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How to negate in German. On nicht and kein and where to place them

Students are often confused about how to use negations in German. Not only does the language use different words (nicht and kein), it is also by no means obvious where to place them in a German sentence. This post will explain both- how nicht and kein are used and where they need to be positioned. Given the old prejudice of Germans as moaners and complainers, who would have thought that being negative in German is rather complicated grammatically speaking 😂.

Learn how to use nicht and kein in German and where to place them
Learn how to use nicht and kein in German and where to place them

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.

The negation of German nouns

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 you just need add a "k" to the indefinite article in order to turn into its opposite.

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

Just like any other article in German, any form of kein is placed before the noun that is being negated.

Negating adjectives and adverbs

Negating adjectives and adverbs is also straightforward because we just place the "nicht" before the adjective or adverb.

e.g. Ich spreche nicht gut Spanisch.

Ich lerne nicht oft Vokabeln.

Exceptions are adverbs of time. Here, we position the negation before the time if the sentence is supposed to be a completed statement (see below for partial negations)

Ich kann heute nicht kommen.

Sie hat gestern nicht gearbeitet.

The negation of verbs

When it comes to verbs, we need to distinguish between so-called partial 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 “nicht” could be positioned, depending on what you want to negate. I advise my students, as general rule of thumb, to focus on the element in the sentence that they actually want to negate. Let's look at some examples.

Full negation

Ich frühstücke morgens nicht zu Hause.

Partial negation

Ich frühstücke nicht morgens zu Hause, sondern gegen Mittag

The example of the full negation follows the rule that "nicht" is placed after adverbs of time. If you move the negation before the time, the sentence is not complete and requires further clarification on when you have breakfast. The latter is provided by the "sondern" clause.

Full negation

Sie besucht ihre Eltern nicht oft.

Partial negation

Sie besucht oft nicht ihre Eltern, sondern ihre Freunde.

"Nicht” has to go before "oft" if you want to negate the frequency. If you want to negate the parents, you would have to elaborate further.

Full negation

Ich fahre kein Auto.

Partial negation

Ich fahre nicht mit dem Auto, sondern mit dem Zug.

Full negations can also use "kein" if the negated element is a noun. Here, the example expresses that someone doesn't drive a car, reducing the meaning of "fahren" to its original meaning of "to drive". The partial negation communicates that someone doesn't take the car but the train in the sense of the broader meaning of "fahren" as "to take a mode of transport". "Ich fahre nicht mit dem Auto" would prompt the follow-up question how one chooses to travel.

Negation in subordinate clauses

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

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 sich sein Deutsch verbessert.")

Other negations

alles/etwas <-> nichts

Wir machen alles im Haushalt <-> Ihr macht nichts.

Alle/jemand <-> niemand

Kann mir bitte jemand helfen? <-> Nein, dir kann leider niemand helfen.

Alle, jemand, and niemand are treated as nouns, so declined in all four cases. While "alle" is plural, jemand and niemand are considered as masculine nouns.

Ich kenne alle hier im Deutschkurs <-> Ich kenne niemanden hier im Deutschkurs.

immer <-> nie

Sie macht immer ihre Hausaufgaben <-> Er macht nie seine Hausaufgaben.

On my German language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!", you will find answers to all your German grammar questions. From adjective declensions, comparatives and superlatives, to the plural of German nouns, and German word order.

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