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What is the difference between «нет» and «не»? They both seem to mean "no". When should each one be used? Are they interchangeable?

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Assuming that you are not talking about the "нет" vs. "не" as in "no" vs. "not", there is a colloquial use of the word "не" in place of "нет", like this:

В кино пойдешь?

Не, не пойду.

Formally, this is incorrect: one should say "Нет" instead of the first "Не". However, this incorrect form is commonly used colloquially.

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    Yes, and "е" in "не" is made longer than usual: "не-е". It is usually done to soften the answer. Нет would be too direct and abrupt, in other words would possibly hurt more. – farfareast Dec 10 '12 at 4:33
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    So не-е, or just не is kind of euphemism for нет. In English the analog of it would be "nope", or sometimes in spoken language n of no is prolonged: n-n-n-o. This prepares listener to to the negative answer. :-). In Russian other substitutes for нет are "не-а", and "нетушки". The latter is a funny word used as a joke. – farfareast Dec 10 '12 at 17:20
  • @farfareast in English the analog is "nay". – Anixx Dec 13 '12 at 14:23
  • @Anixx: "Nay" is a fancy word and in some contexts when said without stress can soften the message just by its fanciness but generally "nay" is even stronger than "no". Webster tells that it comes from Old Norwegian ne (not) + ei (ever). In contrast, Russian "не" is generally softer than "нет". – farfareast Dec 14 '12 at 19:00
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They are not interchangeable! Roughly speaking “нет” means “no”, and “не” means “not”. Here are several examples:

Не делай этого! — Don't (=do not) do that!

Я не знаю, что делать. — I don't (=do not) know what to do!

У меня нет денег. — I have no money.

Ты пойдёшь на вечеринку? Нет, не пойду. — Will you go to the party? No, I will not.

Sometimes, however, “нет” means “not”:

Вы должны это сделать, хотите ли вы этого или нет. — You must do that whether you want that or not.

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    In colloquial speech "не" is definitely interchangeable in some cases with "не", whether we like it or not. So, "не, это не вся правда, поэтому даунвочу" ))) – shabunc Dec 12 '12 at 3:53
  • @shabunc: I strongly disagree with you! You cannot say “У меня не денег”. I have never heard that in my life! This means that they are not interchangeable. Two words are interchangeable if you can always replace one with the other. – Yury Dec 12 '12 at 4:00
  • Нет as a separate, stand-alone negation definitely can be interchangeable with не. Нет in example provided by you means "there is/are no". – shabunc Dec 12 '12 at 4:09
  • @shabunc: The question was whether these two words are always interchangeable not whether they can sometimes be interchangeable. – Yury Dec 12 '12 at 4:14
  • words may be interchangeable in some context, since the exact context has not been provided in the question, we can make assumptions. See, for example, @dasblinkenlight's answer. No offense, it's just that somebody who does not know Russian can read your answer and get some things wrong. – shabunc Dec 12 '12 at 4:22
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There are a few cases which should be described separately.

  1. "Нет" as the single word in a phrase, or parenthetic, is mainly the same as English "no", "nope". Example: "Хотите чаю?" - "Нет, не хочу". "Do you want some tea?" - "No, I don't."

    But, if the question is formed with a negative clause, the correct translation should be according to the sense, not the parenthetic word. "Don't you want some tea?" in English should be answered as "Yes" if he wants tea and "No" if he doesn't. In Russian you can answer "Нет, хочу" (literally "No, I do") or "Да, не хочу" ("Yes, I don't"), which would confuse native English speakers. It's also a common mistake for most Slavic men when talking in English to form such phrases instead of the allowed "Yes, I do" / "No, I don't". Without digging to the sense of the phrase, one could imagine that "нет" means "yes":)

    Variants for the same case are:

    • The "word" "unh-unh" (two clearly separated m-like sounds without opening a mouth) is usually written as "не-а". Sometimes "не-а" is said explicitly, as /nʲeɁa/ (with distinct glottal stop).

    • "Не" (mentioned in some other answers) as a parenthetic is explicitly colloquial and originally regional (Southern), and seems to be isogloss with Ukrainian "ні" for the same. You unlikely will meet it in written texts, mainly in combinations like "Та не, эт' невозможно" (southern "та" instead of central and northern "да", "эт'" as reduced "это"). Also, this "не" often has a long vowel, and is written as "нее"; it is more often in modern texts.

  2. "Нет" as "don't exist", or "haven't", "there isn't". Example: "У меня нет карандашей". "I don't have pencils". (Literally: "At me, there aren't pencils.") Colloquial language often uses "нету" for the same but it isn't allowed in written literature language. Both originate in earlier "не есть тут" ("not present here").

  3. "Не" with verbs is usually "not", placed according to the target grammar: "Он не поехал в путешествие" - "He haven't gone to the journey".

    It should also be noted that Russian uses double negation instead of literature English single negation: "Я не нашёл его нигде" - "I haven't found it anywhere".

  4. "Не" with adjectives and adverbs can be directly translated as "not" but this is often less adequate than negation prefix. E.g. "не приятный" is "not pleasant" ("Он мне не показался приятным человеком" - "He wasn't look pleasant for me"; "Это не самый приятный вариант" - "It's not the most pleasant case"), but "неприятный" is "unpleasant", "nasty"; in the latter, "не" means not negation, but inversion of the sign. There are rules where to put this "не" separated with the following adjective or adverb, or tied with it.

  5. "Не" as prefix for some pronouns is not negation but its opposite - like "a few (present)"; it is omonymic morpheme originated in earlier "нѣ". "Несколько" - "a few"; "некто" - "somebody (known to the speaker)". It can be easily mixed with negation: "негде" - "there is no place (for)".

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