answers still don't help me understand the sentence. The first says that the "ne" in "ne...pas" is sometimes dropped; and the second seems to be talking about when "pas" is dropped (but the question and answer is in French, and my level of French is still not high enough for me to understand technical questions and answers written in French). My own questions still are unanswered: even if the "pas" was dropped, and it is actually "elle ne savait pas qu'entreprendre", i don't see why it's "qu'" instead of "ce qu'", and i still wont'know when "ne..que" means only or not
    – silph
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 13:37
  • Ne... pas does not mean "only". In fact you have 2 entirely different questions. One about why pas can be dropped with savoir, best answer to my mind. The other question is why there is no ce in Elle ne savait qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir. Short answer: you could not have ce in this sentence.
    – None
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 14:13
  • I understand that Ne...Pas does not mean "only". I am saying that Ne..Que means only, and that I don't know why it doesn't apply to "Elle ne savait qu'entreprendre". I do not see how I am asking about why pas can be dropped with savoir. If pas being dropped is relevant to "Elle ne savait qu'entreprendre", then I need this to be explained to me.
    – silph
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 14:22
  • Yes, dropping pas is specific to savoir. You could add a comment to this answer to ask for more details.
    – None
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


Elle ne savait qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir.

Grammatically, the sentence is ambiguous. This sometimes happens with “ne … que”: usually, it means “only”, but sometimes, as here, it's the negation “ne” and an unrelated use of “que”.

In modern French, “ne” is not used as a sole negation anymore except in increasingly rare literary contexts. So in modern French “ne … que” means “only“: if “que” wasn't part of the negation then there should be another negation word such as “pas”. However the ambiguity is still possible with another negation word. For example:

Elle ne voyait jamais que des hommes passer.

This could mean “she only ever saw men go by” or “she never saw only men go by”. Usually, when people realize they're writing such sentences, they'll tweak them to be unambiguous, for example:

Elle ne voyait jamais de femmes passer.   (She only saw men, never women.)
Elle ne voyait toujours quelques femmes passer.   (She never saw men-only groups, there were a few women as well.)

Coming back to the original sentence, it's perfectly normal for 18th and even 19th century French, but it isn't what a 21st century French speaker would expect. One thing that isn't really done in modern French anymore is to use “ne” as the sole negation word. The other thing is that “que” here is a relative pronoun that is a direct complement of the verb (“entreprendre”). In modern French, the usual form is “quoi”, and I think the use of “que” has dropped so low that it simply isn't considered grammatically correct anymore. But it was perfectly normal a couple of centuries ago. Today it only survives in a few frozen expressions, for example “ne pas savoir que dire ni que faire” (and even there “ne pas savoir quoi dire ni quoi faire” would be equally acceptable). So in modern French, the standard form of this sentence would be

Elle ne savait pas quoi entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir.

That is: “she did not know what to do to please here”. This, in itself, has an ambiguous meaning in French just as in English. In context, it means that the grandmother was always looking for ways to please Little Red Riding Hood, and does not imply that Hood was hard to please, only that the grandmother was devoted. But the sentence out of context would be more likely to mean that Hood was a difficult person who was always unhappy about what other people did for her.

Incidentally, the other grammatical interpretation could also lead to a very similar meaning: “Elle ne savait [rien faire d'autre] qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir” could mean “She didn't know how to do anything other than strive to make her happy” (which could maybe be expressed in similarly fancy English as “she knew but to strive to make her happy”).

  • i was wondering why i kept seeing (que/quoi) when i googled "ne savoir que", and i was wondering what the difference between que and quoi was. your discussion about the historical evolution was very helpful; as was slowly and carefully explaining the ambiguity. thanks for writing out this answer; it was very helpful!
    – silph
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 16:35
  • entreprendre here means to set about doing something. There is no striving here. She did not know how to set about or go about pleasing her. I see no ambiguity in the English or French. And the other meaning you mention would also be: She didn't know how to do anything else than try to please her.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 21:43
  • 3
    @Lambie: Believe me, I spent time reading CNRTL list. I did "bother" to try to read the list. If I did not process it well enough to understand the lessons you were trying to teach me, it might be because a great deal of mental processing is required to even attempt to translate the list into English. I tried my best to make use of the effort you put in to write your answer, but my abilities to understand French -- and especially apply it to the difficult technical problem of understanding grammar / word-usage -- isn't very high.
    – silph
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 23:17
  • 1
    @Lambie: Refering to "There is no striving here": considering the context of the quoted sentence entreprendre here does mean to set about making an effort.
    – None
    Commented Jun 13, 2021 at 8:16

The sentence could be put that way:

Elle ne savait pas quoi entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir

The "pas" is dropped, the "quoi" is turned into "qu'" because "entreprendre" starting with a vowel (although this is not mandatory here from where I see it).

I would not translate it as Deepl though, because the meaning here is actually positive despite the use of a negative form. I would translate it, maybe in a not so litterary English, to:

She would do whatever she could to please her

Why the negative is used here is to denote somehow that she already did so many things she doesn't know what to do anymore...

Note that in a different context, if the person is very hard to please for example, the very same sentence could indeed mean "She just didn't know what to do to please her" (because she's never happy)

  • Your translation is really not accurate. It has to start with: She [just] didn't know
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 16:33
  • Thx, updated. To be honnest I understand there's a slight nuance, I didn't realize missing the "just" was of so great importance...
    – Laurent S.
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 17:04
  • Not so much the just as the tense. It's: She didn't know how to set about or go about doing something that would please her granddaughter. If we write it out completely.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 17:06

Il y a des expressions idiomatiques en français avec: ne savoir que + inf.

Voici toute la liste de ces expressions donnée par le TLFi (via le portail CNRTL) :

  1. [Pour exprimer la confusion, le désordre, l'embarras ou la perplexité, dans des loc. verb. au fig. en constr. d'interr. indir.]
    ♦ Ne savoir que dire. Être embarrassé pour s'exprimer. Dîné chez M. Thiers. Je ne sais que dire aux gens que je rencontre chez lui, et ils ne savent que me dire (Delacroix, Journal, 1847, p. 169). [not know what to say]
    ♦ Ne savoir que faire, quoi faire. Être indécis; être désemparé. Une autre faculté, placée aussi parmi les intellectuelles par les phrénologistes, et dont les philosophes ne savaient que faire, c'est le sens des tons, de la mélodie (Broussais, Phrénol., leçon 14, 1836, p. 493). [not know what to do] ♦ Ne savoir que faire de qqc. Être embarrassé de quelque chose; ne trouver aucune utilisation à quelque chose d'encombrant ou d'inutile. Je saisis l'occasion de faire comprendre à M. Stangerson que, puisque vous ne saviez que faire de votre congé (...), vous seriez très touché d'une invitation qui vous permettrait de le passer parmi nous (G. Leroux, Parfum, 1908, p. 32).
    ♦ Ne savoir que faire de ses bras, de ses bras et de ses jambes. V. bras I A 2 c.
    ♦ Ne savoir que devenir. Être angoissé sur son avenir. V. devenir2I A 1 c β ex. de Triolet.
    ♦ Ne/ne pas/ne plus savoir où se mettre, où se fourrer (fam.). V. fourrer II B 2 b.
    ♦ Ne savoir où donner de la tête. V. donner II A 2.
    ♦ Ne savoir sur quel pied danser. V. danser I A 3.
    ♦ Ne savoir à quel saint* se vouer.
    ♦ Ne savoir par quel bout prendre qqn. V. bout I A 1 b.
    Ne savoir que faire, qu'inventer pour + inf. Avoir déployé toutes les ressources pour réussir une entreprise délicate. Vous ne savez quoi vous inventer pour dépenser de l'argent. Le deuil est dans le cœur et non dans les habits (Balzac, E. Grandet, 1834, p. 118). Il ne sait que faire pour s'en emparer assez vite [du monde] (Quinet, All. et Ital., 1836, p. 74).
    Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales

Alors, ne savoir qu'entreprendre est construit comme le dernier article. Et n'est pas le ne...que que l'on trouve dans des phrases comme: Il ne faisait que son travail. He was only doing his work.

  • Je ne sais que dire: I (just) do not know what to say. [idiomatic in English to match the idiomatic nature of the French]

  • Elle ne savait qu'entreprendre pour lui faire plaisir:

  • She [the grandmother] just did not know how to set about or go about pleasing her.

J'ai ajouté just en anglais puisque cela fait plus idiomatique.

En français: ne savoir qu'entreprendre pour + inf. est exactement la même structure que: ne savoir que faire pour + inf., le dernier article dans la liste ci-dessus. Aucune de ces expressions prennent "ne...pas".


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