“Sein oder nicht sein?” To be or not to be? So poetic and rich, but instead of focusing on Hamlet, let’s change the question. To do or not to do? Let’s be practical and apply them to our lesson today! We’ll talk about the use of “nicht” (not / no) and “kein” (not a / none) in German, which are negations. 

Let’s throw on our lederhosen and get started. Bereit oder nicht, los geht’s! Ready or not, here we go!

When do we use “nicht” and “kein”?

As mentioned above, the two words that we’ll focus on today, “nicht” and “kein” are negations and therefore we use them whenever we want to negate something. If we refer to English, a negation would be: 

  • Is this a table? No, this is not a table.

While in German we use these two words depending on what we are negating, there is no real difference between the translation of “nicht” and “kein” in English. 

  • Das ist kein Tisch. (This is not a table.)
  • Der Tisch ist nicht groß. (The table is not big.)

But you’ll see that the rules for using these two words are pretty easy and we’re going to go through them step by step so you can follow them without any problem. 


Rules for using “nicht”

The German language is full of rules, like it or not. I decided to love those rules because it makes learning so much more fun. 

So let’s start with the first rule for the use of the word “nicht”.

We mainly use “nicht” to negate verbs and adjectives

This is the most common rule and it will definitely help you on your journey and make German much easier for you. However, there are in total five rules that you can write down on the palm of your hand for the next time you have to negate something in German. 

First things first. As you maybe already know, German modern grammar revolves around the verb. So let’s start with the verbs first. 

  1. Verbs

This is the first category of words that is a good fit for “nicht”. It’s important here to remember that the negation always comes after the verb if we want to negate the verb. 

  • Ich verstehe. (I understand.) 
  • Ich verstehe nicht. (I don’t understand.) 

  • Sie geht ins Kino. (She’s going to the movies.)
  • Sie geht nicht ins Kino. (She’s not going to the movies.)

  • Sie schläft. (She’s sleeping.)
  • Sie schläft nicht. (She’s not sleeping.)

  1. Adjectives

Adjectives are the second best fit for “nicht”. Unlike the verbs, the adjectives we want to negate stand after “nicht”.

  • Das Auto ist billig. (The car is cheap.)
  • Das Auto ist nicht billig. (The car is not cheap.)

  • Ich bin müde. (I’m tired.)
  • Ich bin nicht müde. (I’m not tired.)

  • Die Prinzessin ist schön. (The princess is beautiful.)
  • Die Prinzessin ist nicht schön. (The princess is not beautiful.) 
using nicht properly

      3. Adverbs

  • Lernst du gern Deutsch? (Do you like learning German?)
  • Lernst du nicht gern Deutsch? (Don’t you like learning German?) 
  • Wir gehen morgen ins Restaurant. (We’re going to the restaurant tomorrow.)
  • Wir gehen morgen nicht ins Restaurant. (We’re not going to the restaurant tomorrow.)
  • Er ist immer lustig. (He’s always funny.)
  • Er ist nicht immer lustig. (He’s not always funny.)

As you can see, there is no clear rule whether we should put the “nicht” before or after the adverb. This could be tricky sometimes. But you can try to listen to your gut feeling and it will let you know whether you put the negation before or after the adverb. You’ll get better and better the more you try. Übung macht den Meister. (Practice makes perfect.)

     4. Nouns with definite articles
Our next category for negations with “nicht” is nouns with definite articles. Take a look at these examples here. 

  • Das ist der beste Kaffee. (This is the best coffee.) 
  • Das ist nicht der beste Kaffee. (This is not the best coffee.)
  • Ich sehe das Problem. (I see the problem.)
  • Ich sehe das Problem nicht. (I don’t see the problem.)
  • Ich höre das Telefon. (I hear the phone.)
  • Ich höre das Telefon nicht. (I don’t hear the phone.)


     5. Nouns with possessive articles
And wouldn’t you know, we’ve made it to rule number five with a blink of an eye. 

The last category that requires the negation “nicht” is nouns with possessive articles, which are articles like mine, your, her, and so on. 

  • Das ist mein Handy. (This is my phone.) 
  • Das ist nicht mein Handy. (This is not my phone.)

  • Sind das deine Schuhe? (Are these your shoes?)
  • Sind das nicht deine Schuhe? (Aren’t these your shoes?)

  • Das ist seine Brille. (These are his glasses.)
  • Das ist nicht seine Brille. (These are not his glasses.) 


Rules for using kein

Another way to negate something in German is by using the word “kein”. As explained at the beginning of this blog post, it has the same meaning as “nicht”. We always want to say that something “is not”. 

Big question here: when do we use “kein”? 

We use the word “kein” when we negate nouns. And only nouns, nothing else.

There are 3 little rules here which are very easy to remember. Focus your grammar goggles and let’s go! 

  1. Nouns with indefinite articles

Remember our friend, the indefinite article? These are articles such as “ein” and “eine”. The good news here is that  you only have to add the letter “k” when you want to negate a noun. 

  • Ist das ein Sofa? (Is this a sofa?)
  • Nein, das ist kein Sofa. (No, this is not a sofa.)

  • Ist das eine Katze? (Is this a cat?)
  • Nein, das ist keine Katze. (No, this is not a cat.) 

  • Ist das ein Baum (Is this a tree?)
  • Nein, das ist kein Baum. (No, this is not a tree.) 

If you’d like, take a minute to review the indefinite articles together with Anja! 

       2. Nouns with no articles (plural)

The next group is nouns that have no articles, meaning that we are talking about the plural nouns. 

  • Sind das Äpfel? (Are these apples?)
  • Nein, das sind keine Äpfel. (No, these are not apples.)

  • Habt ihr Bananen? (Do you have bananas?)
  • Nein, wir haben keine Bananen. (No, we don’t have bananas.)

  • Sind das Autos? (Are these cars?)
  • Nein, das sind keine Autos. (No, these are not cars.)

I’m sure you can think of plenty more examples. Maybe you want to sit back and think about a few more before you move on to the next point. Try to test yourself! 

        3. Nouns with attributive adjectives 

And we have reached the last rule for the use of the negation “kein”, which regards nouns with attributive adjectives. A quick hint: attributive adjectives are between the article and the noun. 

  • Ist das ein neuer Computer? (Is this a new computer?)
  • Nein, das ist kein neuer Computer. (No, this is not a new computer.)

  • Ich habe eine nette Schwester. (I have a nice sister.)
  • Ich habe keine nette Schwester. (I don’t have a nice sister.) 

  • Haben Sie einen schönen Tag? (Are you having a nice day?)
  • Nein, ich habe keinen schönen Tag. (No, I’m not having a nice day.)

Take a look at this table here where you can see the word “kein” in the different cases. It works just the same as the indefinite article with the difference that the indefinite article doesn’t have a plural. You see, it changes depending on the case you are using. But it’s pretty easy if you are already familiar with the different cases

The German negative articles


Exceptions

Of course we should always take into account that there are some exceptions in our beautiful German language. 

When we have a verb and a noun in one phrase and we want to negate it, we can use either options, “nicht” or “kein”. 

  • Ich spiele kein Klavier. (I don’t play the piano.) 
  • Ich spiele nicht Klavier. (I don’t play the piano.)

The reason why both options are correct and acceptable is that in the first one you can say that you negate the noun and in the second one you negate the verb. To be honest, as a native speaker I would go for the first example, which is also the more common one. But either way is correct. 

Here’s another example:

  • Ich spreche kein Deutsch. (I don’t speak German.)
  • Ich spreche nicht Deutsch. (I don’t speak German.)

We have the same situation here: we can either negate the noun or the verb. The second version is grammatically correct, but we would not use this in real life unless in some rare situations, e.g.

  • “Ich spreche (gerade) nicht Deutsch, sondern Englisch. (I’m not speaking German right now, I’m speaking English.  

Hopefully this post helped you understand how to use the negation in German correctly. If not, then at least you're able to say, “Ich verstehe das nicht.” 😉

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  • Hi anja,Thanks for helping us learning German.I have a question and I would be glad if you help me.In indefinite articles “e ,en ,er or es” attache to the adjective and if I want to neglate an sentense which has an Indefinite article with “Kein” these letters would attache to the adjective. I checked the nominative case and it was like it’s chart (indefinite article chart) Is this rule the same for other three cases? I mean the adjective changes like the indefinite article chart? many thanks.

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