A question came to my mind while I was reading a conversation in German:

Ich bin krank,

  • Ich kann nicht einkaufen.
  • Ich kann nicht mit Jonas zum Arzt gehen.
  • Ich kann Anna nicht in den Kindergarten bringen.
  • Ich kann Jonas' Lehrer nicht anrufen.

Why does the place of "nicht" change? Does it depend on which verb you want to make negative? Is this the difference between "kann nicht jemand anrufen" and "kann jemand nicht anrufen"?

Why not:

Ich kann nicht Jonas' Lehrer anrufen.
Ich kann nicht Anna in den Kindergarten bringen.


3 Answers 3


First of all, it is important to note, that 'nicht' can either negate a complete sentence or a verb or a noun with a definite article.

If you negate the whole sentence, as in: the whole statement is false, 'nicht' wants to go to the last position in the sentence, as in:

Schläfst du schon? - Nein, ich schlafe noch nicht. (Sonst würde ich nicht antworten.)

The problem with this starts, when there is another element in the sentence, that also wants to go to the last position, for example a Partizip II (or any other secondary verb), these are stronger and beat 'nicht' in the fight for the last position, as in:

Hast du schon geschlafen? - Nein, ich habe noch nicht geschlafen.

And also modal additions:

Schläfst du oft? - Nein, ich schlafe nicht so oft.

The same goes for additions with prepositions:

Liegt das Buch auf dem Tisch? - Nein, es liegt nicht auf dem Tisch.

Although, if the prepositional addition is on position one, nicht still wants to go to the end of the sentence

Liegt das Buch auf dem Tisch? - Nein, auf dem Tisch liegt es nicht.

In these cases, 'nicht' can never be on position 1 of the sentence.

If 'nicht' negates a verb or a noun with a definite article, in other words, the subject, an object and so on, 'nicht' stands in front of that element. This is the case, when the statement itself is true, but one element isn't.

In addition, one would generally offer an alternative in these cases with 'sondern' Also, in these cases, 'nicht' may be on position 1.

Nicht Thorsten, sondern Kai ist vor dem Bildschirm eingeschlafen.

Uwe hat mir nicht seinen Computer geliehen, sondern den von seiner Schwester.

Danach hat er nicht nur eine Flasche Bier getrunken, sondern gleich drei.


Here I found a good answer: (Plus Debilski's comment)

  • Nicht is an Adverb

Nicht is an adverb, and so you will always find it either before or after a verb, adjective or fellow adverb. It usually precedes an adverb or an adjective, but likes to settle after conjugated verbs.

Ich trinke nicht meine Limonade.

  • Nicht and Declarative Sentences

On the other hand, nicht likes to travel all the way to the end of a sentence at times. This happens most often with declarative sentences.

Er hilft mir nicht.

The same applies with simple yes/no questions:

Gibt der Schüler den Lehrer die Leseliste nicht?

  • Nicht and Separable and Compound Verbs:

  • With verbs, nicht will bounce around a bit depending on the type of verb:

  • Nicht will be positioned right before a verb prefix in a sentence containing a separable verb.

Wir gehen heute nicht einkaufen.

  • Nicht will be positioned right before an infinitive or infinitives that is part of a verbal combination.

Du sollst nicht schlafen.

Du wirst jetzt nicht schlafen gehen. (You are not going to sleep now.)

  • Nicht and Adverbs of Time:

The adverbs of time that have a chronological logic to them, will usually be followed by nicht. These are adverbs such as : gestern (yesterday), heute (today), morgen (tomorrow), früher (earlier), später (later).

Sie ist gestern nicht mitgekommen.

  • Contrarily, adverbs of time that do not have a chronological logic to them will be preceded by nicht.

Er wird nicht sofort kommen.

  • With all other adverbs, nicht is usually positioned directly before them.

Simone fährt nicht langsam genug.

  • Nicht will usually precede:

    1. adverbs of time that cannot be organized chronologically

    2. all other adverbs

    3. verbs

    4. separable verb prefix

    5. verb infinitives

    6. adjectives

    7. prepositional phrases

  • 3
    I have to say that I disagree with this explanation and I think it is confusing and twisted. The list in the end contains pretty much everything a sentence is made of except for subject and direct object and well ... nicht may precede these too at times. The bold statement in the beginning that nicht is in the vicinity of a verb or adjective or adverb is just not right and I can think of a million examples that prove otherwise... and after all... there is no real rule here. It just says that nicht may be here or there or even there when that one condition is met. No downvote but I repudiate
    – Emanuel
    Apr 7, 2012 at 20:38
  • 2
    Strange, as a German I would always say Ich trinke meine Limonade nicht
    – stacky-bit
    Feb 17, 2013 at 18:37
  • 1
    Gibt der Schüler dem Lehrer die Leseliste nicht?
    – stacky-bit
    Feb 17, 2013 at 18:41

Is it related to the case of the construct after nicht? Sometimes it is related to the meaning of the sentence:

Ich kann nicht einkaufen.

That is the regular way to say it.

Ich kann nicht mit Jonas zum Arzt gehen.

That means that you could go to the doctor with someone else, but not with Jonas (because you dont like him for example)

Ich kann mit Jonas nicht zum Arzt gehen.

That just means that you cant go to the doctor, even with Jonas (maybe your child?).

Ich kann Jonas' Lehrer nicht anrufen

That seems pretty normal. You would say it, for example, in a situation where your phone doesnt work.

Ich kann nicht Jonas' Lehrer anrufen.

That feels to me like there is something missing in that sentence. Like a reason why you can't do it.

Maybe it depends on if you can remove a part of the sentence and still have nearly the same meaning:

Ich kann nicht (mit Jonas) zum Arzt gehen.

There is a reason why you cant go with Jonas.

Ich kann mit Jonas nicht zum Arzt gehen.

You just cant go.

  • I'm not sure if it's right about my example. the person is sick and don't have ability to do his/her daily duties.
    – user508
    Jun 6, 2011 at 22:35
  • I agree with your 1st sentence: it feels to me like there still is someting missing. But i dont get your 2nd sentence. What does a sick person have to do with you not having the ability to fulfill their daly duties?
    – Matthias
    Jun 6, 2011 at 22:41
  • As I read in that book, someone is sick and doesn't have the ability to do his/her daily duties. So, he/she is asking if anybody can do them instead. "Ich kann nicht mit Jonas zum Arzt gehen." doesn't mean here that he/she can with someone else but not Jonas.
    – user508
    Jun 6, 2011 at 22:47
  • 6
    I see it entirely the other way around. The "job" is to take Jonas to the doctor, right? To me "Ich kann nicht mit Jonas zum Arzt gehen" sounds like "I can't make it to the doctor" (with no emphasis on Jonas) whereas taking him out of the action in "Ich kann mit Jonas nicht zum Arzt gehen" conveys the impression that I can't go to the doctor because of Jonas - "Ich kann mit Jonas nicht zum Arzt gehen, mit Anna aber schon." Jun 7, 2011 at 6:37
  • 2
    @Tim Pietzcker; @Gigili: It can be dangerous to draw such implications from written text. It may mean one or the other, if it is being said however, you can convey the different meanings by using an appropriate intonation.
    – phant0m
    Jun 23, 2011 at 0:28

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