While comparing and contrasting various aspects of English and German one thing I come across is this: "No" indicates denying or refusing something, thus:

"Is John here?"

But "no" is also used in this sense:

He has no money left.

In German, the first "no" above is "nein", and the second is "kein".

However, "kein" in German is used distinctly more frequently than "no" in that sense is used in English. In particular, a German whose English is fairly good wrote "Spiders are no insects." where I would have written "Spiders are not insects." And his usage seems to match the sort of context in which I would expect "kein" to be used in German.

My question is how to explain to someone like that when to use "no" in the second sense above, and when to use "not" or some other locution.

  • The software told me I could not use "No things" as the subject line because it is too short. – Michael Hardy Apr 11 '18 at 19:22
  • Think about it this way, no = not any. Anywhere you feel comfortable to use not any, you should be able to use no. – Qian Chen Apr 12 '18 at 0:20
  • I don't think that rule, Elgs, words very well. – Xanne Apr 16 '18 at 8:47
  • Another example: In a story written in the 1950s, several thousand new immigrants to a colony on a planet where, it seems, salt is a moderately scarce commodity are served lunch just after they arrive. On each table there is a small sign that says "Don't waste the salt." In a published translation of the story into German, it says "Vergeudet kein Salz." In English one wouldn't say "Waste no salt." unless the emphasis were different. – Michael Hardy Apr 16 '18 at 14:38
  • . . . . and in English one says "She doesn't like fruit." and not "She likes no fruit." – Michael Hardy Apr 17 '18 at 2:57

The simple answer is that we do not normally use the quantifier "no" in the complement of a copular verb (such as be, become, seem).

The question of why German does this and English does not, like most "why" questions about language, is not really answerable: it just is that way.

[There is one common exception: with a specific subject, and when specifically denying something that has already been stated or assumed. This often occurs in the punchline of a joke, such as That was no woman: that was my wife!]

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  • 3
    Good Heavens, Colin!. The joke is: "That was no lady, that was my wife." – J. Taylor Apr 11 '18 at 20:33
  • Actually the reason why German uses "kein" in that way seems clearer if one looks at further examples of how that word is used, so it's somewhat more "answerable" than I have made it appear. But that leaves the question of how to explain to the German what the English usage is. – Michael Hardy Apr 11 '18 at 22:41
  • @J.Taylor: you're right. Oops – Colin Fine Apr 12 '18 at 23:29

Apart from the answers already given, there's the no-versus-not usage that English provides (condensed summary follows):

No and not are the two most common words we use to indicate negation. We use no before a noun phrase. We use not with any other phrase or clause.

We often use no to respond to a yes-no question, or to agree with a negative statement. We don’t use not on its own in this way.

When a noun has an ungradable meaning (it is either something or it is not) we cannot use no + noun

When a noun has a gradable meaning, no + noun means the same as not a/an + noun.

There are many other rules in the article, some of which are summarized in the other answers, but nein/kein usage seems to roughly mirror no/not usage.

But to return to your examples:

"Is John here?" "No." (Answer to yes/no question.)

He has no money left = He has not any money left (Money is gradable; you can have more or less of it.)

Spiders are not insects. (Spider is ungradable; it's an insect, or it's not.)

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  • You say "We use no before a noun phrase." But that doesn't explain why one says "Spiders are not insects." rather than "Spiders are no insects." – Michael Hardy Apr 11 '18 at 22:44
  • Ach, I missed that example. Added. – Gnawme Apr 11 '18 at 22:57

Spiders are not insects is the "unmarked" or matter-of-fact form, used in everyday English, when the writer is just stating a fact. This will be the much more frequently used form.

Another example: Whales ares not fish; they are mammals.

The use of no in the first sentence

Spiders are no insects can be seen as a more vehement statement of the fact. Or a strong denial, as when a witness in a court case might say about the accused

That man is no gentleman; he is a criminal of the utmost degree.

In this, the denial that the accused is a gentleman is strong and allows for no exceptions, as it were, as an utterance taken on its own.

Based on your example of he has no money, the difference here includes the fact that money is (in this context, and usually) a mass noun; whereas your original question and examples, and my examples, all deal with count nouns, either singular or plural (recall that fish is the standard plural of fish, although fishes is sometimes used).

This answer intends to cover your original examples, and I haven't the time to extend it to cover other examples, such as mass nouns and difference in syntax of what exactly is being negated.

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  • So it's only a matter of emphasis? – Michael Hardy Apr 11 '18 at 22:23
  • In the sentence "He has no money left.", it seems as if no way of expressing with "not" would be as short and simple as that sentence. And likewise with the word "no" before the word "way" in the foregoing sentence. So this makes it appear that there is something other than emphasis that can be an occasion for using the word "no" in that sense. – Michael Hardy Apr 11 '18 at 22:26
  • It is certainly a matter of emphasis, and communicatice function, based on situational context. As for he has no money, well, money is a non-count noun, so that's different from the plural forms spiders, fish, and the singular form criminal. – Arm the good guys in America Apr 11 '18 at 22:32

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