There are different ways to negate expressions in German (much like in English you can use “no” in some cases, and “does not” in others). The German adverb “nicht” (not) is used very often, but sometimes you need to use “kein” (not a).
Use “nicht” in the following five situations:
- Negating a noun that has a definite article like “der Raum” (the room) in “Der Architekt mag den Raum nicht” (the architect does not like the room).
- Negating a noun that has a possessive pronoun like “sein Glas” (his glass) in “Der Autor sucht sein Glas nicht.” (the writer is not looking for his glass).
- Negating the verb: “Sie trinken nicht” (They/You do not drink).
- Negating an adverb or adverbial phrase. For instance, “Mein Mann isst nicht immer” (my husband does not eat at all times).
- Negating an adjective that is used with “sein” (to be): “Du bist nicht hungrig” (you are not hungry).
Position of Nicht
Adverbs go in different places in different languages. You cannot simply place the German adverb “nicht” where you would put “not” in English.
The German “nicht” will precede adjectives and adverbs as in “Das Frühstück ist nicht schlecht” (the breakfast is not bad) and “Das Hemd ist nicht ganz blau” (the shirt is not entirely blue).
For verbs, “nicht” can either precede or follow the verb, depending the type of verb. Typically, “nicht” comes after conjugated verbs as in “Die Maus isst nicht” (the mouse does not eat). In conversational German, the perfect (“Ich habe gegessen” = “I have eaten”) is often used to express simple past occurrences (“I ate”). If such statements are negated, “nicht” will come before the participle at the end of the sentence: “Ich habe nicht gegessen” (I did not eat/I have not eaten).
Finally, “nicht” also tends to come at the end of sentences (after direct objects like “mir” = “me,”” or after yes/no questions if there is just one conjugated verb). For example, “Die Lehrerin hilft mir nicht” (The teacher does not help me) and “Hat er den Ball nicht?” (Does he not have the ball?)
Simply put, “kein” is composed of “k + ein” and placed where the indefinite article would be in a sentence. For instance, look at the positive and negative statement about each noun: “ein Mann” (a man) versus “kein Mann” (not a/not one man), and “eine Frau” versus “keine Frau.”
“Kein” is also used for negating nouns that have no article: “Man hat Brot” (one has bread) versus “Man hat kein Brot” (one has no bread).
Nicht versus Nichts
“Nicht” is an adverb and is useful for negations. On the other hand, “nichts” (nothing/anything) is a pronoun and its meaning is different from that of “nicht.” Using “nicht” simply negates a fact, and is less overarching than “nichts.” For example, “Der Schüler lernt nicht” (the student does not learn) is less extreme than “Der Schüler lernt nichts” (the student does not learn anything).
The word “nichts” can also be a noun if capitalized (“das Nichts” = nothingness).
This skill contains both negative and positive statements.