The negative article "kein" and the adverb "nicht"
The indefinite article in German (a, an, any in English), has endings based on the gender and case of the noun it precedes. The indefinite article does not have a plural form (e.g. one cannot say “a dogs” or “an elephants” in English); however, the negative article ‘kein’ does (see table below). The English equivalent of the negative article is a construction involving the word ‘not’ plus the appropriate indefinite article (e.g. “not a dog” or “not an elephant”). The following table represents the indefinite and negative articles in the nominative case.
Negation: “nicht” vs. “kein”
There are two basic rules to keep in mind when negating something in German:
- If the word is a noun, use “kein”
- For all other parts of speech (e.g. verbs, adverbs, adjectives, possessive pronouns, prepositional phrases, definite articles), use “nicht”
For nouns, simply use “kein” plus the appropriate ending based on gender of the noun it precedes. For example: Das ist kein Apfel, das ist eine Birne. / That is not an apple, that is a pear. Note in this example that there is no word immediately preceding “Apfel,” but, if a definite article were inserted, “nicht” could be used to negate which specific apple is being referred to: Das ist nicht der Apfel, den ich meine. / That is not the apple that I mean. In this example, “nicht” can come before the noun precisely because the noun is not being negated, but rather the definite article “der” (“the”). This implies that another apple will be referred to, pointed out, or otherwise mentioned in the rest of the conversation or exchange.
“Nicht” negates that which it precedes, and it can negate an entire thought. Here are some examples of “nicht” in usage:
- Ich glaube das nicht. / I do not believe that. (verb negated)
- Ich esse nicht gern Spargel. / I do not like to eat asparagus. (adverb negated)
- Diese Blume ist nicht schön. / This flower is not beautiful. (adjective negated)
- Ich esse Pizza nicht mit einer Gabel. / I do not eat pizza with a fork. (prepositional phrase negated)
- Ich gehe heute in die Disko nicht. / I am not going today to the club. (entire thought negated)
In addition, the placement of “nicht” makes a significant difference as to the meaning of the sentence. Consider the following sentences:
- Er liest jetzt das Buch in der Bibliothek nicht. (He is not reading. (no special emphasis))
- Er liest jetzt nicht das Buch in der Bibliothek. (He is reading now, but not the book.)
- Er liest jetzt das Buch nicht in der Bibliothek. (He is reading the book now, but not in the library.)
- Er liest nicht jetzt das Buch in der Bibliothek. (He does not read the book now, but might later.)