Elle ne peut pas ne pas le voir.
ell nuh puh pah nuh pahl VWAAR. Click below to hear this.*
She can’t not see it.
Remember when they told you that there’s no double negative in English? Well, they weren’t entirely correct.
What they meant was that you can’t use, say, not and never together, or not and nobody. These words have opposites in English: ever and anybody, which must be used when not is also present.
Then what about today’s sentence? Looks like two negatives to me. And it’s perfectly grammatical.
This is the kind of sentence that makes you say, “Can I really say that?” Yes. Yes, you can. Here’s how it works.
Ne…pas goes around a conjugated verb, but before a verb in the infinitive. So:
1. Elle peut le voir = She can see it. (She has 20/20 vision, and it is right out in the open.)
2. Elle ne peut pas le voir = She can’t see it. (She is blind, or looking from the wrong vantage point.)
3. Elle peut ne pas le voir = She may not be able to see it. (It is disguised, or hidden, or not what she expects to see.)
4. Elle ne peut pas ne pas le voir = She can’t not see it. (It’s a plain as the nose on her face. It’s not possible for her to miss it.)
Note that we have to change the English translation of the verb in certain cases to correctly convey the meaning of the French. In 3, for example, if we say She can not see it, it sounds like cannot or can’t. If we use the conditional–She could not see it–it sounds like the past tense.
Much more straightforward, the French is! Just attach the negative where it is needed, according the rules appropriate to the verb form. You could say, as I recently read in a novel, Elle ne pouvait pas ne pas poser la questIon. She couldn’t not ask the question. That is, it’s the question she always asks, or that it is in her nature to ask, or that is inevitable under the circumstances.
Go on, try it! It’s so much fun to say. Vous ne pouvez pas ne pas me croire.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: