Les télégrammes fusent, les journaux s'y mettent, personne n'y comprend rien.

In personne n'y comprend rien there is, I presume, the idiom c'est à n'y rien comprendre.

If so, why is it in this context so different from its original form? Why n'y comprend rien instead of n'y rien comprend? And what about the beginning of the idiom: c'est à? Where has it gone?

5 Answers 5


“Être ou ne pas être, telle est la question”

Generally speaking

In French, the negation of infinitive verb is different than for other tenses. The negative form of “tu es” is “tu n’es pas”, not “tu ne pas es”. With infinitive, however, the “ne pas” is collected before the verb: the negative for of “être” is “ne pas être”, not “n’être pas”. Exceptions may apply, but in everyday speech I can’t think of any.

The negative form of “comprendre” is thus “ne pas comprendre” even though, when conjugated, the usual rules apply and the “pas” jumps behind the verb : “Je ne comprends pas”.

The same rules apply if you use “rien”. The correct infinitive form is “ne rien comprendre“, hence “c’est à n’y rien comprendre” ; the correct conjugated form is “il ne comprend rien”, which gives “personne n’y comprend rien”.

Mind “personne” however: “ne connaître personne“ is correct, “ne personne connaître" is not.

In this particular case

I would consider the extract “à n’y rien comprendre” to be idiomatic. The grammatical correctness of “C’est à n’y comprendre rien” could be debated, but in any case it would be really weird.

  • So in your opinion whoever wrote that piece from which I quoted this line was wrong in saying personne n'y comprend rien? Is that what you're saying?
    – indoxica
    Aug 2, 2013 at 9:43
  • personne n'y comprend rien is correct. An alternative : personne n'y comprend quoi que ce soit
    – Nomaru
    Jan 13, 2015 at 14:17

In your example you have a subject for the verb comprendre so you need to conjugate it personne n'y comprend rien. You could have written in another sentence personne ne comprend rien à cela which is a sort of expanded way to say the same thing. It is not an occurrence of the idiom c'est à n'y rien comprendre, it is only the use of the verb comprendre and the contracted negative form n'y [...] rien.

The idiom c'est à n'y rien comprendre uses the infinitive form of the verb comprendre which does not have any subject in that case and means that you cannot understand a context or a situation.


"c'est à n'y rien comprendre" is the Good one , "c'est à n'y comprendre rien" is Incorrect ,

this is a little Difficult what you are asking , even for me(i am from France) ,

The difference between "personne n'y comprend rien" & "c'est à n'y rien comprendre" :

"personne n'y comprend rien" mean that NOBODY(Person) is able to Understand ,

"c'est à n'y rien comprendre" mean that the SITUATION/THING is not understandable(Not a Person) , but in familiary Language , you can say for example : "C'est à n'y rien comprendre ce gars"(talking of someone , "gars" = guy)

i am not so good in grammar too , i tried to Answer your Question


Usually when we negate verbs that are conjugated, we follow the rule “SNVP” (subject, ne, verb, pas, or in that case rien). N'ouvrez pas! (dont open). However if we negate the INFITIVE form, the verb is always at the end. Ne pas ouvrir!

N'y comprend rien is correct. N'y rien comprend is not correct. It should be n'y rien comprenDRE (an infinitive).


I am a native French speaker and writer, and I'd like to add the follwing.

I would not consider "C'est à n'y comprendre rien" incorrect. French literature offers examples of this phrase as a stylistic variation of "C'est à n'y rien comprendre", both are correct.

In a famous poem of Louis Aragaon "Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent ?", you find the following verses:

La pièce était-elle ou non drôle/ Moi si j'y tenais mal mon rôle/ C'était de n'y comprendre rien

(Was the play funny or not/ Me, if I badly played my role/ It was for understanding none of it" ?)

In a song ("Un nouveau monde") from the French band "Feu! Chatterton": "On le bégayait tous sans n'y comprendre rien". (We all stuttered it, understanding none of if ?).

Based on these examples, both positions of "rien" are in use.

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