German: The Position of Nicht

The position of nicht (not) in a sentence is actually quite simple and straightforward. You just have to keep in mind a few points and the positioning of nicht will (literally) fall into place.

Nicht is an Adverb: Nicht is an adverb, and so you will always find it either before or after a verb, adjective or fellow adverb. It usually precedes an adverb or an adjective, but likes to settle after conjugated verbs. (So think opposite of English)

Ich trinke nicht meine Limonade. - (I'm not drinking my lemonade.)

Nicht and Declarative Sentences: On the other hand, nicht likes to travel all the way to the end of a sentence at times. This happens most often with declarative sentences.

Sie arbeitet nicht.
(She is not working.)
A sentence with just a subject and verb.

Er hilft mir nicht.
(He doesn’t help me.)
A sentence with a direct object (mir).

The same applies with simple yes/no questions:

Gibt der Schüler dem Lehrer die Leseliste nicht? 
(Is the student not giving the reading list to the teacher?)

Nicht and Separable and Compound Verbs: With verbs, nicht will bounce around a bit depending on the type of verb: 

Nicht will be positioned right before a verb prefix in a sentence containing a separable verb.

Wir gehen heute nicht einkaufen.
(We are not going shopping today.)

Nicht will be positioned right before an infinitive or infinitives that is part of a verbal combination.

Du sollst nicht schlafen. 
(You should not sleep.)

Du wirst jetzt nicht schlafen gehen. 
(You are not going to sleep now.)

Nicht and Adverbs of Time: The adverbs of time that have a chronological logic to them, will usually be followed by nicht. These are adverbs such as gestern (yesterday), heute (today), morgen (tomorrow), früher (earlier), später (later).

Sie ist gestern nicht mitgekommen.
(She did not come along yesterday.)

Contrarily, adverbs of time that do not have a chronological logic to them will be preceded by nicht.

Er wird nicht sofort kommen.
(He will not come right away.)

With all other adverbs, nicht is usually positioned directly before them.

Simone fährt nicht langsam genug.
(Simone doesn’t drive slow enough.)

So in a nutshell

Nicht will usually precede:

  1. adverbs of time that cannot be organized chronologically
  2. all other adverbs
  3. verbs
  4. separable verb prefix
  5. verb infinitives
  6. adjectives
  7. prepositional phrases

Nicht will usually follow:

  • Adverbs that can be organized chronologically

Spieltrieb (2013, auf Deutsch, 1 hour 26 mins)

“A tangled drama of cruelty and manipulation, attraction and love.”

You live by honour, not by bread. Slaves believe that they only need food and drink to live. The free man knows that he needs honour first of all. Your honour is your standing with your comrades and fellow citizens.
—  Helmut Stellrecht, Glauben und Handeln. Ein Bekenntnis der jungen Nation (Berlin: Zentralverlag der NSDAP., Franz Eher Nachf., 1943).
German Negation: Nicht vs Kein

Nicht is Used in a Sentence When:

- The noun to be negated has a a definite article.
Er liest das Buch. Er liest das Buch nicht. 
(He is not reading the book.)

- The noun to be negated has a possessive pronoun.
Er liebt seine Freundin. Er liebt seine Freundin nicht. 
(He does not love his girlfriend.)

- The verb is to be negated.
Ich will schlafen. Ich will nicht schlafen. 
(I don’t want to sleep.)

- An adverb/adverbial phrase is to be negated.
Sie rennt schnell. Sie rennt nicht schnell. 
(She does not run fast.)

- An adjective is used with the verb sein.
Das Kind ist geizig. Das Kind ist nicht geizig. 
(The child is greedy.)

Kein is Used in a Sentence When:

- The noun to be negated has an indefinite article.
Ich will einen Apfel essen. Ich will keinen Apfel essen. 
(I don’t want to eat an apple.)

The word kein is in fact k + ein and is positioned where the indefinite article would be.

- The noun has no article.
Ich habe Zeit dafür. Ich habe keine Zeit dafür.
(I don’t have time for that.)

Please note that though ein has no plural, kein does and follows the standard case declension pattern.

The Position of Nicht: The position of nicht is not always so clear-cut. However, generally speaking, nicht will precede adjectives, adverbs and either precede or follow verbs depending on its type. 

Nicht and Sondern, Kein and Sondern: When nicht and kein negate only a clause, then usually the second clause that follows will begin with the conjunction sondernIch will nicht dieses Buch, sondern das andere. To put particular emphasis on nicht, positioning it at the beginning of the sentence is acceptable: Nicht Karl meinte ich, sondern Karin.