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“Dépêchons-nous de rentrer avant qu’il ne pleuve…”

“Let's hurry home before it rains…”

Today, a listener sent us the kind message below… with an interesting question. Let's take a closer look.

In lesson 150, you used a phrase « Dépêchons-nous de rentrer avant qu’il ne pleuve ». Why did you use the negative « ne » without any other ending such as « pas, jamais, rien, etc. ». Many thanks for the courses, they are brilliant! John

And now for the answer… Indeed there are many negative 'patterns' in French, including the following:

  • ne… pas (no, not)
  • ne… jamais (never)
  • ne… plus (not any more, no longer)
  • ne… personne (nobody)
  • ne… rien (nothing)
  • ne… ni… ni (neither… nor)
  • ne… aucun (no (emphatic))
  • ne… que (only)

However, in the expression avant qu’il (ne) pleuve, the ne has no 'negative' function at all. Called a 'ne' explétif in French, this ne arises in sentences where the main clause may have a negative 'feeling' of fear, doubt, etc. Consider the following:

  • Je crains que notre ennemi ne revienne. (I am afraid that our enemy shall return.)
  • Il partira à moins que tu ne lui parles. (He shall leave unless you (do) talk to him.)
  • Marie a peur que son mari ne soit malade. (Marie is afraid that her husband is ill.)

The use of the ne explétif is a point of contention among grammarians. The important thing to understand is that the ne explétif does not make the subordinate clause negative. This ne effectively has no value at all in the sentence.

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