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Every time I think I have finally understood negation in German, I am proven wrong. These two sentences are very similar. They are short, simple, use the same subject, and have only a direct object following the verb. And yet one places nicht at the end and the other places nicht in the middle. Please help a desperate Anglophone.

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    To me, Janka's answer to your earlier question seems to explain this. german.stackexchange.com/questions/74241/… (According to that answer, the difference is in what is negated, the verb vs. the object.) Is your question why Tennis is negated here instead of "spielt"?
    – HalvarF
    Jun 30, 2023 at 16:36
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    I have been re-reading the excellent and detailed explanations from Janka and Erithreus Hoffing, but am having trouble applying these principles here. For example, neither German sentence structure nor issues of ambiguity would seem (to me) to justify placing nicht at the end of the sentence in this example. Thus, “Er zahlt nicht die Miete” is not ambiguous (to me) and negates what follows. He doesn’t pay the rent, though he may pay the telephone bill. That all seems fine. So why is it wrong? Jun 30, 2023 at 17:33
  • Conversely, if the “true” underlying German sentence structure has the verb(s) at the end of the sentence, (Er Tennis nicht spielt), then the the sentence written more typically should be, Er spielt Tennis nicht. Obviously I am wrong, but I’m just trying to explain my confusion. Now that Insee what I’ve written, I guess it is true that German sentence structure would justify, Er zahlt die Miete nicht, since this would be derived from the assumed structure, Er die Miete nicht zahlt. Jun 30, 2023 at 17:45

2 Answers 2

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The crucial difference between the two examples is the indefinite vs definite object:

Er spielt nicht Tennis.

Tennis is indefinite in that sentence, and if you told it that way with nicht preceding the object, the listener would wait for a … , sondern …

Er spielt nicht Tennis, sondern Federball.

Er zahlt nicht Miete, sondern Pacht.

If Tennis or Miete is the item negated, it prompts for the actual thing the action is applied to. If you wanted to avoid that, you had to use kein instead:

Er spielt kein Tennis.

Er zahlt keine Miete.


In the other example, such a prompt for the actual thing does not happen because nicht negates the action. But you can only do that if the object is definite (but for some exceptions).

Er zahlt die Miete nicht.

Er spielt das Tennismatch nicht.

I had to use the object das Tennismatch as opposed to das Tennis because a sport cannot be definite for semantic reasons.

You could of course also negate a definite thing with nicht the same way as an indefinite thing, but that again prompts for the actual thing the action is applied to:

Er zahlt nicht die Miete, sondern die Nebenkosten.

Er spielt nicht das Tennismatch um den Turniersieg, sondern das (Match) um den dritten Platz.


One of the exceptions I talked about earlier is personal preferences:

Er mag Tennis nicht.

Er mag kein Tennis.

Those are equivalent but the first variant is even preferred.

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  • Wow, another highly useful answer. Thank you! It strikes that this may be similar to older (e.g. Shakespearean times) forms of English. I can “hear” someone saying, “I play not tennis, but shuttlecock,” and “I play tennis not.” Jun 30, 2023 at 21:07
  • German is really old fashioned in many regards.
    – Janka
    Jun 30, 2023 at 21:29
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    Maybe this is regional, but to me, "Er spielt nicht Tennis." sounds totally idiomatic, and I do not have the slightest impression that anything (such as ", sondern ...") is missing there. It's the same as in "Er geht nicht einkaufen.", where a ", sondern ..." might, but does not have to follow. This is in strong contrast to "Er zahlt nicht die Miete.", which does indeed invoke the feeling that it must be followed with ", sondern ...". Jun 30, 2023 at 23:16
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Whenever you feel you don't understand German syntax, consider the order your sentence would have as a subordinate clause, in which the complex predicate sticks together. (The main clause has additional complications because of all that preposing):

  1. dass er nicht Tennis spielt
  2. dass er die Miete nicht zahlt

The negation nicht comes right before the predicate in 2). And in 1). The point is that "Tennis spielen" belongs together as a compound predicate, and "Tennis" is not an object but it is more like a particle. It looks indefinite, but the point is, it could not even have an indefinite article. In combination with "play", it simply indicates a kind of game, not a specific thing. In 2), in contrast, "die Miete" refers to a specific thing: "die Miete seiner Wohnung". This is a grammatical object and it precedes the negation of the sentence. The pattern "nicht Tennis spielen" is parallel to: "die Tür nicht rot streichen". Here, too, "rot" behaves as a part of the predicate.

(This applies when you negate the meaning of the sentence. When negation has narrow focus on a part of the sentence, with special intonation, then the position may be different).

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