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Aber vs. Sondern - What Is The Difference In German?

Updated: Apr 5

For German learners, the subtle distinctions between common connectors can be as challenging as they are crucial. One such pair, "aber" and "sondern," often confounds students due to their shared English translation as "but." Contrary to appearances, these two connectors serve distinct grammatical purposes, and mastering their usage is essential for constructing articulate German sentences. In this blog post, we embark on a journey to demystify the intricacies of "aber" and "sondern," shedding light on their unique roles and guiding learners toward confident and accurate language expression. Let's unravel the linguistic puzzle and pave the way for a deeper understanding of German conjunctions.

Unraveling the Difference Between 'Aber' and 'Sondern' in German"

The pairing of "aber" and "sondern" can be a source of perplexity. Mastering these connectors requires a nuanced understanding of their distinct roles within the German language. In this blog post, we unravel their grammatical intricacies and providing practical insights into their correct usage. Let's explore how these coordinating conjunctions navigate the terrain of German syntax, offering learners clarity and confidence in their linguistic endeavours.

Both "aber" and "sondern" serve as coordinating conjunctions that connect two main clauses without altering the word order in a German sentence. While "aber" functions similarly to the English "but," "sondern" requires a preceding sentence with negation in German and translates as "but rather" or "but instead." The examples below illustrate their usage.

"Aber" Examples:

  • Ich muss arbeiten, aber ich sehe fern.

  • Ich sollte meine Hausaufgaben machen, aber ich habe keine Lust.

  • Man kann den Revolutionär gefangen nehmen, aber nicht die Revolution selbst.

"Sondern" Examples:

  • Er mag kein Schokoladeneis, sondern Vanilleeis.

  • Wir spielen nicht gern Fussball, sondern (wir spielen) lieber Tennis.

(we don’t like to play football, but (I) prefer to play tennis

  • Ihr lernt nicht Französisch, sondern (ihr lernt) Deutsch

(You (guys/lot) don't learn/study French, you learn German)

In the last three sentences, using "aber" would be incorrect since the first clause contains negation. Sentences with "sondern" present a positive alternative to the preceding clause. However, note that "sondern" can only be used when the two clauses are logically connected by using the same or a similar verb.

  • Ich fahre nicht gern mit meinem Auto in den Urlaub, sondern ich fliege lieber.

Additionally, other coordinating conjunctions in German, such as "denn," "oder," "entweder...oder," and "weder noch," do not affect word order, similar to "aber" and "sondern." It's crucial not to confuse "denn" with "dann" as "dann" does alter word order. Also, remember to use a comma before both "aber" and "sondern," a topic further discussed in my post on comma rules in German.

In conclusion, mastering the distinction between "aber" and "sondern" is crucial for clear and accurate communication in German. Regular practice and exposure to various examples will help solidify your understanding of these conjunctions.

Feel free to share your sentences or ask questions in the comments section below!

On our German language language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!", you will find posts on many topics in German grammar- from adjective endings in German to the the four German cases, But we also discuss topics on the language as a whole, such as how many words there are in the German language, and if German is difficult to learn.


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