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This is the kind of things I know how to use in practice, but would not manage to explain to someone in theory.

Некогда, нечего, нечем, не с кем... they differ from никогда, ничего, ничем, ни с кем in usage.

  • Мне некогда - I have no time (literally "to me no when").
  • Нечего делать - There's nothing that can be done.
  • Не с кем говорить - There's no one to talk to.
  • Нечем дышать! - There's no way to breathe!
  • Не о чём жалеть - There's nothing to regret.

But:

  • Никогда не будет времени - There will never be [enough] time.
  • Ничего не делал - I didn't anything.
  • Не говорю ни с кем - I don't talk to anyone.
  • Не могу дышать ничем! - I can't breathe in any way!
  • Я стараюсь ни о чём не жалеть - I try not to regret anything.

So far so good. In practice, I know when to use не- and ни-. But how can the difference in usage be explained, say, in a "scientific" way?

Maybe не- words are used exclusively in impersonal sentences (only with the dative in order to refer to a passive subject, like in "мне некогда"), whereas ни- words are personal, referring to an active subject?

On a side note, which syntax is better?

  • Мне не с кем говорить

or

  • У меня не с кем говорить
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  • please make your question clearer
    – shabunc
    Jul 16, 2018 at 22:21
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    It's all very easy: не is negative, but ни is emphatic, look at your examples and notice that ни is used only in those sentence that already have не. A sentence can have не only, but it cannot have ни only, ни must always be paired with не.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 16, 2018 at 23:37
  • "Не" means logical inversion, denial, negative; but "ни" means "nothing of the kind/alternatives" (and may have other meanings in some contexts russian.stackexchange.com/questions/16799).
    – yury10578
    Jul 17, 2018 at 5:51
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    in a rough and crude explanation the не- words denote absence of an object, the ни- words denote inadequacy or undesirability of any object available, and in some cases they may denote different objects like in нечем (air) дышать and не дышать ничем (substance or body part) Jul 17, 2018 at 7:44
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    @БаянКупи-ка I've reopened it and just made the question bold in order to make it immediately visible.
    – shabunc
    Jul 17, 2018 at 13:55

2 Answers 2

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"Не", either in a prefix or as a particle, means logical inversion, denial, negative; but "ни" means "nothing of the kind/none of the variants/alternatives" (and may have other meanings in some contexts: Why is “ни” omitted here to say “nothing”?).

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As long as all your examples contain pronouns derived from particles and other pronouns we can talk about pronouns only for a while. In the case Yellow Sky's comment is right. You can treat "не(когда/где/куда/etc)" as negative pronouns, which mean absence of time/place/direction/etc. Whereas "ни(когда/где/куда)" stresses the negation expressed by "не + verb" construction. The negative construction can be omitted, but is usually obvious. E.g. "В комнате никого [нет]" -- Nobody in the room.

I think it's worth to mention "некто" and "нечто". The former is for 'someone', the latter -- 'something amazing' or 'something unknown, obscure'. "Некто ничего не делал" - someone (we don't know him/her) didn't anything. "То, что он сделал, -- это нечто!" - he made something wonderful.

And be careful! We like to play with "ни". E.g. sometimes they describe their idleness as "Делаю ничего". Don't be confused: that still means "ничего не делаю", with some connotation perhaps. On the other hand, "Ты никто/ничто" is indignity.

These particles are also used separately from pronouns. Main logic is the same. "Не" means negation, "Ни" - emphasis of negation.

Also "ни..., ни..." сonstruction is used like English "neither... nor...".
"В прошлом году ни Италия, ни Франция не прошли в четвертьфинал." -- 'Neither Italy nor France got to the quarter finals last year.'

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