What are the differences between the following pairs of sentences?

Ich spiele nicht Klavier.
Ich spiele kein Klavier.

Ich fahre kein Auto.
Ich fahre Auto nicht.

My grammar book says that Klavier spielen, Auto fahren, Ski laufen, and the like usually can’t be separated because the noun is so closely linked to the verb. Thus the negation of Klavier spielen must be nicht Klavier spielen, not kein Klavier spielen. But when I look up kein Klavier spielen on Google, plenty of examples containing it show up. If kein Klavier spielen is possible what would it mean?

Also, is there a difference between the following?

Ich fahre Auto nicht.
Ich fahre nicht Auto.

  • 5
    "Ich fahre Auto nicht" is incorrect.
    – Em1
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 15:03

5 Answers 5


If you want to say I don't play piano independent of the context, I would say

Ich spiele kein Klavier.

On its own, it means I don't play piano (at all). However, see these examples with nicht-negation:

  1. Beim Pianotrio op. 70,1, dem „Geistertrio", spiele ich nicht Klavier, sondern Cello.

  2. Meine Mutter will nicht (mehr) Klavier spielen.

  3. Ich spiele nicht das Klavier, sondern den Steinway & Sons Flügel.

  4. Kontext: Jemand sieht eine Frau, die am Klavier sitzt, und fragt jemanden, ob sie die Pianistin ist. Die Antwort lautet: Sie spielt nicht Klavier; sie stimmt es.

Brief remarks:

  • in sentence (1), if you cut it before the comma, you get the impression that something is missing. The sentence asks for a complement (i.e. "sondern Cello")

  • in sentence (2) you use nicht for the negation of a modal verb. I just write it, because you might have want to see the nicht Klavier expression, in other instances (i.e. where nicht is not a negation for either Klavier nor spielen).

  • in sentence (3) note the use of the determinate article das.

  • in sentence (4) a change of verb is present. The subject doesn't play piano, but tunes it.

Same case for Ich fahre kein Auto. Alone, this means I drive no car. If you use Ich fahre nicht Auto you expect, as in sentence (1) above, a complement:

Ich fahre nicht Auto, sondern Motorrad.

  • For sentence 1, can I say "... spiele ich kein Kalvier, sondern Cello." with the same meaning of "nicht Klavier, sondern Cello"?
    – Jin
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 3:32
  • @Jin that's also possible.
    – c.p.
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 20:43

Both versions in both cases are fully correct and will be understood. There is just one minor, problematic point. The sentence

Ich fahre nicht Auto.

without additions like sondern Motorrad is seldomly used. There are several Alternatives: Ich fahre kein Auto., Ich kann nicht Auto fahren., Ich habe keinen Führerschein. or Ich habe kein Auto., which have slightly different meanings. The sentence is much more often found with additions, so one would expect such an addition.

Both versions in both cases can mean

  • not being able to / not having learned it
  • not being allowed to
  • principally not doing so (e.g. because of a personal ban on fossil fuelled or formerly ivory made products)
  • specifically not doing so (e.g. because playing Cello or taking the bus)
  • not meeting necessary external conditions (e.g. not having a car or piano)
  • Instead of "ich kann nicht auto fahren", does "ich kann kein auto fahren" sound awkward?
    – Jin
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 4:29
  • No, it's perfectly valid as well.
    – Toscho
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 13:28

To answer your last question: *Ich fahre Auto nicht sounds even less complete than Ich fahre nicht Auto, which merely makes us expect a complement like sondern Motorrad (as mentioned in other answers). With *Ich fahre Auto nicht one feels like something is even missing within this phrase because it can only apply to a specific car, not cars in general, e.g. Ich fahre dieses Auto nicht, sondern besitze es nur als Statussymbol.

  • 2
    It works in another example (but I have no clue why): "Ich mag keine Austern. Ich esse Austern nicht!"
    – Takkat
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 15:08
  • Hm, intriguing. I would have preferred "Austern esse ich nicht.", but this is all more becoming some gut feeling (not caused by a proteine overdose, by the way) Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 18:03
  • @Takkat: Note that "Austern" is a plural, not a singular with a null-article like "Auto" or "Klavier". In fact, to me, "Ich spiele nicht Klavier." and "Ich fahre nicht Auto." sound completely fine and there is nothing incomplete about them. This is in contrast to "Ich esse nicht Austern.", which does indeed strongly ask for a "..., sondern ..." complement. This is indeed just a gut feeling, but the "Auto" in "Auto fahren" feels the same way as a prefix to me - "Ich fahre Auto nicht." is just as weird as "Ich fange an nicht."; the "nicht" needs to go before the prefix and all is good. Commented Jun 4, 2023 at 20:57

The comment section of the answer of @Hagen von Eitzen brought up an interesting thing... changing word order. Based on that the versions with kein are wrong.

Kein Klavier spiele ich.

Grammatically this is fine but it will be understood as something different. People would expect something to contrast Klavier.

Klavier spiele ich nicht.

This is grammatically okay and expresses the general negation that we are going for.

Kein Auto fahre ich. Auto fahre ich nicht.

The first one is just odd. Keine in the beginning is odd in general, though.

Keine Lust habe ich.

It is not the being odd that makes me say the nicht-version is the one to go for... it is simply that I think the kein-version shows a slightly different meaning when kein is in position 1.

To conclude this... this is not a grammatical rule from a book. People do use either version synonymously. I am just saying that the nicht version is the better, more precise one.


I've always been taught that if you want to negate a verb with an object like "I don't play piano" you would say "Ich spiele kein Klavier" because

nicht + ein = kein

I'm not sure if there are any exceptions to that, but that's what I've learned from experience.

  • 4
    But there is no "ein" in "Ich spiele Klavier" and that is the exact reason why I prefer "Ich spiele nicht Klavier".
    – user568
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 16:54

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