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As a beginner, I am confused about the usage of kein and nicht. Consider these sentences:

  1. Ich spreche kein Deutsch.
  2. Ich spreche nicht Deutsch.
  3. Deutsch spreche ich nicht.

Some sources have told me that (1) and (3) are correct, while (2) is wrong because we must use kein to negate a noun. However, it seems to me that (2) can be read as if nicht is negating the verb instead of the noun. Wouldn't it make it right? If it doesn't, why would (3) be right, since it is essentially the same as (2)?

Also, my thoughts are reinforced by what I have understood of this stack post.

I want to know, therefore, if (2) is really wrong or if it is just uncommon, and how it relates to (3).

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None of the examples is grammatically wrong, but they have different connotations.

Sentence (1) is the way to express that you don't know any German or at least not enough for a conversation.

Sentence (2) means that you aren't speaking German at the moment. Example :

"Sprichst Du Italienisch?" "Nein, ich spreche nicht Italienisch. Ich telefoniere gerade auf Spanisch mit einem Kunden aus Kolumbien."
(I've replaced German by another language to make the dialog sound more plausible.)

Sentence (3) places a strong accent on the first word. It might imply a refusal to speak German (because your ex-husband was German, ...).

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  • Thank you for replying! I get it now. Both correct, but for different situations. Following your answer about (3), would it have a different meaning if written as "Deutsch ich spreche kein."? – Ashitaka Apr 26 at 16:03
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    @Ashitaka: "Deutsch ich spreche kein" is simply wrong. Not even this guy would speak that way. – Frank from Frankfurt Apr 27 at 17:00
  • HAHAHAHA! Alright, everything is clear now. Thank you for everything! – Ashitaka Apr 28 at 2:30
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One and two are both correct. Only difference is that ”kein” refers to ”Deutsch”, whereas ”nicht” refers to ”sprechen”.

Use ”kein” for anything you could express as a quantity. If you are speaking of something that can only be expressed as a quality (rather than quantity), then use ”nicht”.

Example for ”nicht”: ”Ich kann nicht Auto fahre”. Example for ”kein”: ”Ich besitze kein Auto”.

The third example is also correct, but you have change the words in the sentence (”Satzglieder umstellen” = change sentence elements). Example: ”Ich mag Äpfel” you can also say ”Äpfel mag ich” and it means the same. Change sentence element in german

In this question it is explain the different between ”kein” and ”nicht”

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  • Thank you for your reply! If i use kein for anything I could express as a quantity, why would it be applied to German speaking? I mean, how "speaking German" is countable or can be seen as quantified? – Ashitaka Apr 26 at 15:59
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English has a subtle change:

not a X
no    X

German also, but at the other end. Not the NICH is kept, but the indefinite article EIN:

nicht ein X
     kein X

And therefore it gets dekliniert, and it still carries the double meaning of "a" and "one".

Ich spreche nicht Deutsch.

This is very short and technical. It implies some sort of "correctly", or "enough".

Just shove in an adverb. Then "nicht" will relate to that, and both together to the verb:

Ich spreche nicht gut Deutsch

The other way round:

Ich spreche kein gutes Deutsch

(this again implies some categories - sounds formal)


The border between noun and verb can be blurred:

I am not a thief.
I am no thief.


Ich bin nicht ein Verbrecher.
Ich bin kein Verbrecher.

In German, the second form is standard. The first form is either quite wrong, or just a bit, or may be used to emphasize.


Ich fahre nicht Auto. 
Ich fahre kein Auto.

This is another tricky case. "Autofahren" is as much a verb as "ein Auto fahren" means to regularly use a car.

The first one can mean "I am not car-driving right now", the second one "I drive no car".

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  • Also possible: Ich spreche nicht Deutsch, sondern Englisch. – amadeusamadeus Apr 26 at 11:47

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