The Position of “nicht” – Part 1

nicht-position-germanHello everyone,

it’s been a while since we’ve had a real grammar episode but the wait is over. Welcome to a new episode of the German is Easy – Learn German Online  Course. And this time we’ll have a look at the perfect topic for a hot summer day:

the position of “nicht”
The question where to put nicht in a sentence is one that confuses many learners. And it is one that textbooks have the perfect, spot-on answer to…
nooooot! Stupid textbooks.
Okay, to be fair…  the stuff about sentence negation vs element negation, is not all wrong, but it gets really confusing once you look closer. Because just like with sentence structure, the standard material kind of fails to look under the hood. It explains symptoms, not the cause.
So we’ll try a slightly different approach, one that captures the underlying mechanics just as well as this picture does.
Haha. Get it? Underlying mechanics? 
Seriously though, our approach is gonna be AWESOME because all we need is one rule and get this – the rule has no exceptions. WOW!!
Oh, beside that rule we also need very open mind. And a coffee because it’ll be intense.
In part one we’ll get to know the basic rule and we’ll lay a fair bit of groundwork.  And before you go like “Dude, I’m a working man, mother of 4 and full time student… I ain’t got time for groundwork.” let me tell you… you will want to read this. You need this groundwork like Burger King needs ground beef.
So, are you ready to dive in? Perfect!

Many of you probably know or have at least heard that German has two kinds of sentence structures. The main sentence structure, with the verb in the second position and then the side sentence structure. That’s the one you all hate. You know, the one you  see after words like dass and weil, the one with a all the verbs at the end.

  • Ich trinke heute ein leckeres Bier. (main sentence)
  • … , dass ich heute ein leckeres Bier trinke. (side sentence)

For the average learner, the main sentence structure is the normal structure and the side sentences are just a (per)version of it.
Well, get ready for an idea that is crazy but also great.

A really greazy idea

What if I told you that the side sentence structure is actually the true structure of a German sentence. You’re probably like “Please god, noooo!!” And  I know that sounds grisly but bear with me please.
If you really want to get a handle on word order, you have to look at side  sentences. Word order is much stricter in side sentence and  it is there that the underlying structure of German really shows.
Instead of thinking of the main sentence as the normal one, we should think of it as a side sentence with two extra slots in the beginning and these slots get filled with stuff you take out of its normal position.
One of the slots, the second one, gets filled with part of the verb, the other is kind of a wild card slot and can take pretty much any one element. Let’s do an example.

  •                         …, dass ich heute in die Bar gegangen bin.

I don’t want to dive into word order too much so just take my word for it… this is the normal order of these elements and you cannot switch for example heute and ich without creating so much tension that the result sounds almost wrong.
Now lets make that into a main sentence. We’ll remove the dass because it’s just a connector and add the two extra slots

  • [Extra 1] [Extra 2 ]   ich heute in die Bar gegangen bin.

And now lets fill the extra slots. Extra 2 gets the verb from the end, extra 1 can take any one thing pretty much.

  • [Extra slot 1] [extra slot 2]    [natural order of elements]
  • [Ich]                     [bin]                ich heute  in die Bar    gegangen  bin.
  • [Heute]               [bin]                ich heute  in die Bar    gegangen  bin.
  • [In die Bar]        [bin]                ich heute  in die Bar  gegangen  bin.

In a way, all the different main sentence version are just a result of us taking out different elements out of their “natural” position and putting them in the first slot and it’s much easier to analyze the side sentence because there are no “out of line” slots.
Cool.
Now, when it comes to the position of nicht, there’s one slot in particular that matters… the verb slot.
Most people think, that the standard position for the verb is the second one. With our way of looking at it here, the verb slot is actually at the very end and in main sentences we’re taking out something from that slot and put it into position 2.
And this way of looking at things is the key to the fundamental rule nicht.

The one basic rule

In standard lore, they make a distinction between two kinds of nicht-negations. One is called element negation and it’s done by putting nicht in front of the element you want to negate, the other one is called sentence negation, where the sentence as a whole gets negated. And for sentence negation, nicht comes at the end… or at least as late as possible.

  • Ich werde nicht morgen nach Berlin fahren. (“element negation”)
  • Tomorrow is not the day I will go Berlin.
  • Ich arbeite heute nicht. (“sentence negation”)
  • I’m not working today. 

But making this distinction between two kinds of nicht-negations with two sets of rules for the position sucks. It makes things more complicated than they are and does NOT reflect the inner workings of the language.
The only, an absolute rule for the position of nicht is this:

“Nicht” precedes what it negates.

And that’s it.
But what about the sentences with the nicht at the end?

  • Ich arbeite heute nicht.

Isn’t this an exception?? Like… nicht doesn’t precede anything here, right? But this is where our groundwork comes into play. Because nicht actually ISN’T at the end. It is in front of the verb slot. Only that the verb slot is empty because we took out the content and moved it into the extra slot.

  • Ich arbeite heute nachmittag nicht [ verb slot – empty]

Once we put the sentence into side sentence mode we can see it.

  • …, dass ich heute nachmittag nicht [arbeite.]

Booom, nicht is NOT at the end anymore because under the hood it never was. It just happened to be the last word.

  • …, dass ich heute nachmittag [arbeite] nicht…. WRONG!!

This is super wrong. Nicht ALWAYS precedes what it negate so it can NEVER come at the end of a side sentence.

And that’s not all. We now also have a perfectly logical reason why nicht doesn’t come after prefixes or ge-forms or other verbs. Because those sit in the final verb slot.

  •                 Ich schlafe heute [ausnicht WRONG!
  •  Ich schlafe heute nicht [aus]… correct
  •                Ich habe heute [geschlafen] nichtWRONG! 
  •  Ich habe heute nicht [geschlafen].
  •               Ich kann heute [schlafen] nicht… WRONG!
  • Ich kann heute nicht [schlafen].

And it’s not only helpful with that. You see, if nicht precedes what it negates that also implies that anything coming before nicht is NOT negated. And that can help for instance understand the difference between the following two

  • Ich schwimme nicht gern.
  • Ich schwimme gerne nicht.

Both are correct but only one is the proper translation for “I don’t like swimming”. Any idea which one? It’s the first one. And when we put them in side sentence mode, it becomes obvious.

  • …, dass ich nicht gern schwimme.
  • …, dass ich gern nicht schwimme.

The word that expresses the liking is gern, and in the second version gern comes before nicht so it is NOT negated. The second sentence actually means

  • I do like not swimming.

So our one basic rule can already clear up quite a bit. And by the way.. it totally holds for the kein-negations, too. Because kein is nothing other than a contraction of a negation particle and ein.

  • nicht ein Bier
  • nichein Bier
  • nickein Bier
  • n’kein Bier
  • Hodor…. wait, who said that

Cool.

So this our basic rule. But as awesome as it is, it’s not enough to help with the whole scope of the position of nicht and all the various “What the hell” moments there are. Just to give you two examples…

  • Ich rede mit Maria im Zoo nicht…. super correct :)
  • Ich bin mit Maria im Zoo nicht…. SUPER WRONG :[ 
  • Ich habe immer noch nicht den neuen Song von Rhianna gehört…. super correct :)
  • Ich habe immer noch nicht ihn gehört…. SUPER WRONG :[

Tricky stuff right? I mean… whyyyyyy. For these things we need to use our brains.
To really understand the positioning of nicht and when to put it where, we now need to work with that rule using an open mind and common sense. Yeah, I know… some sort of “If-A-put-nicht-here,-if-B-put-it-there” -thing would be easier but it would also be kinda boring. Just like this famous chocolate. 
What? Yes , I  did spend some time on Photoshop just for this dumb joke. Oh well, the things I do for laugh.

So, to properly place nicht, we need to get an understanding of what I call a default negation.

The neutral negation

In German but also in other languages there are more than one way to add a negative to a sentence. What I call neutral negation is the version that  does not have a special focus. I guess you could call it “sentence negation” but I’d rather not… I find the term really confusing.
Anyway, here’s an example

  • Thomas didn’t check his mails today.
  • Thomas didn’t check HIIIIS mails today.

The first one is a neutral negationThere’s no special focus on anything. In the second one on the other hand, the negation specifically targets “his”. That’s what’s being negated, implying that Thomas might have read someone else’s. Probably Maria’s. I mean… it’s her own fault. She could just change her passw… but I digress.
So to really master negation in a language you need to get a feel for what the neutral negation is and how to create special focus.
English, at least in spoken, keeps one structure and relies on aural emphasis for the focusing.
In German it’s a little more complex.
German, too, uses aural emphasis, but also the position of
nicht, can create special focus. Can, not must.
In longer sentences, several positions can sound neutral depending how you say it. And which positions are how neutral doesn’t only depend on the sentence…  it actually friggin’ depends on the context in which the sentence is said, on the intention of the speaker

  1. …, dass  nicht Thomas gestern mit Maria im Zoo war.
  2. …, dass Thomas nicht gestern mit Maria im Zoo war.
  3. … , dass Thomas gestern nicht mit Maria im Zoo war.
  4. …, dass Thomas gestern mit Maria nicht im Zoo war.
  5. …, dass Thomas gestern mit Maria im Zoo nicht war.

Number 1 is not neutral at all and has a clear focus on Thomas, for 2 and 3 it depends on how it’s said and the context of conversation whether it’s a focused negation or not, number 4 is pretty neutral but it implies that Thomas did something with Maria and number 5 is … pretty much wrong.

  1. …, that it wasn’t Thomas who was at the zoo with Maria yesterday.
  2. … that it wasn’t yesterday that Thomas was at the zoo with Maria.
    … that Thomas WASN’T at the zoo with Maria yesterday.
  3. … that it wasn’t Maria with whom Thomas was at the zoo yesterday.
    … that Thomas wasn’t at the zoo with Maria yesterday.
  4. … that Thomas wasn’t at the ZOO with Maria yesterday.
    ... that Thomas wasn’t at the zoo with Maria yesterday. (most neutral)
  5. … (not translatable)

God daaaaamn…. now you’re probably like “How am I supposed to learn that.” But it’s not as bad as it seems. All we need is common sense, and the idea of scenery.
By scenery  I basically mean the setting, the “world” about which we learn something in the sentence that has the negation. And because that’s super abstract, let’s do an example.

  • I don’t STUDY at the library.

Using aural emphasis… well… bold font… we’ve focused the negation specifically on the verb  to study  here.  The other elements (“I”, “at the library”) are NOT touched by the negation.  And those elements are the “scenery“. Me at the library, that’s the scenery we learn something about and what we learn is that studying is NOT what I do there.
So, anything that is not touched by the negation is the scenery.  And in part two we’ll see the power of this scenery stuff because it’ll help us clear up everything.
Now you’re like “Wait… in part 2?  So we have to wait a week?”
Well, actually no… you’ll have to wait more than a week :).
Yeah… I know you hate me right now. But seriously, I want part 2 to be good and make sense so I’m not gonna rush it. And I think we’ve a lot to digest already.
Let me know in the comments if the stuff made sense so far or if you have any questions. Do you think it’s any good? Also, what are your experiences with the “standard” book explanation. Does that work for you? And let me know if there are any things in particular that you don’t understand about the position of nicht so we can talk about it in part 2.

I’m out for now… I wish you a wonderful week, I hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.

Further reading:

If you liked the stuff about side sentence and you want to find out WHY that kind of is the natural structure, then check out part one of my post on word order:

for members :)

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Diogo Max
Diogo Max

This explanation was really amazing and make perfect sense, Emanuel. Vielen Dank!
I’m just not completely sure why the SUPER WRONG and n.5 sentences are wrong.
But anyway, I’ll keep looking at the sentences using an open mind and common sense, as you said.
Looking forward to reading part 2.

Anonymous
Anonymous

It helps a lot and has sorted some stuff out for me. I need to read it a few times more. Thanks.

aoind
aoind

Intense. Will need two weeks to get ready for part 2. Now to go and vote. Tschüss!

Nate
Nate

This was very helpful, especially when talking about the emphasis of certain word order. One thing that I still don’t understand, partially because of how the books teach it, is when to use kein instead of nicht.

Jennifer
Jennifer

I’m kind of a beginner. I took German in fifth and sixth grade and now at the age of 41, I am trying to relearn the language. I have an insatiable desire to know it fluently. Not sure why as nobody in Texas even speaks German. Anyway, yesterday, I was learning about sentence structure and was completely confused regarding the side sentence structure. With the explanation above, the light bulb in my brain came on, and I actually understand. I enjoy your explanation and the side sentence structure makes a lot more sense now; thank you.

aoind
aoind

Maybe get yourself down to Fredericksberg (or any one the few remaining Texas German-speaking communities) before the language dies out

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_German

DantesDame

Hey Jennifer – I saw your comment about Texas and thought of this article. Might be time for a road trip!
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22490560

jenapp586
jenapp586

Very interesting!!! Thank you!

NN
NN

Toll!
Ich mag diesen artikel.
Du musst ein neues Buch von Grammatik schreiben:)

weedhatch55
weedhatch55

I think I am learning as much about English grammar as German!

Rick
Rick

Personally, at this point I find it easier to just think in terms of element and sentence negation.

Douglas Reith
Douglas Reith

Position of ‘nicht’: very clear and very useful – many thanks. Quite logical really, but, in my experience with German grammars, it’s one of the thorny problems that is often glossed over for fear of confusing the beginner; despite the fact that we use this form of positional nuance all the time in English – as you ably demonstrate in your translation of the examples you use.

Adriano de Almeida Marcato
Adriano de Almeida Marcato

I really like those explanations. It’s fantastic to learn that the primal order in german is the side one. Amazing.

carlalwert

You are amazing.

garrydolley
garrydolley

To think about side sentence structure as being the actually “main” structure, and the main structure as being a variation of *that*, with extra slots 1 and 2, is really a remarkable way of looking at things. I’ve never thought about it that way, but it makes sense! It’s like the grand unified theory, but for German grammar. One unifying rule.

Rick Franz
Rick Franz

I found the explanation of side sentence vs main really interesting as well! I took 2 years of German in high school and 2 in college. I don’t recall anything about this from that time. I’ve been reviewing my German after many years. I love these detailed explanations for their insight and “scientific” accounting. There IS some logic to language if you look hard enough for it!

Bilal
Bilal

Oh, thank you! I always have problems concerning the position of “nicht” in the sentence. But this article helped me a lot, and I’m waiting for the next part. :)

Because the German embassy and German institutes are not available now in my country Syria, this makes the internet my only means to get educated. I have been following this blog for more than a year. But I was sad when I read that it is no longer available for free. So I send an email explaining my situation, and I was offered this free account for a year, which I’m using it right now.

So I would like to thank all the those who make this happen. This is much appreciated. They remind us that there are still good people out there. :)
Thank you so much. :)

Luli
Luli

Thanks for caring changing the colors. Helps a lot for visual memory! You are Great :)

DantesDame

For me, the “scenery” explanation was the clearest. I need to go back and re-read the side sentence part again. That concept is completely new to me, so it wasn´t absorbed quite so easily. And once again, I am delighted with the information that you present and how you present it. Perhaps some day you can take all of your posts and combine them into a book; making some REAL money for your efforts!

I also love the bolding/colors – it helps nuance an otherwise flat lesson. Although to nitpick, it sometimes drives me nuts when the italics, etc, either don´t include the entire word, or bleed over to an adjoining letter :) But that´s just the obsessive in me coming out. Pay me no heed!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Diese ist toll! Danke, noch mal. Ich bin noch ein Anfänger, aber diese hilft!!

Jennifer, wir sprechen Deutsch en Houston! :)

Yashar
Yashar

Hodor…rofl =D

Hazem shamma
Hazem shamma

I have decoverd your site lately and i congratulate you for you huge effort.
i have question concerning the sentence
“Ich bin mit Maria im zoo nicht” which you considered as a super wrong sentence, don’t you think that this negates all your theory about side and main sentences, which you have used to justify the position of nicht at the end of sentence??

Anonymous
Anonymous

You are milking it too much. You just complicate things further.

Antonio Bazzo

to be rigorous is sometimes painful. But that was some pretty damn good painful milking to me