How to negate in German. On nicht and kein.

Who would have thought that being negative in German is complicated grammatically speaking ;). The most general distinction in negations is between negating nouns, using a form of "kein" (plus whatever ending is required by the case and gender of the noun that follows), and using "nicht" negating verbs and adjectives.

Let's start with the negation of nouns, which is easier provided you understand the cases in German. If you know the gender and case of the noun you're trying to negate, then assume that we just add a "k" to the indefinite article.

e.g. Ich habe ein Buch in the positive form becomes ich habe kein Buch in the negation

Negating adjectives is also straightforward because we just place the "nicht" before the adjective:

e.g. Ich spreche nicht gut Spanisch.

When it comes to verbs, we need to distinguish between so-called part negations, where you negate just one element in the sentence and then elaborate on a positive alternative and full negations. So sometimes there is more than one place where you could put “nicht”, depending on what you want to negate. My advice to students is to focus on the position of all other elements in a sentence first and then to add “nicht” in what is often the only vacant position.

For instance, if you know where the subject goes in a main clause (first or third, before or after the verb), you put the verb in 2nd position- a fixture of German grammar (unless it’s a yes/no question without a question word; if there is more than one verb, the second verb goes to the end), then you normally have an adverb (like the time), and “nicht” could now be put before the location or after an object.

E.g. “Ich frühstücke morgens nicht zu Hause.” (“nicht” has to go there if you want to negate the location. If you want to negate the time, you should say “Ich frühstücke nicht morgens zu Hause, sondern gegen Mittag”. However, without the addition of “sondern gegen Mittag”, the sentence would be incomplete)

Similarly, you could say “Sie besucht ihre Eltern nicht oft.” (“nicht” has to go there if you want to negate the frequency. If you want to negate the parents, you could say “Sie besucht oft nicht ihre Eltern, sondern ihre Freunde”). This is a so-called part negation.

Er spielt nicht mit seinen Freunden Tennis (“nicht” goes there, but if you want to negate “Tennis”, it should read “Er spielt mit seinen Freunden kein Tennis” as “Tennis” is a noun and k+indefinite article is used to negate nouns, whereas “nicht” is used to negate verbs and adjectives).

In a subordinate clause, where verbs get sent to the end, “nicht” also falls into place.

E.g. “Mary lernt oft Vokabeln, damit sie die neuen Wörter nicht vergisst” (as you negate the verb, “nicht” moves to the end”)

“Obwohl er nicht oft Hausaufgaben macht, hat sich sein Deutsch verbessert” (you negate the time, so “nicht” is put before it. However, if you want to emphasise homework, you could say “Obwohl er (die) Hausaufgaben nicht oft macht, hat…”).

I hope this helps a bit. There are more complicated scenarios, but you should get used to the above first.

You will find more information on my German lessons and more articles on German grammar below:

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