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This question reminded me of a question that I met when learning German, and I still kind of have it.

What are the differences between these words usage? I thought that "nicht" was used to "deny verbs", while "kein" was used for nouns, but I've met some exceptions (I can't recall any at the moment), and this theory kind of "failed".

So my questions are:

  • Which are the main guidelines (dos and dont's) to use these two words?
  • What are the exceptions?

If someone has some more points to ask on this topic that I forgot about, feel free to write a comment and we'll see if it's the case to include them (to make this question as complete as possible).

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This reminds me of the old joke from GDR times, a constumer asking in a department store: "Gibt's hier keine Hosen?" The answer: "Keine Hosen gibt's im 2. Stock, hier gibt's keine Mäntel." (If you understand this, you have mastered the usage of kein.) – Hendrik Vogt Jun 10 '11 at 10:29
@HendrikVogt: Could you explain the joke? Are there coats on the second floor? – Tim Nov 20 '11 at 10:24
@Tim: No, there aren't. And that's the point! Does this help? – Hendrik Vogt Nov 22 '11 at 14:24
@HendrikVogt: Yes, thank you :) – Tim Nov 22 '11 at 16:44
@ HendrickVogt — One of the best jokes ever... – Martin Schwehla Jan 31 '15 at 1:03
up vote 20 down vote accepted

Ich bin nicht der Bademeister, ich bin ein Gast.

translates to

I'm not the pool attendant. I'm a guest.


Ich bin kein Bademeister, ich bin Gast.

translates to

I'm no pool attendant, I'm guest.

The difference, from my understanding, is that at least in this particular exception the first sentence could be said by a pool assistant without lying.

Kein states explicitly that in the past, at the moment and in the foreseeable future I'm not going to be a pool assistant.

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Is the emphatic difference also registered in German? Reading "I'm no pool attendant, I'm guest." sounds much more emphatic. – kmm Jun 21 '11 at 22:24
Yes............ – Max Ried Jun 22 '11 at 6:33
Well, "nicht" refers to "sein" and "kein" to "Bademeister" - so the notion that '"nicht" was used to "deny verbs", while "kein" was used for nouns' remains true. The correct comparisons - as far as meaning is concerned - would be 'Ich bin nicht Bademeister' vs. 'Ich bin kein Bademeister' or 'Ich bin nicht der Bademeister, ich bin Gast' vs. 'Ich bin kein hier angestellter Bademeister [but it could still be my occupation], ich bin Gast', respectively. – Olaf Jan 5 '12 at 16:48

"Kein(e)(s,r)" is used to negate undefined nouns or pronouns:

Ich habe keine Wohnung. (instead of: Ich habe nicht eine Wohnung)

Keiner sah es. (instead of: nicht einer sah es)

You can, however, use the second expression (in brackets) if you want to emphasize that there is not even one thing of a kind:

Nicht einer meiner Freunde kam zur Party. (not even one friend came to the party)

If you keep to this I think you should get along very well. Of course, there are some "special expressions", but for them look up the Duden.

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This answer is much better. – Alex Herman Nov 2 '14 at 15:49

A sample would help. The distinction is similar to English:

Ich bin kein Trinker. Ich trinke nicht.

is similar to

I'm no drinker. I do not drink.

Although in English you could also use "I'm not a drinker", but here the not qualifies the verb instead of the noun.

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When negating something else than a noun, always use nicht.

When negating a noun, there are some guidelines:

Use kein if what you are negating is

  • a noun with which you would use ein if not negating

    Nein, das ist kein BMW.

  • a noun not preceded by any article

    Nein, ich spreche kein Schwedisch.

Use nicht if what you are negating is

  • a noun preceded by der/das/die.

    Nein, das ist nicht die Lehrerin.

  • a noun preceded by a possessive pronoun (e.g. mein, dein etc.)

    Nein, das ist nicht meine Zeitung.

  • a proper noun (i.e. a name)

    Nein, ich heiße nicht Otto.

There are some exceptions, where nouns can be seen as verb prefixes:

Ski laufen, Auto fahren, Tennis spielen and similar can be seen as verbs rather than one noun and one verb. In these cases, the noun is so closely linked to the verb that it is seen as one unit. In cases like these, the negation follows negation of verbs:

Nein, ich kann nicht Ski laufen.

Nein, ich fahre nicht Auto.

Nein, ich spiele nicht Tennis.

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Ich bin kein Otto would be unusual (it implies that certain qualities in a person are related to that name, instead of it simply being a name), but grammatically correct. Also, Ich spiele kein Tennis or Ich fahre kein Auto are correct as well, and -- according to a non-representative survey among my colleagues -- more frequent and natural than Ich spiele nicht Tennis [...] – Raketenolli May 27 '15 at 16:10

I believe that "nicht" means "not" and "kein" means "no(ne)." (While "nichts" means nothing.)

"Ich bin ein Dichter nicht." I am NOT a poet.

"Ich bin kein Dichter." I am NO poet (not to any great degree, anyway).

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You're right with your first sentence (which is also implicit in the other two answers). However, "Ich bin ein Dichter nicht" is not a German sentence. I'd say it's impossible to change the word order to make a sentence out of it that sounds natural. The Right Thing here is "Ich bin kein Dichter". – Hendrik Vogt Jun 14 '11 at 6:17
Auch "Ich habe nicht Geld" is not a German sentence, whereas "Ich habe kein Geld" is. What you can indeed say, similar to the famous Mackie Messer phrase you cited, "Ein Dichter bin ich nicht." So my claim in my first comment was wrong (i.e., it is possible to change the word order appropriately). But please note that the emphasis in "Ein Dichter bin ich nicht" is completely different from the emphasis in "Ich bin kein Dichter". – Hendrik Vogt Jun 14 '11 at 13:37

Ich weiß dies geht:

„Ich brauche keinen Schlafsack“.

Vielleicht geht:

„Einen Schlafsack brauche ich nicht“

... als ob ich niemals einen Schlafsack brauchte? Klingt mir besser wie „Ich brauche Schlafsäcke nicht“.

Aber wie sieht es mit neun Schlafsäcken aus?

„Ich brauche keine neun Schlafsäcke“

Das klingt mir nicht richtig, aber ist es wohl.

Gibt's vielleicht so einen Sinn?

„Neun Schlafsäcke brauche ich nicht“

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Hope I didn't change too much of the original meaning by my edits. – Takkat Nov 21 '11 at 7:42
Is this a question or an answer, diN0bot? – John Smithers Nov 21 '11 at 10:45

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