All The More Reason

Pourquoi pas “pas”?
July 31, 2006, 12:58 pm
Filed under: Language

“Le couple est en panne ou non?”

This was the rhetorical question posed during a documentary on the current Franco-German alliance. I shall leave the question itself unanswered for the moment and only bring to attention the use of the word “non” here. The French language seems to lack a hard equivalent to our “not”. A French speaker has the choice of non or pas – or even non pas if it occurs within the sentence. So this question could have been asked as:

“Le couple est en panne ou pas?”

Or, if it were an assertion:

“Le couple est en panne et non pas en vitesse.”

What is interesting to me is that the higher the social class or setting, the more likely the usage of non instead of pas. To my ears there is nothing necessarily better sounding about non over pas and yet it happens time and again. As an educated guess, I would argue that these speakers might say that the pas on its own is somewhat naked as a negation without a ne lurking around somewhere. That explanation, however, would not explain such phrases as “Pas du tout”.

Jonathan Smith


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