Many people who learn French know that it's a language of tricky spellings. Jamais is one of those words. It sometimes poses problems to the language learners because you can easily confuse it with j'aimais, which means something completely different.
J'aimais, spelled with the added apostrophe and "i," means "I loved," or "I was loving/liking/enjoying" and comes from the verb aimer. Whereas jamais often means "never." You can imagine the confusion if instead of telling someone you loved them, you tell them "never." Spelling can be really crucial.
Regarding the meanings of jamais, there are actually a few different uses of this word. When jamais takes the place of "pas" in a negation, it means, "never." Isolated, jamais also takes on its original meaning of "never." However, depending on the context and the structure of the sentence, jamais can also become an adverb and mean either "ever" or "never." See below to learn how to distinguish the different meanings of jamais.
In a negative construction, where instead of ne… pas, you will find ne… jamais, the meaning changes from "not" to "never."
- Je ne ferais pas ça. I wouldn't do that.
- Je ne ferais jamais ça. I would never do that.
Jamais is one of the few words that can replace the pas part of the negative in a negation sentence. Some of the others are aucun, personne, and rien, which are French negative pronouns.
Another anomaly with jamais is that it doesn't necessarily need to be placed directly after the verb. For emphasis, you can start your sentence with it as well.
- Jamais je n'ai vu quelque chose d'aussi beau. I have never seen anything as beautiful.
- Jamais je ne t'oublierai. I will never forget you.
Note that in spoken modern French, the ne part of the negation often glides, or even totally disappears. So you need to train your ear to focus on the second part of the negation rather than relying on the first, the ne.
Je n'ai jamais dit ça sounds like: "Jnay jamay di sa" or even "jay jamay di sa," but both pronunciations mean the same thing. Because of this difficulty, focus on the context, as that is the best way to identifying the meaning of jamais.
Jamais on Its Own
The simplest and most traditional meaning of jamais is "never." Besides negation sentences, jamais also means "never" when used on its own or in a sentence fragment.
- Est-ce que tu travailles le lundi? Non, jamais. Do you work on Mondays? No, never.
- Est-ce que tu travailles le Samedi? Oui, mais jamais le dimanche. Do you work on Saturdays? Yes, but never on Sundays.
Jamais in a Question or Hypothesis
When used by itself in a question or a hypothesis without a negative, jamais means "ever." In questions, jamais creates a very formal tone and its meaning becomes "ever." Similarly, with the hypothetical si, as in the expression si jamais, the meaning is "if ever."
Jamais in Formal Questions
- A-t-elle jamais dansé le tango? Has she ever danced tango?
- Tu t'es jamais demandé si c'était vrai? Have you ever wondered if it was true?
- Es-tu jamais allé à Paris? Have you ever been to Paris?
Today, it's more common to use déjà, meaning "already," instead of jamais. This is mainly the case when the verb is in past tense, as in:
- Es-tu déjà allé à Paris? Have you ever (already) been to Paris?
- As-tu déjà vu le nouvel Alien? Have you already seen the new Alien movie?
- Si jamais tu as besoin de quoique ce soit, appelle-moi. If you ever need anything, let me know.
- Si jamais tu vas à Paris, téléphone-moi. If you ever go to Paris, call me.
If modern spoken French frequently drops the ne, how do you know if it's "ever" or "never"? As mentioned earlier, you have to take into consideration the context of the sentence.
French Expressions With Jamais
Finally, jamais is part of many expressions, all having to do with "ever" and "never."
- Tu es plus belle que jamais mon amour. You are as beautiful as ever my love.
- Maintenant, ils seront ensemble à jamais. Now, they will be together forever.
- Je l'aime à tout jamais. I love him forever and ever.
- C'est maintenant ou jamais. It's now or never.
- Je n'ai jamais rien dit. I have never told anything.