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The position of 'nicht' in a sentence has always been a thing that troubles beginners and not-so-beginners. There are pretty vague rules, online and in the grammar books that I've read, that help you determine the position in most cases. Usually the rule is like, "This is where nicht goes in most cases, but there are exceptions." and I've found that the exception list is usually pretty significant in size. The response to this is, "well, you just have to pick it up as you go along." In general, it's understood that 'nicht' can jump around a bit, and it's just one of those things that you get used to.

I wondered if there was a better way. I took a sample of different sentence forms that contain 'nicht', and broke those sentences down into a 'component form'. For example:

"Sie arbeitet nicht" = s v N

"Er kennt diese verdammte Rasse nicht." = s v o N

where s is the subject, v is the conjugated verb, N is 'nicht', and o is an object. This way, I could get a clearer view of the sentence forms and where 'nicht' fits in this scheme. I included symbols for participles, infinitives, indirect objects, and so on.

After a long process of sorting and pattern matching, I came up with rules that seemed to fit the most situations, and then improved the rules to cover all my samples. Here's the current ruleset:

1.  Put nicht after the conjugated verb and its subject.
2.  Does the verb have an object that comes after it (direct or indirect)?  
        yes: go to 3.
        no:  go to 6.
3.  Does the object have attachments (adjectives, adverbs, preps) and/or is this group long (3+ words)?
        yes: go to 4.
        no:  go to 5.
4.  If the objects come after the verb, move nicht before the objects and their attachments. Go to 6.
5.  Move nicht after the objects. Go to 6.
6.  Is the verb followed by an adverb?
        yes: go to 7.
        no:  go to 10.
7.  Is the adverb non-chronological?
        yes: go to 8.
        no:  go to 9.
8.  Move nicht before the adverb. Go to 10.
9.  Move nicht after the adverb. Go to 10.
10. Done.

I want you guys to find sentences that contradict the ruleset, so I can improve it, and also I'd like to hear opinions on how to make the ruleset easier to read. The phrase "non-chronological" still irks me, and I'd like a better term.

Here are some worked examples.

(Asterisk marks the current position of nicht in the process.)
Sample sentence: Die Katze regte sich.
Step 1:  Die Katze regte * sich.
Step 2:  yes
Step 3:  no
Step 5:  Die Katze regte sich *.
Step 6:  no
Step 10: Die Katze regte sich nicht.


Sample sentence: Auf dem Tisch liegt es.
Step 1:  Auf dem Tisch liegt es *.
Step 2:  no
Step 3:  no
Step 10: Auf dem Tisch liegt es nicht.


Sample sentence: Gibt der Schüler dem Lehrer die Leseliste?
Step 1:  Gibt der Schüler * dem Lehrer die Leseliste?
Step 2:  yes
Step 3:  no
Step 5:  Gibt der Schüler dem Lehrer die Leseliste *?
Step 6:  no
Step 10: Gibt der Schüler dem Lehrer die Leseliste nicht?

This ruleset is only for 'nicht' when it's applied to the verb, not when it applies to an adjective. For instance, in the sentence

Erzürnt stellte Mr. Dursley fest, dass einige von ihnen überhaupt nicht Jung waren

'nicht' is attached to 'jung'. So in that case, nicht just goes with the adjective.

Also, it's to be understood that this is for 'nicht phrases' too, like 'noch nicht', 'überhaupt nicht', etc.

I look forward to your constructive feedback.

UPDATE!

I've taken your feedback and counterexamples into consideration and I've updated and simplified the ruleset. Here is the new version:

In a main clause, put nicht:
    - after the verb and the subject
    - if objects come after the verb: after a 'short object' and before a 'long object'.
    - before a non-chrono adverb and after all other adverbs.

In a subclause, put nicht:
    - after the subject
    - after a 'short object' and before a 'long object'
    - before a non-chrono adverb and after all other adverbs.


A long object is an object that has attachments (adjectives, adverbs, preps)
and/or is long (3+ words). A short object is an object without attachments.

The only counterexample it doesn't work for, is dirkt's "Ich kann nicht Fahrrad fahren". It still wants to put 'nicht' after 'Fahrrad'.

Nevertheless, this ruleset works for significantly more cases than any other general rules I've seen elsewhere. For those of us that see the value of rules, I'd recommend learning those above until the magical omniglot unicorn blesses you with the gift of intuition.

  • You are aware that the second sentence in your first example is not German and would have the nicht in the wrong position if It was? – Carsten S Jun 30 '16 at 22:36
  • race=die Rasse / das Rennen, thus "Er kennt dieses verdammte Rennen nicht." or "Er kennt diese verdammte Rasse nicht." The "nicht" at the end is the correct use in this case although "Er kennt nicht ..." is also used. As native speaker it sounds a bit ... well ... "unwieldy" :) – user22338 Jul 1 '16 at 7:31
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    And I must add I'm not a fan of complicated rulesets - German is not a language like Latin where most people you communicate with are long dead - They will wait for an answer in communication, and you will just not have enough time to work through all of your rules. Practising and continued rehearsal, preferably with native speakers, to allow your intuition to learn and decide where "nicht" belongs, will get you much further than any ruleset. – tofro Jul 1 '16 at 7:46
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    @tofro, the bloody living, always so impatient! – Carsten S Jul 1 '16 at 8:04
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    @KorganRivera In all languages I have learnt so far, my personal experience was: Practice is way better than rules. You can even get practice by reading foreign books ore articles. For me, learning a language based on complicated rules simply doesn't work. – tofro Jul 2 '16 at 17:06
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I prefer the following, much simpler ruleset:

"Nicht" is always placed in front of the part of the sentence it negates.

The same applies to some other adverbs like "auch".

There are two caveats:

1) Sometimes a long phrase or expression is negated, then "nicht" is placed in front of the whole expression, and it can be ambigous if just the first part of the expression is negated, or the whole expression.

Example:

"Fahrrad fahren" -> "Ich kann nicht Fahrrad fahren" 

(and not "Ich kann Fahrrad nicht fahren")

2) While verbs generally stack in reverse order, in a main clause, the conjugated verb can be thought of as moved from the end to the second position. The same applies when a verb or an expression containing verb(s) is negated. The consequence is that when the conjugated verb itself is negated, "nicht" is placed at the end, and when a whole phrase is negated, "nicht" is placed at the beginning of the phrase, even though the verb belonging to the phrase is in second position and no longer at the end of this phrase. It also means that "nicht" can never be in front of the conjugated verb in a main clause.

You can see the effect when you add auxiliaries or use a subclause:

Example ("nicht sehen"):

Ich sehe dich nicht
Ich kann dich nicht sehen
..., weil ich dich nicht sehe.
..., weil ich dich nicht sehen kann. 

All three of your example sentence just negate the verb, so "nicht" is in final position in the main clause:

Die Katze regte sich nicht.
Die Katze kann sich nicht regen.
..., weil die Katze sich nicht regt.

Auf dem Tisch liegt es nicht.
Auf dem Tisch darf es nicht liegen.
..., weil es auf dem Tisch nicht liegt.

This negates "liegen", more natural would be to negate the whole phrase "auf dem Tisch liegen":

Es liegt nicht auf dem Tisch.
Es darf nicht auf dem Tisch liegen.
..., weil es nicht auf dem Tisch liegt.

And so on. Of course you can also negate other parts in all these examples.

  • 2
    The ruls is simple and right. And though, it doesn't work. If it would fit, you'd say "Es nicht liegt auf dem Tisch" because, as you say, you negate the whole phrase "auf dem Tisch liegen". You also don't put it at the end of the sentence as in the other examples. While the object "dich" and the reflexive "sich" were still before "nicht", the prepositional phrase "auf dem Tisch" follows "nicht". So, even the "final position exception" doesn't apply. That clearly shows, that it's not so simple as it seems. – Em1 Jul 1 '16 at 7:20
  • @dirkt My first rule used to be "put nicht after the conjugated verb's 'rightful position' ", which would have worked for your examples, but I changed it because I forgot about the sub-clauses situation. Thanks for pointing it out. – Korgan Rivera Jul 2 '16 at 0:24
  • @eEm1: No, it doesn't fit "Es nicht liegt auf dem Tisch". Maybe I explained it badly, and I'd like suggestion for improvements, but either you negate "liegen", then it's "Es liegt auf dem Tisch nicht" (which is awkward, because you don't negate the whole phrase), or you negate "auf dem Tisch liegen", then it's "Es liegt nicht auf dem Tisch". In both cases, "liegen" moves from the end to the second position, so there can never be anything in front of "liegt" in a main clause. I don't really understand the rest of your comments. – dirkt Jul 2 '16 at 5:38
  • @Em1: Tried to add some explanation to the 2nd caveat to explain what seems to cause your misunderstanding, please have a look. – dirkt Jul 2 '16 at 5:52
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I like your ruleset!

There is another pretty usual case that I would recommend to add:

"It's not x, but y"-sentences are missing at the moment. In this case the position of "nicht" is changing to the beginning, although the sentence has just a small subordinate clause added. In the spoken language the repositioning of "nicht" is used to emphasize the subjects of main- and sub-clause.

Nicht auf dem Tisch liegt das Buch, sondern auf dem Boden.

(Bold words are accentuated) As you can see the "nicht" went from the end to the beginning. But here comes the tricky part: You could also write it like this:

Das Buch liegt nicht auf dem Tisch, sondern auf dem Boden.

This example is also accentuating the subjects but it's not that expressive as the first one. Both sentences are meaning the completly same thing. It is important how you say it and how strongly you want to emphasize that the book is not laying on the table, but on the ground.

It is way too complicated to understand for beginners, but later on you should have heard from this method to express same things differently.

  • I think it's a good catch, noting that "nicht" can go in the first position. However, you put it there for emphasis and it's not the 'normal' position it takes. You're kinda coming from your second clause (with "nicht" amid of "liegen" and "auf...", and then you move it to the beginning and arrange the word order to keep a natural German word order. In that respect, I don't think it should be added to the ruleset. But still, it was worth noting it. – Em1 Jul 1 '16 at 7:24
  • @Em1 I agree. So long as the ruleset can put 'nicht' into a grammatically legitimate position, and preferably the most likely position, then it works. But yeah, iLLogical's catch is useful. – Korgan Rivera Jul 2 '16 at 0:12
  • @iLLogical thanks for your feedback. My ruleset works with your second example, and it would turn your first sentence into "auf dem Tisch liegt das Buch nicht" which is still grammatically legitimate. My goal is to make a ruleset that can place 'nicht' into a grammatically correct position with the least steps. If, after that, a writer or speaker wishes to move it elsewhere for emphasis, that's great too. The ruleset will still have worked. – Korgan Rivera Jul 2 '16 at 0:33

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