German Negation

The ability to express the negative is an essential step on your path to conquering German.

Learn the rules of negation in German, and you’ll find that a world of opportunity opens up in front of you.

In this post, we have the complete guide for learning German negation.

If you’re interested in all the ways to say “no” in German, you can also check out this post on using nein.

Let’s get started!


1.  Nicht vs.  Kein

German negation is commonly expressed using the words nicht (not) and kein (no, none). Generally, kein is used for common nouns that use indefinite articles (or no articles) or to mean “none,” while nicht is used for everything else. 

Let’s take closer look at their uses!

When to use kein

What Kein NegatesExampleNotes
A noun (when no article, or an indefinite article—like the English "a" or "an"—is present) Es gibt keine Bananen. * 
(There are no bananas.)

*Careful: in English, you could also use "not" to say es gibt nicht Bananen (there aren't bananas), but this is not grammatically correct in German!
In place of a noun to mean "none" when the subject is already known. Gibt es Bananen?  
(Are there bananas?)

Nein, es gibt keine. **
(No, there are none.)
**Note the change in ending here. Just like the indefinite article  ein (a, an), kein needs to be "declined"—i.e., its ending needs to change accordingly. The extra e on the end of the stem kein in the example sentence indicates a plural.

When to use nicht

What Nicht NegatesExample
A verb Er schwimmt nicht.  
(He does not swim.)
A noun, but only when a definite article der , die or  das (the)—is present Ich kenne den Film nicht.
(I do not know the film.)
A proper noun (i.e., a name) Sie heißt nicht Maria.
(Her name's not Maria.)
A possessive adjectivemein (mine),  dein (yours),  ihr (hers), etc. Das ist nicht mein Auto.  
(That's not my car.)
An adjective or adverb Diese Banane ist nicht reif.  
(This banana is not ripe.)

Where to put nicht

Generally, nicht goes at the end of the sentence. However, nicht also goes before a specific word when it’s the subject to be negated, rather than the whole sentence, like in:

Kommt Maria morgen? (Is Maria coming tomorrow?)
Nein, nicht Maria kommt, sondern Franz. (No, Maria is not coming, but rather Franz.)

In the above, you’re emphasizing that it’s Maria who isn’t coming.

You’ll notice that nicht does tend to jump about a bit, and there are a few more specific rules regarding this behavior. 

Where Nicht GoesExample
Before an adjective or adverb*

*Adverbs of time are an exception here—e.g., später (later),  früher (earlier),  gestern (yesterday),  morgen (tomorrow), heute (today). In these cases, nicht comes directly after the adverb.
Er kann heute nicht kommen.  
(He cannot come today.)
Before a preposition Wir interessieren uns nicht für Golf.
(We're not interested in golf.)
Before the infinitive verb in statements involving a "modal" verb, such as  können (to be able to) Er kann nicht schwimmen.  
(He cannot swim.)
Before a verb prefix where a separable verb is involved—e.g.,  anrufen (to phone) Wir rufen uns nicht an.
(We do not phone each other.)

Don’t worry if this seems like a lot to remember! It’s good to be aware of the rules, but in reality you’ll quickly develop an intuitive sense for where to place nicht, simply by listening, practicing and making mistakes. For example, you can use a program like FluentU to tune your ears to the proper placement and usage of this word.

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2.  Nicht … sondern / Nicht nur … sondern auch

We touched this in an earlier example (the one with Maria and Franz). Nicht … sondern (not…but rather) is used to negate one thing in favor of another.

Ich habe nicht Samstag frei, sondern Sonntag.
(I’m not free on Saturday, but rather Sunday.)

You can also pair  sondern with  nicht nur (not only) to use it in a positive, additive sense: nicht nur … sondern auch (not only…but also). So you could change the meaning of the above sentence as follows:

Ich habe nicht nur Samstag frei, sondern auch Sonntag.  
(I’m not only free on Saturday, but also Sunday.)

3.  Kein … mehr / Nicht mehr

When  mehr comes after kein or nicht, it means “no more” or “no longer.” As you can see in the examples below, mehr behaves differently for kein and nicht—i.e., it’s positioned differently in the sentence.

Wir haben keine Bananen mehr.  (We do not have any more bananas.)

Er arbeitet hier nicht mehr. (He no longer works here.)

4.  Noch nicht / Noch kein

Noch (still/yet) is used to indicate that something is not yet complete and is often used in response to a question. Whether you use nicht or kein will follow the rules already outlined above. 

Note that schon (already) is the positive counterpart to noch.

Bist du schon fertig?  (Are you already finished?)
Nein, ich bin noch nicht fertig.  (No, I’m not finished yet.)

Hast du (schon) eine Antwort bekommen? (Have you [already] received an answer?)
Nein, ich habe noch keine Antwort bekommen. (No, I still have not received any answer.)

5. Weder … noch

Noch can also mean “nor” when paired with  weder (neither). So the German Weder… noch works in the same way as its English counterpart (neither…nor).

Wir haben weder Banenen noch Ananas.  (We have neither bananas nor pineapples.)

Sie spricht weder Englisch noch Deutsch.  (She speaks neither English nor German.)

6. Other German negation words (and their positives)

Here are a few more handy negatives to keep in mind. Their positive counterparts (some have more than one!) are also listed. The reason I included the positives as well is because they’ll often show up in questions, so if you know them, you can respond accordingly.

Other German Negation WordsPositive Counterparts
nichts (nothing) etwas (something)
alles (everything)
niemand (nobody) jemand (somebody/anybody)
irgendwo (somewhere) nirgendwo /
nirgends (nowhere)
nie /
niemals (never)
immer (always)
oft (often)
manchmal (sometimes)
ohne (without) mit (with)

And last but not least:

doch (yes)

Broadly translated as “yes,” there’s actually no English equivalent to doch. It’s often used as a “flavoring particle” to alter the tone of a sentence. The concept of “flavoring particles” deserves its own discussion, so start here if you’d like to explore it further.

For our purposes, just be aware that the simplest form of doch is used as an affirmative response to a negatively-framed question:

Kommst du nicht mit?  (Aren’t you coming?)
Doch! Ich komme mit. (Yes! On the contrary, I am.)


Get the hang of these basics and you’ll be feeling positive about the “negative” side of German in no time!

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