Unit 5: Prepositions, Reflexives

6. Position of nicht and other adverbs

Like all adverbs, and as with English adverbs, nicht modifies the sentence’s main verb unless it appears within a particular phrase, such as within a prepositional phrase, a noun phrase, etc. Also, like in English, adverbs in German placed before a word or phrase are thereby given emphasis that they modify that following word or phrase. Thus you can generally rely on your English-language sensibilities to interpret the role of German adverbs.

In German we do encounter a few uses of multiple, neighboring adverbs which we aren’t familiar with in English. When you do, keep the above word-order rule in mind. This can be particularly crucial with the adverb nicht when it precedes another adverb.

Die Stadt fühlt sich nicht besonders für Radfahrer verantwortlich.
The city does not feel particularly responsible for bicyclists.

In the above example, nicht is placed to emphasize that it modifies besonders. That leaves the meaning “not particularly” as the adverbial modifier of “for bicyclists.” Compare when the order of nicht and besonders is reversed, so that besonders now modifies nicht, which in turn modifies für Radfahrer:

Die Stadt fühlt sich besonders nicht für Radfahrer verantwortlich.
The city feels not responsible for bicyclists in particular.
(Literally: “especially not for bicyclists,” a phrase which would be clumsy in English in the context of this whole sentence.)

In summary: Remember to first determine what an adverb is modifying, by using this word-order rule, before translating. Adverbs modify their following word or phrase, if there is one and if that’s possible. Otherwise, it modifies the main verb of the entire sentence.


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