John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford). The Power of Babel (2003).

  Left to its own devices, Standard English would most likely allow double negation as an emphatic strategy, along the lines that Falstaff used it. “ This year’s fashions” shunted the dialect away from its natural evolution. Non-Standard English speakers everywhere embrace it— Cockneys, Appalachians, colloquial Singapore English (“ Singlish” ) speakers, black Americans, Brits from the Midlands— but as Standard English gradually makes inroads on nonstandard dialects in English and the United States, diluting their most prominent “ nonstandard” features, single negation of the I don’t see anything variety takes on an increasingly large role in the speech of nonstandard speakers as well. Thus single negation, originally a mere optional ripple in the grammar of some English dialects, spreads throughout the English-speaking population like Sargasso weed, while the French, apparently following the old dictum that “ Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” can declare that Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français (“ What isn’t clear isn’t French” ) by actually using an “illogical” double negative twice and can moreover even wallow happily in triple negatives (Je n’ai jamais vu personne “I have never seen anyone” ).

(p. 228–229)

Can't jamais be interpreted as "ever" and personne as "person"? If so, then

J'ai jamais vu personne. = I have ever seen a person.

Then McWhorter's sentence overhead would have only 1 negator, ne, whose scope of negation is 'ai jamais vu personne.


The "one negator" interpretation would be a "historical" way of looking at it. There are a couple of problems with using that analysis for present-day French.

  1. "J'ai jamais vu personne" does not actually mean "I have ever seen a person". It would be understood as meaning "I have never seen anyone", because "ne" is optional in non-formal spoken French.

  2. "Jamais" and "personne" can be used with a negative meaning without "ne" even in non-informal registers of standard French. For example, "jamais" can be used as a single-word response (like English "never"). This article by Camille Chevalier-Karfis gives another example, "C'est maintenant ou jamais. It's now or never." Even though "jamais" can sometimes be translated as English "ever" rather than as English "never", it clearly can have a negative meaning when ne is not present.

Nevertheless, it's a somewhat arguable point since words like jamais and rien certainly have notable non-negative uses in French.

  • 1
    I don't think it's a very arguable point, and I think your argument is pretty... on the point. But just to mention it, I've recently been reading some Catalan, and while I've seen "res" consistently used to mean "nothing" (often with a "no" that negates the verb, of course, just like the "ne" in French), I've stumbled upon the sentence "Parlen de tot i de no res" (they talk about everything and [ultimately] nothing). In this case, I'd have imagined that "Parlen de tot i de res" would have sufficed, but, evidently, not. Historically, of course, res is outright the same as Latin "thing". – LjL Jul 27 '18 at 13:35
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    @LjL "Parlen de tot i de no-res" - While res generally means "nothing" (but means "anything" (and hence no res = "not anything") when it appears in conditional or interrogative phrases, or in some fossilised phrases e.g. en un tres i no res), no-res (hyphenated) is the philosophical concept of nothignness/non-existence, and is often used in contrast to tot or alguna cosa. – iacobo Feb 4 '19 at 15:12

It doesn't make much sense to analyze “je n'ai jamais vu personne” as a triple negative. It's either a single negative ne qualified by jamais and personne, or two negatives jamais and personne with the reinforcement ne. Negation in French is currently evolving from the first model to the second model. In both models, the word ne has a different role from jamais and personne.

Historically, negation in French followed the same principles as other Romance languages, with ne being the main negative particle. Negation could sometimes be qualified by a noun or adverb, e.g. “ne … jamais” = “not … ever”, “ne … personne” = “not … anyone” (literally: “not … [a] person”), etc. French acquired a peculiarity that it gradually became mandatory to qualify all negations, even for yes/no statements. If there was no “natural” qualifier, point would do, and then around the late 19th century to early 20th pas became the default qualifier. This is not a double negation, since the qualifier itself does not convey negation, but a single negation in two parts.

This model allows for more than one qualifying adverb. For example, “je n'ai jamais vu personne” = “I have not ever seen anyone” has a single negation ne with both a temporal qualification and an animate quantification.

Today, French is going through an evolution where ne can be dropped and the sentence still has a negative meaning. From the perspective of early modern French, this is in some sense the opposite of a double negation — you could call it a nullary negation, since negation is expressed without a negative word. In fact, the adverbs that once had a positive meaning have acquired a negative meaning of their own. For example, rien was originally a noun meaning “thing”, but it now almost always means “nothing”. Personne still means a person when used as a noun, but means “nobody” when used on as a pronoun or adverb. In modern colloquial French, you can say “j'ai vu personne”, meaning “I haven't seen anyone” (this is common spoken French but not considered correct in formal contexts when written).

If you analyze formal French negation by the lights of colloquial French, you could say that “je n'ai vu personne” is a double negation with negative meaning. It's possible to combine multiple negative adverbs other than pas, as in “je n'ai jamais vu personne”, and the sentence remains negative. You could thus say that “je n'ai jamais vu personne” is a triple negative. In colloquial French, “j'ai jamais vu personne” is a double negation with negative meaning.

However, pas works differently. If you put pas in a sentence, it negates other negative adverbs. This is not standard French: in standard French, you can't combine pas with another negative adverb. But if you say something like “?je n'ai pas vu personne” or “?j'ai pas vu personne”, it's like “I haven't not seen anyone”: a double negative in the sense that the negation is negated, i.e. I have seen someone and I'm saying so in a whimsical way.

The fact that ne, pas, and the other qualifying negatives work in three different ways makes it problematic to count one ne and two qualifying negatives as three. They just don't add up in this way. Standard formal French has a single negation ne which can't be repeated. Standard colloquial French has multiple negative words which can be sorted in two categories: pas which can't be repeated or combined with another negative, and others (rien, personne, jamais, etc.) which can be combined together but not with pas, forming double (or more, e.g. “j[e n]'ai plus jamais vu personne”) negations with a negative meaning.

See also https://french.stackexchange.com/questions/20096/should-the-2nd-negative-particle-be-defined-positively-only/20097#20097 for more a bit more details about negative adverbs in French and their evolution.


Personne as a pronoun is always negative. Colloquial y'a personne = thezz nobody Jamais can sometimes have a positive meaning as in: si jamais quelqu'un vient, etc = if ever somebody should come, etc. But usually, jamais is negative. NB: j'ai pas vu personne is dialectal and popular. It means the same as j'ai vu personne. Multiple negative words do not turn the clause into positive.

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