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I understand that objects expressed by pronouns usually go in front of "nicht" and objects expressed by a noun or a pronoun with a preposition usually go after "nicht", but what should I do with direct objects expressed by nouns?

I've heard that it can depend on whether the whole sentence or part of the sentence is being negated, but although that's clear with textbook examples, it gets more complicated in real-life situations. For example, here are some examples of negative sentences with direct objects expressed by nouns, some of which have "nicht" before the noun, and some after.

Before:

  • Im Sommer kann sie nicht ihr langes Programm machen.
  • Er konnte nicht dem Druck überwinden, dem die Föderation ihn unterwarf.
  • Ich verstand nicht den Großteil ihres Gespräches.
  • Es gefällt mir auch nicht, dass Frodo nicht den Ring ins Feuer werfen konnte.

After:

  • Er hat das Verspechen noch nicht erfüllt.
  • Nun hatte ich den Erzähler nicht gern.
  • Ich muß eingestehen, dass ich Sofie nicht bedauere, weil ich die Leute nicht bedauern kann, die sich nicht bedauern.
  • Andererseits bedaure ich Isabel, obwohl ich viel Geld oder einen hohen Stellenwert nicht brauche, aber sie brauchte es und ich bedaure sie, dass sie jene und ihre Liebe auch nicht haben konnte.
  • Ich denke, dass sie das Buch von Le Guin nicht gelesen haben mag.
  • Ich werde diese letzte Stunde nicht besuchen können.

I understand that it's not an easy question even for native speakers to answer, since it's not something they learn consciously, but if somebody happened to know why "nicht" is placed where it is in these examples and could explain it to me, so that I'd know how to place it in the future, I'd be very grateful.

marked as duplicate by Hubert Schölnast, clemens, IQV, user259412, Jan Dec 15 '17 at 9:44

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  • It's never after some object, it's always before some part of the sentence. See e.g. german.stackexchange.com/questions/36760/… – dirkt Dec 14 '17 at 20:55
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    In German grammar there is nothing like direct or indirect objects. We have dative objects, accusative objects, genitive objects, prepositional objects and under certain circumstances even nominative objects. But if you look into any German grammar book, you never will find the terms direct object or indirect object. – Hubert Schölnast Dec 14 '17 at 21:24
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    @HubertSchölnast Any English or French speaker who studied basic grammar is familiar with the terms direct and indirect object. These are concepts they can apply to the German language. They only need to learn that a direct object takes the accusative and an indirect the dative. The fact that Germans don't use these terms is irrelevant for them. – PiedPiper Dec 14 '17 at 23:40
  • @HubertSchölnast And I'm sorry: I meant German speakers and not Germans – PiedPiper Dec 14 '17 at 23:49
  • Thank you for responding. I had tried to find an answer to this question both on this forum and on the Internet in general before posting here. I've had various questions regarding German grammar as I was learning the language, and usually I could find the answer already there. However, in this case, although it's clear to me in case of simple textbook-like phrases, it's not so clear-cut in real-life more complex phrases. – Rose Dec 15 '17 at 3:20
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In many cases you can simply change the position of the "nicht" and the meaning of the sentence is still the same.

However the difference seems (I'm not absolutely sure) to be that you deny the word which is following the word "nicht":

Im Sommer kann sie nicht ihr langes Programm machen.

... however she can do something different.

Sie kann ihr langes Programm nicht im Sommer machen.

... however she can do it in other times of the year.

Im Sommer macht nicht sie ihr langes Programm.

... however someone different does it.

Denying the verb is a bit more complex: if a sentence does not contain an infinitive nor an auxiliary verb you put the "nicht" at the end of the sentence; otherwise you put it in front of the infinitive or participle:

Sie macht das Programm nicht.

Sie hat das Programm nicht gemacht.

Sie will das Programm nicht machen.

(Note: For "separable verbs" like "einkaufen" it is a bit more complex.)

To deny the entire sentence you typically deny the verb.

At least for all of your examples this works. In all these examples you could move the word "nicht" into another position to deny another part of the sentence.

However the following example is interesting:

... dass Frodo den Ring ins Feuer nicht werfen konnte. (Wrong?)

It seems to sound very strange when denying the (non-separable) verb in a sentence containing a preposition (here "ins"). Therefore the translator of the story denied the word "ring" to deny the entire sentence and not the verb.

I myself however would have denied the part "into the fire" to deny the entire sentence:

... dass Frodo den Ring nicht ins Feuer werfen konnte.

So you have a perfect example where two different native speakers would put the word "nicht" in a different position.


By the way:

Er konnte nicht dem Druck überwinden, dem die Föderation ihn unterwarf.

I'm not absolutely sure but I think that the first "dem" should be "den" because the verb "überwinden" is formed with an accussative. The second "dem" however seems to be correct: It is used with the verb "unterwerfen" which is requires a dative here:

Er konnte nicht den Druck überwinden, dem die Föderation ihn unterwarf.

  • Thank you very much! That's really helpful. I think I get it now. – Rose Dec 15 '17 at 16:09
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German allows much more freedom in the word order than English. Still, there is often a more commonly used word order, and changes from that can be used to convey (sometimes only nuanced) emphases.

Regarding the Before and After examples in the question, the After form is the more common one. To my native ears, all of the Before examples would also sound slightly more natural if they were changed to the After form, i.e., placing the nicht before the verb at the end of the clause or, in absence of an verb at the end, right at the end of the clause. As such, the nicht modifies not the object, but the predicate of the sentence:

  • Im Sommer konnte sie ihr langes Programm nicht machen.
  • Er konnte den Druck nicht überwinden, dem die Förderation ihn unterwarf.
  • Ich verstand den Großteil ihres Gespräches nicht.
  • Es gefällt mir auch nicht, dass Frodo den Ring nicht ins Feuer werfen konnte.

The Before form suggests an emphasis to the part of the sentence following the nicht. E.g.,

  • Im Sommer konnte sie nicht ihr langes Programm machen. Sie musste sich auf das kurze Programm beschränken.
  • Er konnte nicht den Druck überwinden, dem die Föderation ihn unterwarf. Die moralische Fragwürdigkeit seiner geplanten Handlung hätte ihn hingegen nicht aufgehalten.
  • Ich verstand nicht den Großteil ihres Gesprächs. Aber ich verstand sehr wohl, dass sie wütend über ihre Situation waren.
  • Es gefällt mir auch nicht, dass Frodo nicht den Ring ins Feuer werfen konnte. Er konnte ja alle möglichen anderen Dinge ins Feuer werfen.
  • Can the downvote please be explained? – Georg Dec 15 '17 at 12:09
  • I'm also confused why somebody voted it down. Personally I've found your reply very helpful. Thank you very much! – Rose Dec 15 '17 at 16:09

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