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Restrictive ne … que = only (compound tenses)

Look at these examples:

Je n'ai que fait mes devoirs.
I only did my homework.

Nous n'avons regardé qu'un film.
We watched only one film.

Nous n'avons que mangé des bonbons
We only ate sweets (that's all we did!)

Nous n'avons mangé que des bonbons
We ate sweets only (we ate nothing else)

Notice that whereas with ne ... pas (not), pas could only be placed after the auxiliary verb (être or avoir) in compound tenses. See Using 'ne ... pas' with compound tenses (negation)
The restrictive que in ne ... que can be placed either after the auxiliary verb, or in front of the word it's restricting. You should place que in front of the word you restrict.

Note that ne is always placed in front of the auxiliary verb, BUT que can never be in front of the auxiliary verb.


ATTENTION:  
The tricky part here is that in English you place the restrictive only before the verb most of the time, even when the restriction applies to other elements of the sentence, and use intonation to insist on this element:
I only WENT to the cinema. vs I only went to the CINEMA.

In French we use the position of the restrictive que as an indicator of which element is being restricted:

Je ne suis qu'allé au cinéma 
I only went to the cinema (I did nothing else)

 -> Here the restriction in on the action of going, meaning I've only DONE this, only this action.

VERSUS

Je ne suis allé qu'au cinéma
I went to the cinema only (I went nowhere else)

-> Here the restriction is on the destination, meaning I only went THERE, only this place.


NOTE: You can also use seulement which means only in French, though it is not as elegant.

Je suis seulement allé au cinéma.
I only went to the cinema.

 

See also the simple tenses cases Restrictive ne … que = only (simple tenses)

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Je suis seulement allé au cinéma.
I only went to the cinema.


Nous n'avons mangé que des bonbons
We ate sweets only (we ate nothing else)


Je n'ai que fait mes devoirs.
I only did my homework.


Nous n'avons que mangé des bonbons
We only ate sweets (that's all we did!)


Nous n'avons regardé qu'un film.
We watched only one film.


Je ne suis allé qu'au cinéma
I went to the cinema only (I went nowhere else)



Je ne suis qu'allé au cinéma 
I only went to the cinema (I did nothing else)


Q&A

Michelle

Kwiziq community member

8 March 2018

2 replies

Can you use ne ... que in front of an infinitive?

Michelle

Kwiziq community member

8 March 2018

8/03/18

As in, "Je ne veux que se détendre."

Chris

Kwiziq community member

8 March 2018

8/03/18

Yes, you can. However you would say, "Je ne veux que me détendre." -- I only want to relax.


-- Chris (not a native speaker).

stephen

Kwiziq community member

23 August 2017

1 reply

whats the difference between " She only went" and " she went only"

Ron

Kwiziq community member

23 August 2017

23/08/17

Bonjour Stephen,
Let's look at a couple of example phrases:
she only went to the store . . . .and she did not go anywhere else. ---> Elle n'est qu'allée au magasin et elle n'est allée nulle part ailleurs.
she went only to the store . . .but she did not purchase anything. --> Elle n'allait qu'au magasin mais elle n'a rien acheté
Even though I have used two different forms of the verb «aller» the structure is similar and using your example sentences, a qualifier needs to be added that further explains the sense of the phrase.
J'espère que cela vous aiderait.
Bonne chance.

Gurmeet

Kwiziq community member

11 August 2017

2 replies

If I want to say I eat only apples, is it: Je ne mange que les pommes.

Would this also mean I only eat apples?

Ron

Kwiziq community member

12 August 2017

12/08/17

Bonjour Gurmeet,
Let's have a look at this phrase:
«Je ne mange que des pommes»
Des pommes represents a a vague or unspecified plural quantity (des pommes), hence the use of «des» instead of «les». «Les» is the definite article and typically is not used to express «some».
J'espère que ma réponse vous aiderait,.
bonne chance

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

23 August 2017

23/08/17

Bonjour Gurmeet !

When using the restrictive ne ... que in French, note that ne will always be placed before the verb, and que after, either just after, or in front of a specific restricted element further in the sentence.

So in the case of "Je ne mange que des pommes.", the current position of "ne ... que" is the only correct option here :)

Here's a link to the related lesson:
https://french.kwiziq.com/revision/grammar/how-to-use-restrictive-ne-que-with-simple-tenses-to-express-only-negative-expressions

I hope that's helpful!
À bientôt !

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

21 October 2016

2 replies

Susan asked: "Isn't "de" used after negative expressions instead of "des"?

"Il n'a mangé que des bonbons." (He only ate sweets.)

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

21 October 2016

21/10/16

Bonjour Susan !

The reason this rule doesn't apply here, is that "ne...que" is more of a restrictive figure than a negative one, meaning that the object is not down to zero as with other negative expressions ("ne...pas", "ne...plus", etc).

I hope that's helpful!
À bientôt !

Susan

Kwiziq community member

21 October 2016

21/10/16

Completely helpful. Merci!

Antonios

Kwiziq community member

2 January 2016

1 reply

'Also' or 'but'

I think most of the examples could be translated by keeping the negation and using 'but'. At least for me, it's clearer than losing the negation of 'ne' For example: Je n'ai que fait mes devoirs. I didn't do (anything) but my homework. Nous n'avons regardé qu'un film. We didn't watch but one film. Nous n'avons que mangé des bonbons We didn't (do anything) but eat sweets. Nous n'avons mangé que des bonbons We didn't eat (anything) but sweets. They're not perfect English perhaps, but with the right intonation I think they could hold in oral English.

yellamaraju

Kwiziq community member

3 January 2016

3/01/16

Do not use but in a negative sense with another negative.

Incorrect: He didn't want but one good manuscript.

Correct: He wanted but one good manuscript.

Correct: He wanted only one good manuscript.

To lay emphasis and to express "only'- that person/thing/work, 'but' is used in English to the best of my knowledge. Hence the example "Je ne suis qu'allé au cinéma
I only went to the cinema (I did nothing else)" other examples are in perfect order.
I'll be right with you...