"Aber" and "sondern" confuse many German students because their translation in English as "but" would suggest that they can be used interchangeably. However, that is not the case. In fact, the two words are used in different grammatical situations. In this blog post, I will explain the difference between these two connectors and how to use them in German.
Both “aber” and “sondern” are coordinating conjunctions that link two main clauses without changing the word order in a German sentence. While “aber” is used in the same way as the English “but”, “sondern” must be preceded by a sentence with a negation. It translates as “but rather” Or “but instead”. You'll find my examples below.
Ich muss arbeiten, aber ich sehe fern.
(I need to work, but I am watching tv)
Ich sollte meine Hausaufgaben machen, aber ich habe keine Lust.
(I should do my homework, but I don‘t feel like it/fancy doing it)
Man kann den Revolutionär gefangen nehmen, aber nicht die Revolution (selbst).
Er mag kein Schokoladeneis, sondern Vanilleeis.
(He doesn’t like chocolate ice cream, but vanilla)
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)
It would be incorrect to use "aber" in the last three sentences as the first clause contains a negation. So sentences with "sondern" present a positive alternative to the previous clause. However, "sondern" can only be used if the two clauses are logically connected- by using the same verb or a similar one.
e.g. Ich fahre nicht gern mit meinem Auto in Urlaub, sondern ich fliege lieber.
(I don't like to drive/take my car to go on holiday, but I prefer to fly/but I prefer to fly instead)
Other coordinating conjunctions in German are "denn", "oder", "entweder..oder" and "weder noch". They don't affect the word order either, just like "aber" and "sondern". Don't confuse "denn" with "dann" though because "dann" does change the word order. Also, bear in mind that you need to use a comma before both aber and sondern. I discuss comma rules in German in another post.
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