A text I am studying has the following sentence,

Eine freie Presse gab es nicht.

This contradicts everything I thought I understood about creating negative sentences in German. Surely the correct way to put this sentence is

Es gab keine freie Presse.

  • 19
    Compare English: There was no free press / A free press did not exist.
    – RHa
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 9:36
  • 3
    @RHa Or for slightly more purple-prose effect: "A free press it was not!"
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 16:40

6 Answers 6


A nicht at the end of a clause means the verb in second position is negated. So, in

Eine freie Presse gab es nicht.

the predicate is nicht geben. That's slightly different from

Es gab keine freie Presse.

where eine freie Presse is negated.

In your example, there is little semantic difference. The reason why the first form was used is the special position in front of the clause. It's the topic. The alternative

Keine freie Presse gab es.

which has the negated freie Presse as the topic sounds off. There's even a pun using that for effect:

In a former GDR Kaufhaus:

Haben Sie denn keine Schuhe? — Hier gibt's keine Hosen. Keine Schuhe gibt's dahinten.

  • 9
    Einer meiner liebsten Witze! :)
    – Olafant
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 5:29
  • 1
    Good analysis of "negated verb" vs. "negated object". One difference between the two is that you can have a mix of negated and unnegated objects with the same verb: "Es gab Hosen, Pullover, aber keine Schuhe." Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 13:56
  • It's been too long since I was around German people. I love that joke!
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 16:40

Both sentences are right. It's a matter of emphasis. If you hear a sentence starting with

Eine freie Presse ...

your expectation is: Ah, we are talking about freedom of speech now. What about free press? Well

... gab es nicht.

Oh. That's bad. If the sentence starts with

Es gab keine ...

then it's more about was es gab and was es nicht gab.

I guess you already know that word order in German is pretty free. Different word order is almost always about emphasis.


Put simply, it's this: nicht means the verb doesn't. kein means the noun isn't. So both those sample sentences are correct -- either the free press does not exist, or there isn't a free press.

  • That is a remarkably useful and appreciated insight. Thank you.
    – user40290
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 23:32

Basically in the sentence

Eine freie Presse gab es nicht.

The "nicht" negates the Verb "gab" besically claiming nonexistence. While

Es gab keine freie Presse.

uses "keine" to count the amount of "Pressen" and therfore claiming the existence of none.

In practice those are one and the same, you simply need to remember that "kein/keine/etc." are counting the noun associated. While "nicht" is basically saying "this sentence without nicht is wrong".


As far as I remember you use kein(e) when the subject of negation has no article (definite or indefinite), just like in your example.

Verbs are a perfect example of such use cases.


it's not just about word order. nicht and kein are different words. gab es is a kind of impassive, middle voice (whatever) and this allows for very different interpretations of "es" and the focus of the negative polarity item. If press is in subject position, it must exist in principle and can't be negated later; that's why a proxy, the indefinite pronoun es has to be used in an alternate construction.

In practice there is not always a notable difference, if the constructions are freely interpreted. @Janka's explanation is on point for the general difference between nicht and keine.

I'd say either:

the free press if there was any wasn't given any room;

the room if there was any didn't bear the free press

of course this shifts the problem to one about the metaphorical Freiräume, Schutzräume, etc. and the agentless passive "wasn't given".

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