Just say “no.”
Now, don’t get me wrong.
There’s plenty to be upbeat about when it comes to the German language and culture: the food (not only eating it, but also pronouncing it correctly!), the people and their quirks, the sights, the hilarious words and the intriguing idioms—and that doesn’t even scratch the surface.
But, much like life, sometimes learning German is kein Zuckerschlecken (no bed of roses). It has its negatives…and even the most positive thinkers among us can’t get away without going there sooner or later. The truth is:
You’ve got to learn to say nein (no)!
It’s not such bad news though, but rather a new horizon to discover!
Learn the rules of negation and you’ll find a world of opportunity opens up in front of you. Your friends and colleagues will no longer be irritated by your infuriatingly sunny presence! You’ll have no more weekends packed with favors for German friends that you simply couldn’t turn down! The ability to say no is an essential step on your path to conquering German.
Did you pick the nine forms of English negation that I just used above? Here they are again:
don’t / doesn’t / not / no / not only…but also / without / not…but rather / no longer / no more
Here we’re going to cover these—and a few extras to boot—for you in German.
Just Say No! The Ultimate Guide to German Negation
We’re going to lay out tons of different forms of German negation, broken down into 6 major areas. Take a look!
1. Nicht vs. Kein
Perhaps the most common words used in German negation are nicht (not) and kein (no, none). But when and how to use which one can be a tiny bit confusing, as they work a little differently than their English counterparts. Let’s take a look!
When to use kein?
You use kein (meaning both “no” and “none”) to negate:
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”— its ending changing accordingly. The extra e on the end of the stem kein above indicates a plural.
When to use nicht?
You use nicht (not) to negate:
Er schwimmt nicht. (He doesn’t swim.)
A noun (only when a definite article—der, die or das [the]—is present).
Ich kenne den Film nicht. (I don’t know the film.)
A proper noun (e.g. a name).
Sie heißt nicht Maria. (Her name’s not Maria.)
A possessive adjective—mein (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 which is the subject to be negated, rather than the whole sentence.
Kommt Maria morgen? (Is Maria coming tomorrow?)
Nein, nicht Maria kommt, sondern Franz. (No, Maria is not coming, but rather Franz.) Here, you’re emphasizing that it’s Maria who isn’t coming!
You’ll notice though that nicht does tend to jump about a bit—and there are a few more specific rules regarding this behavior. Nicht will shift its position in these ways:
Before an adjective or adverb.
As above, with the banana example. Adverbs that can be organized chronologically are an exception here, e.g. später (later), früher (earlier), gestern (yesterday), morgen (tomorrow), heute (tomorrow). In these cases, nicht comes directly after the adverb.
Er kann heute nicht kommen (He can’t come today)
Before a preposition.
Prepositions are those little words that tie sentences together: e.g. for, at, on, under, over, with.
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 can’t swim.)
Before a verb prefix, where a separable verb is involved, e.g. anrufen (to phone).
Wir rufen uns nicht an (We don’t 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.
2. Not..but rather / Not only…but also
We touched on this above, 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. No more / No longer
When mehr comes after kein or nicht, it means “no more” or “no longer.” Pay attention to the position of mehr in the examples below—it behaves differently for kein and nicht.
Wir haben keine Bananen mehr. (We don’t have any more bananas.)
Er arbeitet hier nicht mehr. (He doesn’t work here any longer.)
4. Not yet / Not any
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. 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 haven’t received any answer)
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 pineapple.)
Sie spricht weder Englisch noch Deutsch. (She speaks neither English nor German.)
6. More 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—it helps to learn to recognize these too, so that you can identify them in questions you’re asked and respond accordingly.
etwas / alles—nichts (something/everything—nothing)
irgendwo—nirgendwo / nirgends (somewhere—nowhere)
immer / oft / manchmal—nie/niemals (always / often / sometimes—never)
And last but not least:
Broadly translating as “yes,” there’s no English equivalent to doch. It’s often used as a “flavoring particle” to alter the tone of a sentence. This is another kettle of fish altogether, and you might start here if you’d like to explore it further. However, we’re mainly concerned here with the simplest form of doch, where it’s 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!
And One More Thing…
While knowing how to say “no” is important, it’s also important to know how to say “yes”… to the right German practice resources!
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