The following sentence was written in a novel1:

On ne peut trouver plus libre.

DeepL translates this to:

You can't get more free.

I don't know how I could arrive at DeepL's translation.

If I were to translate the sentence literally, my attempt would see "ne..plus"; and I would have difficulty with the word "libre":

"You can no longer find/believe/consider libre",

where "libre" is an adjective meaning "free". I don't know what "libre" is applying to; (it is not applying to the verb "trouver", since "libre" is an adjective!). But maybe "libre" can be used as an adverb, given that I see that in WordReference, "libre" is used as if it's an adverb in the expression "vivre libre ou mourir" ( = "live free or die"). So maybe my translation could be "You can no longer believe freely".

I would have been able to accept DeepL's translation more easily, if the sentence had instead been:

On ne peut pas trouver plus libre.

or even

On [∅] peut pas trouver plus libre.

My understanding is that you can never delete the "pas" in "ne..pas", leaving "ne" by itself:

  • As far as I understand, if a verb is surrounded by ne..pas, you're allowed to delete the "ne" in informal speech, but you're not allowed to delete only the "pas".

  • I also understand that, in formal registers, "ne" sometimes appears without a negation word (ie, without a word like "pas", "plus", "jamais", etc), but this only happens when "ne" is being used as "Ne explitive"; and when this happens, the "ne" isn't really expressing negation at all (ie it isn't "ne..pas" with the "pas" deleted), and thus the "Ne expletive" can be deleted with very little change in meaning. But DeepL indicates that the "ne" in the original sentence is defintely creating a negation, so the "ne" in the original sentence is definitely not a "Ne expletive"!

So, I see at least three issues that are confusing me:

  • How does the verb "trouver" (in "trouver libre") communicate the idea of being free? Is it an idiom? Or are the normal meanings of "trouver" (eg, "find / believe / consider", according to WordReference) involved?
  • "libre" is an adjective, but I don't see any noun or linking-verb (eg "être", "devoir", etc) for the adjective to apply to!
  • What is the negation in the original sentence? Is it "ne..plus"? Is it instead "ne..pas" but the "pas" being deleted (even though I thought that this was impossible")?


How can I understand how "On ne peut trouver plus libre" can be translated as "You can't get more free"?

1. From "La Bête à sa Mère", by David Goudreault, Chapter 1

  • My advice to you is to stop using DeepL. It will only confuse you. If you are talking about some subject as in a subject of conversation), let's say, a country. And I say that sentence, I am saying: You won't find a freer one. i.e. country. OR, you can put it in the passive: A freer country cannot be found. So, in your novel, what is being discussed?
    – Lambie
    May 7, 2022 at 19:28
  • Here, "plus libre" means freer, and it is not ne---plus as in: Il n'est plus libre. In your sentence, the pas is left out.
    – Lambie
    May 7, 2022 at 19:30
  • 1
    @Lambie I will continue using deepL. I do not want to justify why to you, but i'm saying that I will continue using it so you aren't surprised by my future questions in which I'll use it.
    – silph
    May 7, 2022 at 23:44
  • You can do as you like, of course. But I can assure it that using it will only make your learning slower. Books like La Traduction Littéraire by François Gallix and Michael Walsh will not waste your time. The problem is that these automatic translation programs have a hard time with quirks of/in any language. This example you give is an excellent example of their shortcomings.
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 18:50
  • That said, what is the noun or idea that precedes this sentence? Any good translation into English would need that. And apparently one poster did find a context in a novel. Is it the right one? [correction for previous comment: assure you, not it.]
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 18:58

3 Answers 3


It must first be realized that the full negation ("ne … pas") is not necessary when using the verb "vouloir", as is the case for a few other verbs. (Pas besoin de « pas »)

Nevertheless, the full negation can stil be used and there is absolutely no differnece in meaning.

  • On ne peut trouver plus libre. = On ne peut pas trouver plus libre.

The difference is in the register: the ommission of « pas » is not common in the spoken language and gives a more literary touch to the langauage.

This should convince you that the literal translation as "can no longer find" is not correct; as well the understanding that « pas » is always necessary is not correct. "Plus" modifies "libre".

(Wikipedia) In linguistics, a pro-form is a type of function word or expression that stands in for (expresses the same content as) another word, phrase, clause or sentence where the meaning is recoverable from the context. They are used either to avoid repetitive expressions or in quantification (limiting the variables of a proposition).

(LBU § 217) Définitions et distinctions.
D'une manière générale, on appelle ellipse l'absence d'un ou de plusieurs mots qui seraient nécessaires pour la construction régulière de la phrase ou pour l'expression complète de la pensée.
c) Nous considérons comme ellipse proprement dite celle qui oblige l'auditeur ou le lecteur à chercher dans le contexte ou la situation les éléments qui manquent et sans lesquels le message serait incompréhensible. Il y a effectivement quelque chose de sous-entendu.

1/ How does the verb "trouver" (in "trouver libre") communicate the idea of being free? Is it an idiom? Or are the normal meanings of "trouver" (eg, "find / believe / consider", according to WordReference) involved?

"Trouver" does not really have for object "libre" but an ellipted element that has to be retrieved from the context. In other words "libre" is a pro-form in this context. It is not even necessary for this noun phrase to be explicitly mentioned in the text; it can be inferred. If, for instance the context deals with the description of a person and that this description shows that this person is behaving in the manner of someone who feels free, freer than anybody would seem to be, then the missing word is something like "comportement" or "attitude".

  • On ne peut trouver un comportement plus libre.

This type of ellipsis is common in English.

  • ex. : you can't find cheaper

It depends on what you are talking about; if it's shops then you are saying this: "You can't find a cheaper shop"; if it is beer, then it could be a type of beer ("you can't find a cheaper beer").


Je ne connais même pas mon véritable patronyme. Ça aussi, c’est particulier. Je suis lié par le sang et par un nom mystérieux à tout un paquet d’inconnus. C’est un peu comme si je faisais partie d’une immense confrérie et que j’étais le seul à ne pas le savoir. En même temps, ça me force à opérer en circuit fermé. Tout s’arrête à moi. Je ne sais pas d’où je viens et je n’ai rien à léguer. Une branche brisée au pied d’un arbre mort. On ne peut trouver plus libre. (La Bête à sa Mère, David Goudreau)

Mon hypothèse. On peut probablement lire « (il n'est pas possible) (de trouver) (plus libre (que moi/ça)) ». Ça ressemble à un scénario avec la langue parlée (LBU14 § 299b) où on a le verbe pouvoir avec un infinitif qui en dépend, l'infinitif introduisant qui plus est une proposition conjonctive averbale, le tout possiblement similaire à l'anacoluthe. Le comparatif de supériorité (plus libre que moi) dépend de ce qui l'a introduit (il n'est pas possible), de sorte qu'on obtient le haut degré ou le superlatif absolu (et étrangement au sens on obtient quelque chose de similaire à on ne peut plus suivi de l'adjectif dans une phrase conjuguée avec le sujet réel : je suis on ne peut plus libre). Mais ça semble libre d'un tout (la branche brisée par rapport à l'arbre), donc seul, isolé, détaché...

  • Thanks for actually posting this in a context. Pour moi, ceci revient à "on ne peut trouver [une personne] plus libre. En tout cas, il faut un context sinon l'anglais serait du charabia comme le montre la traduction automatique donnée dans la question.
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 19:01
  • la grammaire du français parlé
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 22:10
  • 2
    @Lambie You're welcome but you once again created a useless tag instead of using the oral tag, this time forgetting the diacritic É in parlé, and content need not be labelled according to your understanding of the question, especially when something is incidental and brought up in some hypothesis from some answer. This was a trivial and self-serving edit imho. When someone is clearly mislabelling their question, especially when they don't know better, then it might prove useful to add all relevant tags. Do you not find it inappropriate to do this? May 8, 2022 at 22:31
  • It is not useless. And I think many of her questions, at least this one and the one before it depend on the grammar of spoken French. It is a fact. It is not incidental. It cannot be explained without reference to the grammar of spoken French. I cannot understand for the life of me why a French speaker would object to it. Why you feel that "oral" covers it. Oral can any kind of speech (language used when speaking) and there are many styles. A presidential speech is "oral" and so is this. The difference is the presidential speech does not contain the grammar of spoken language. This does.
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 23:00
  • Here: The specific grammar of speech The grammar of spoken language differs in many respects from the grammar of written language. Here are a few examples of features that frequently appear in spoken language but which are rare in written language (Carter, 2004): The same is true of French. sltinfo.com/grammar-of-spoken-language
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 23:04

"How can I understand how "On ne peut trouver plus libre" can be translated as "You can't get more free"?"

It is a mistake. "get free" in French would have to be: devenir libre, for example.

  • You can't find a freer [person or individual or spirit]
  • A freer [person or individual or spirit] cannot be found.

The adjective can be just about any adjective. libre in French is invariable as an adjective for masculine and feminine.

  • On ne peut [pas] trouver [une personne] plus libre [que moi.]
  • On ne peut [pas] trouver [une situation] plus libre.

Other example: [maison] On ne peut trouver plus belle.

Sometimes the pas is left out in "quick speech".

There are several possibilities for what has been left out of this spoken utterance.

In this type of on construction, a passive is also possible. A freer [noun] cannot be found.

"plus libre" is a shortened comparative where the second term of the comparison is not given. The same thing can occur in English: You can't find any freer. [person]

Both are spoken language, not written language. "libre" applies to a noun that is in the preceding text in the novel.

  • 1. Libre doesn't apply to any specific noun here, it is absolute. 2. Libre is not an invariable adjective.
    – jlliagre
    May 8, 2022 at 20:58
  • @jlliagre It applies to a word or idea not given by the OP. It is invariable re masculine and feminine is what I meant. On ne peut pas trouver [un x] plus libre. Ça c'est sûr.
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 21:07
  • [see the text in the answer below] Tout s’arrête à moi. Je ne sais pas d’où je viens et je n’ai rien à léguer. Une branche brisée au pied d’un arbre mort. On ne peut trouver plus libre. (La Bête à sa Mère, David Goudreau) Everything stops with me. I don't know where I come from and I'll leave no legacy. I'm a broken branch at the foot of a dead tree. You can't find anyone freer. i.e. a person freer than me. So, the person is referring to herself.
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2022 at 21:09
  • Maybe do you need to specify "anyone" in English but in French, libre is absolute. It can apply to anything, including to the branch that is definitely not a person, or an electron, whatever.
    – jlliagre
    May 8, 2022 at 21:21
  • 1
    The right word is epicene, not invariable.
    – jlliagre
    May 8, 2022 at 21:23

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