I don’t like to be negative, but... whatever!

How to use "n'importe quoi" in French.

Quick recap

When we learned how to construct negative phrases in French, you were given the formula:

“ne” + verb + “pas”

Je ne mange pas de viande. = I don't eat meat.

For extra emphasis, the pas can be substituted for other negative words:

Jamais = never Il ne va jamais à Londres.

Plus = no longer Elle ne fume plus.

Rien = nothing Vous ne comprenez rien !

Aucun/aucune = not at all Je n’ai aucune idée.

Personne = nobody Il n’y avait personne au centre-ville.

Que = only Je n’ai que vingt-et-un ans.

(OK, “que” is not a negative word, but the grammar structure is the same)

In colloquial speech you will hear the “ne” being dropped:

« Bah, c’est pas normal, hein! »

In the above sentence, my computer underlines “c’est” in blue, to remind me that I have dropped a vital part of the sentence, but... n’importe quoi !

Which brings me onto phrases where there is a “ne” but no negative word following. There are a few verbs (7 actually) that can take “ne” without “pas”. It is called the “ne littéraire”* and is very formal.

Much less formal, in fact sometimes used at the opposite end of the register of formality, is the expression “n’importe quoi”.

It’s literal meaning is “no matter what”, but it is versatile enough to mean “anything” or even “nonsense”. It is also the closest French equivalent to the English interjection: “Whatever!” uttered with an obligatory dismissive roll of the eyes.

Par exemple…

N’importe quoi plutôt que ça ! Anything but that!

Ils feront tout et n’importe quoi. They’ll do anything and everything.

Par exemple…

Mais tu dis n’importe quoi ! You’re talking nonsense / rubbish!

C’est (du) n’importe quoi ! That’s nonsense / rubbish!

How might you translate the following?

« C’est en faisant n’importe quoi, que l’on* devient n’importe qui ! »

It’s the motto of a French YouTuber who calls himself N’importe Qui (nom de guerre of Rémi Gaillard).

Literally “It’s by doing any old thing that you become whoever” but perhaps better translated as “It’s by doing stuff that you can become a somebody." This is a play on his assumed name as well as on the French proverb:

« C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron »

Literally, "It’s by forging that one becomes a blacksmith"

The generally accepted equivalent English expression is "Practice makes perfect". This is close enough, but has a subtly different nuance, wouldn’t you agree?

So, I’ve left the doors to two more rooms swinging in the breeze:

  • · The “ne littéraire”

  • · Why and when to use “l’on” instead of just “on”

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