German Grammar Explained /

Position of "nicht"

In German, we use nicht to negate a statement. But care should be taken regarding where this negation word should be placed within a sentence.
It's actually quite easy:
Nicht always goes immediately in front of what should be negated unless its purpose is to negate the whole sentence.
So what's the difference between negating a whole sentence (Satznegation) and negating just a word (Sondernegation) and how can you tell?
Sentence negation ⇒ a whole sentence is negated
Negating a whole sentence means negating the main verb within the sentence, the conjugated verb. When this happens, nicht goes right at the very end.
Der Zug kommt The train is not coming
Das verstehe ich I don't understand
Er mag Züge He does not like trains
Nicht goes in front of:
  • A second verb, a participle or a part of a separable verb.
Der Zug kann The train can
nicht not
kommen. (Modal verb/ second verb) come.
Der Zug ist The train did
nicht not
gekommen. (Participle) come.
Der Zug kommt The train does
nicht not
an. (Part of a separable verb) arrive.
  • Adjectives and adverbs
Der Zug ist The train is
nicht not
pünktlich. (Adjective) punctual.
Er mag Züge He does not like trains
gern. (Adverb) much.
  • Prepositions and local information
Er wartet He does not wait
auf den Zug. (Preposition) for the train.
Der Chef ist heute The boss is
nicht not
hier. (Local information) here.
Word negation ⇒ only part of the sentence is negated.
If you want to deny only a part of the sentence, then nicht should go immediately before the bit that you want to deny.
You often get this type of negation when you're about to introduce an alternative option using sondern (but / rather) as an alternative to what you're negating.
Ich habe I did
nicht not
gestern angerufen, sondern heute. call yesterday, but rather today.
Sie ist She's
nicht not
bei ihren Freunden, sondern bei ihrer Familie. with her friends, but rather with her family
Wir treffen uns Let's not meet on the train
im Zug, sondern vor dem Zug. but rather in front of it.
That's it! Das ist nicht so schwer, oder? :)