Saying “No” – Negations in German

“Guten Tag!” –  “Hello!”
“Auf Wiedersehen!” “Goodbye!”
“Danke”Thank you

These are the minimum six words I learn wherever I go on holiday. It’s the least you can do, in my opinion. It shows effort and willingness to get in touch with the locals. 

However, saying “No” isn’t always easy on a cultural level. This is more so the case in certain other cultures, less so in German-speaking countries. While I’m generally a positive person, this article will help you say “no” as well as other negative words and phrases.

🇩🇪 “Magst du Schokolade?” –  🇺🇸“Do you like chocolate? 
🇩🇪 “Ja/ Nein” – 🇺🇸“Yes/No”

Well, that’s easy enough! So if I want to say, “There is no chocolate,” I say, “Es gibt nein Schokolade,” right? Wrong! In German, there are two main ways of negating sentences, and I’m going to give you some examples and useful phrases for:

  • Forbidding things.
  • Saying what you don’t have or can’t do.
  • Talking about a specific lack of something.
  • Intercultural differences with negativity (direct vs. indirect language)

Most Used German Negations

  • 🇩🇪 Nein – 🇺🇸 no : Magst du Katzen? – Nein (Do you like cats? – No)
  • 🇩🇪 Nicht – 🇺🇸 not : Ich liebe dich nicht (I do not love you)
  • 🇩🇪 Nie – 🇺🇸 never: “Ich gehe nie ins Kino” (I never go to the cinema.) However, in a different context, “I have never..”
  • 🇩🇪 Nirgendwo – 🇺🇸 nowhere: “Ich kann nirgendwo hin” (I have nowhere to go)
  • 🇩🇪 Niemand – 🇺🇸 noone/ nobody:“Niemand kann mir helfen” (Nobody can help me) 
  • 🇩🇪 Nichtsdestotrotz – 🇺🇸 nevertheless:“Es regnet. Nichtsdestotrotz, gehe ich spazieren.” (It’s raining. Nevertheless, I’m going for a walk)
  • 🇩🇪 Weder..noch… – 🇺🇸 neither..nor..: “Ich habe weder die Zeit, noch das Geld im Urlaub zu fahren (I have neither the time, nor the money to go on holiday)
  • 🇩🇪 Kaum – 🇺🇸 hardly: “Kaum jemand war auf die Party” (hardly anyone was at the party)
  • 🇩🇪 Noch niemals, “Ich war noch niemals in New York.” 🇺🇸 – I have never been to New York. This is, in fact, a classic German song. Maybe you’d like to hear it as part of your learning German by yourself. (Udo Jürgens “Ich war noch niemals in New York”)

Forbidding Things from Others or Understanding Warnings

🇩🇪 Das ist verboten!
🇺🇸 That’s forbidden!

That’s pretty direct, and more often, warnings are defined more in the sense that something (smoking, drinking alcohol, walking on grass, etc.) is not allowed. 

In this case, we use the word “nicht”  = “not.” Look at these examples:

🇩🇪 Hunde nicht erlaubt
🇺🇸 Dogs not allowed

🇩🇪 Rauchen nicht erlaubt
🇺🇸 Smoking not allowed

Alternatively, you might hear or see that something is not permitted. Then we use the phrase “nicht zulässig.”

🇩🇪 Der Konsum von Alkohol ist hier nicht zulässig.
🇺🇸 Alcohol consumption is not permitted here.

🇩🇪 Betreten von Gras nicht zulässig.
🇺🇸 Walking on the grass is not permitted.

Then we have the modals “müssen” and “dürfen,” for saying what you “must/ have to” do, but “Achtung!” (“watch out!”) There’s a big trap you could fall into here if you’re not careful:

False friend alert!  

🇩🇪 Ich muss zur Bank” – 🇺🇸 I must/ have to go to the bank.

🇩🇪 “Ich muss nicht zur Bank”  is indeed then 🇺🇸“I mustn’t go to the bank,” i.e., I am forbidden entry? Ja? –  NEIN!

It means “I don’t have to go to the bank.” It’s not necessary – I have enough money on me.

When unpermitted to do something, we need the verb “nicht dürfen.”

🇩🇪 Sie dürfen hier nicht rauchen.”  – 🇺🇸“You mustn`t smoke here.”

For more examples of false friends, read typical mistakes in German.

Okay, enough of being told what we are and are not allowed to do. Nobody likes that much. I’ll move on to my next point:

Saying what you don’t have or can’t do.

Can/can’t do

🇩🇪 Ich kann nicht gut kochen/ schwimmen/ Gitarre spielen” 
🇺🇸 “I can’t cook/ swim/ play the guitar well.

You probably know and have often used the phrase, “Ich verstehe nicht” (I don’t understand”).

We’re still using the negative nicht”. Great! Easy peasy! 

I’m sorry to say, this only applies when talking about what you can or can’t do, i.e., you use a verb before or afterward.

Have/ don’t have

Now we can look at how to say “No” with a different meaning. “I have no money.” An alternative way of saying this in English is “I don’t have any money.”

In English, we use the word “Don’t” to negate sentences. In German, there are no auxiliary verbs to form negatives or questions. So we need another word here to clarify we “Don`t have certain things.”

This word is kein/e/en

Let’s take a look.  

If a word is masculine, such as a dog, der Hund, we say:
🇩🇪 Ich habe keinen Hund – 🇺🇸 I don’t have a dog

For feminine words like a cat, die Katze:
🇩🇪 Ich habe keine Katze – 🇺🇸 I don’t have a cat

And for neutral words, say a house, das Haus:
🇩🇪 Ich habe kein Haus – 🇺🇸 I don’t have a house

Ich habe keine Idee/ Ahnungis a phrase you often hear Germans say. It means “I have no idea.”

Younger people might colloquially eliminate the Ich habe.. and simply say Keine Zeit!(no time!) or “Kein Geld!” (no money) for rejecting an invitation to go out, for example.

Talking about a lack of a specific thing

Similarly, if you want to talk about something that doesn’t exist, we also use kein/e/en.

We typically do this when describing where we live, talking about what there is and what there isn’t in the place:

Let’s start here with some positives. What is there in your town? 

“In meiner Stadt gibt es….” (literally, “In my town it gives…”):

  • Einen Park  (a park), einen  Hafen (a port), einen Marktplatz (a marketplace). 
    All these words are masculine, therefore “a” is always “einen” in this case.
  • Eine Schule (a school), eine Kirche (a church), eine Brücke (a bridge)
    Feminine words use “eine” for the indefinite article.
  • Ein Rathaus (a town hall), ein Kino (a cinema), ein Krankenhaus (a hospital)
    “A” for these neutral words is simply “ein”.

To make the above sentences negative, we just need to add a “K.”


🇺🇸 “There isn’t a port in my town” – 🇩🇪“In meiner Stadt gibt es keinen Hafen.”

“In meiner Stadt gibt es keine Brücke/ kein Rathaus.”

You will also come across keiner,  keinem, and keines in the dative and genitive cases, but that’s a whole other lesson..

Intercultural differences with negativity (direct vs indirect language)

I mentioned in my introduction that being negative is less accepted in some cultures. For example, in some Asian countries, you might lose face simply admitting, “I don’t know.”

This is not the case in German-speaking cultures. In fact, you might sometimes feel shocked by their directness. English speakers tend to “pad out” negative statements, beginning with phrases such as “Unfortunately,” “I’m afraid..” or “I’m sorry, but..”. Germans don’t always do this, and it may seem impolite, but that’s not their intention. The German culture is more about getting things done, hence also, said, as quickly as possible. 

Don’t take the directness personally. It’s simply a cultural difference, and differences make things more interesting, don’t they? I think so, and would like to end with that positive, not negative note 🙂

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Sarah Chadwick

Sarah Chadwick

I'm predominantly a teacher of English as a foreign language, with over 15 years of experience in this field. I've lived as much of that time in Cologne, Germany. I speak fluent German, which I am also qualified to teach.

Your German Journey
Starts Here