“Sein oder nicht sein?” (To be or not to be?) 🎭 So poetic and rich—but  we're not talking about Hamlet. Our question today is rather "To do or not to do?" We’ll talk about the use of “nicht” (not / no) and “kein” (not a / none). These are German negations

Negations are words that we can use to indicate a lack or a contradiction of something. Basically, it makes things and actions "not".
The two most important ways to negate things and actions in German are the words "nicht" and "kein".

When Do We Use “Nicht” And “Kein”?

As mentioned above, the two words that we’ll focus on today, “nicht” and “kein”, are negations. But what does that look like in a more familiar context? If we refer to English, a negation would look like this: 

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

While in German we use these two different words depending on what we are negating, the difference between “nicht” and “kein” can't be quite so clearly shown with a simple English translation. 

  • Das ist kein Tisch. (This is not a table. [lit. That is no table.])
  • Der Tisch ist nicht groß. (The table is not big.)

But don't worry. The rules for using these two words are pretty easy and we’re going to go through them, one step at a time. 

Ich verstehe das nicht

(I don't understand that.)

Rules For Using “Nicht” In German

In German, we mainly use “nicht” to negate verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

This main rule for "nicht" can make German much easier for you all on its own. In total, however, there are five rules you'll have to keep in mind before you can flawlessly negate things in German. 

First thing's first. As you maybe already know, German grammar revolves around the verb. 

  1. Verbs

With verbs, it's important to remember that the negation comes after the first verb in a sentence. 

  • 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 with verbs, nicht” will always come before the adjective that it is modifying.

  • 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

Ich bin nicht müde.

(I'm not tired.) 

3. Adverbs

With adverbs, the sentences might look like this:

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

As you can see, generally we put the “nicht” before the adverb.
This can get tricky when sentence are more complex. We are busy preparing a post on sentence structure for you. Übung macht den Meister. (Practice makes perfect📚😉.)

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

  • Sie kauft den Kaffee. (She buys the coffee.) 
  • Sie kauft den Kaffee nicht. (She doesn't buy the coffee.)

  • Ich sehe das Problem. (I see the problem.)
  • Ich sehe das Problem nicht. (I don’t see the problem.)

  • Sie hilft dem Kunden. (She helps the customer.)
  • Sie hilft dem Kunden nicht. (She doesn't help the customer.)

In this kind of sentences, we are still negating the verb. However, we now have an object between the verb and "nicht". The object nouns squeeze in between the two, pushing "nicht" to the end.

     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. Here, "nicht" goes directly in front of the possessive article.

  • 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.) 
gif of dog with glasses, illustrating the negation in German with "nicht" in front of a possessive article plus noun

Das ist nicht seine Brille

(These are not his glasses.)

Rules For Using "Kein" In German

Another way to negate something in German is to use the word “kein”. As explained at the beginning of this blog post, it has a similar meaning as “nicht”. It tells us that something “is not”. 

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

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

In many ways, "kein" works like an indefininte article (ein, eine, etc...).
Keep in mind, though, that the rules for using it are slightly different.

There are 3 little rules that we need to remember here. Don't worry, though, they're easy to remember! Let’s go!

  1. Nouns With Indefinite Articles

Remember our friend, the indefinite article? These are articles such as “ein” and “eine” (a, an in English). The good news is that you only have to add the letter “k” to the indefinite article 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 undefined plural nouns. Note that undefined means, that in singular they would have the indefinite article in front of them.

  • 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 

Almost there! The last rule for the use of the negation “kein” is about 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.)

In the table below, you can see the negative article “kein” in all four German cases. It works the same as the indefinite article, except that the indefinite article doesn’t have a plural form. It changes depending on the case you are using. But it’s pretty easy if you are already familiar with the different German cases

German Negation Exceptions

Of course there are always a few exceptions to consider. 

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

  • Ich spiele kein Klavier. (I don’t play the piano.) 
  • Ich spiele nicht Klavier, sondern Gitarre. (I don’t play the piano, but the guitar.)

→ In the first example you negate the noun. In the second one you negate doing the one thing, but you state you're doing the other.

Here’s another pair of examples:

  • Ich spreche kein Deutsch. (I don't speak any German.)
  • 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.” (I don't understand this.) 😉

Exercises: "Nicht" And "Kein" In German

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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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