Kapitel 2: Negation

Negation (Seite 28 & 67)

Click here to try an exercise on this for fun. It's meant for Second
Year students, but you should be able to answer many of the questions.

"Nicht" vs "Kein"

If what you are negating is a noun, "nicht" or "kein" (or "keine," "keinen" etc.) willprecede the noun.

Use "kein" if what you are negating is

  • a noun preceded by ein/eine
  • a noun not preceded by any article

Use "nicht" if what you are negating is

  • a noun preceded by "der/das/die."
  • a noun preceded by a "possessive adjective" (e.g. "mein," "dein," etc; we'll
    learn what these are in Kapitel 3)
  • a proper noun (i.e. a name, usually following "sein" or "heißen")

Zum Beispiel:

Das ist ein Porsche. Nein, das ist kein Porsche.
Du bist ein Sadist. Nein, ich bin kein Sadist.
Sehen Sie einen Studenten? Nein, ich sehe keinen Studenten.
Er hat Haare. Nein, er hat keine Haare.
Sprechen Sie Koreanisch? Nein, ich spreche kein Koreanisch.
Ist das die Professorin? Nein, das ist nicht die Professorin.
Ist das deine Rammstein CD? Nein, das ist nicht meine Rammstein CD.
Heißt du Elvis? Nein, ich heiße nicht Elvis.
Das ist Berlin! Nein, das ist nicht Berlin.

If it is not the noun you are negating, you can forget the above rules and just use "nicht."

Kann man [=one] Europa essen? Nein, man kann Europa nicht essen.
Sind Toiletten schön? Nein, Toiletten sind nicht schön.
Ist ein Unfall [=accident] wunderbar? Nein, ein Unfall ist nicht wunderbar.
Spielst du gern Tennis? Nein, ich spiele nicht gern Tennis.

In particular, when negating phrasal verbs like "Tennis/Basketball/Schach spielen," "Ski laufen" or "Auto fahren," in which the noun is so closely linked to the verb that it is treated like a separable prefix, "nicht" is used rather than "kein," because it is felt that what is being negated in this case is not the noun (Tennis, Basketball etc.) but rather the phrasal verb. The general rules discussed above are much more important than this detail (which we will not test you on in German 101-231), but the examples below are worth remembering if you can:

Spielst du Tennis? Nein, ich spiele nicht Tennis.
Kannst du Schach spielen? Nein, ich kann nicht Schach spielen.
Läufst du Ski? Nein, ich laufe nicht Ski.
Kannst du Auto fahren? Nein, ich kann nicht Auto fahren.

Position of "nicht"

The most general rules are:

  1. Nicht will precede the specific word that is being negated
  2. If there is no specific part of the sentence that is being negated, nicht will come at the end.

The second rule can come into conflict with another rule: if a sentence contains a verb in two parts, then the "generic" part of the verb (i.e. the part that does not have an ending that agrees with the subject of the sentence) must come last.  The conflict is always resolved in favor of the verb, i.e. "nicht" will come just before the verb at the end of the sentence.

Ruft Anna an? Nein, Anna ruft nicht an.  Sie schreibt eine E-Mail.
Gehst du einkaufen? Nein, ich gehe nicht einkaufen.

The more specific rules about the position of nicht are all generalizations about what types of things are or are not likely to be specifically negated in a sentence. These rules can have exceptions, and it is difficult to learn them all, but one quickly develops an instinct for the proper position of "nicht" in most cases, so this should not worry you. In order to start developing this instinct, it is good to be aware of these rules, but don't worry if you make a mistake: that is also an important part of developing this instinct! Here is a bit more information about these rules:

Nicht tends to follow:

  • The subject, the verb, and the direct object (if there is one): Ich sehe den Stuhl nicht.
  • Expressions of specific time: Ich arbeite jetzt [=now] nicht; Ich gehe heute [=today] nicht nach Österreich.
    [But: Wir essen nicht um 8 Uhr.  Here, the specific time is indicated by a phrase beginning with the preposition "um" [="at"], and "nicht" tends to precede prepositional phrases [don't worry about this terminology yet; see below].

Nicht tends to precede:

  • "Generic" parts of the verb at the end of the sentence, as described above.
  • Nouns and adjectives following the verb "sein" (i.e. predicate nouns and adjectives--see Vorsprung p. 33): Die Professorin ist nicht alt;
    Die Musik ist nicht schön; Die Schlager sind nicht schlecht; Er ist nicht der Professor; Das ist nicht Frau Schröder-Köpf; Ich bin nicht dumm..
  • Adverbs or adverbial phrases describing how or where something is done or happening: Ich wandere nicht gern; Susi geht nicht gern schlafen; Elvis ist nicht hier; Wir sprechen nicht schnell.
  • Expressions of indefinite time: Ich fliege nicht oft [=often]; Wir
    spielen nicht jeden Tag [=every day] Fußball.
  • Prepositional phrases.  Don't worry if you're not sure yet what a preposition is; we'll learn more about this soon!  For now: prepositions are little words (other than articles) that come in front of nouns: in, on, under, with, near, after, before, for, through etc. ==> Ich gehe nicht in die Sauna; Das Baby sitzt nicht auf dem Overheadprojektor; Wir sind nicht unter dem Bett.

If there are several such elements in a sentence, nicht will generally come after all of the ones it tends to follow, and before all the ones it tends to precede.

Finally, note that all of these rules may be "overruled" (get it?) by the very first one: if I want to emphasize something that is being negated, nicht will precede that thing, even if it normally would not:

  • Nicht Anna ruft an.  Elvis ruft an! [Normally: Anna ruft nicht an, i.e. Anna does not call.  But here you're emphasizing that not Anna but rather Elvis is calling.]
  • Ich trinke nicht Bier, sondern [=but rather] ich trinke Kaffee. [Here another rule is violated for emphasis: you would normally say "Ich trinke kein Bier."]
  • Wir essen nicht den Hamburger.  Wir essen den Berliner. [Normally: Wir essen den Hamburger nicht, i.e. we don't eat the burger. But here you're emphasizing it's not the burger you're eating, but rather the jelly donut.]
    • The following two bullet points go further into the fine points of deciding between kein and nicht. For most of you, it will be better to ignore them and just rely on your developing instincts for which of these verbs to use. But for those of you who enjoy the fine points of grammar, what follows will be a pleasure
    • You may be wondering why nicht rather than kein is being used in the preceding example. This is best explained by thinking about eating meat [das Fleisch]. If you want to say that you don't eat meat, you would say "Ich esse kein Fleisch." Here, the specific thing being negated is the meat: you're a vegetarian, and you eat lots of things, but no meat. If you say "Ich esse das Fleisch nicht," this means that we've got a particular piece of meat in mind, and you're not eating it; in this case, what's being negated is the verb, essen, not the noun, and this is why you use nicht. In the preceding examples, der Hamburger and der Berliner correspond to das Fleisch: we used nicht on the assumption that you were talking about a particular burger and a particular jelly donut. To say that you stay away from burgers or jelly donuts in general, you would use kein: Ich esse keine Hamburger / Ich esse keine Berliner.
    • In other words, when we say that in the sentence "Ich esse kein Fleisch" it's the noun that's being negated, rather than the verb, we mean that here you're specifying that if we assume that you're going to eat something, the noun "das Fleisch" is not going to be that something. When we say that in the sentence "Ich esse das Fleisch nicht," it's the verb that's being negated, rather than the noun, we mean that he're you're specifying that, given that there's some meat here with which you could be doing all kinds of things, the verb "eating" is not going to be one of those things.