Aber vs. Sondern - What is the difference 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).

(see poster)


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)


On our German language blog, you will find posts on many topics in German grammar- from adjective endings in German, the four German cases, how to negate a German sentence and where to place nicht, pronouns, prepositions to German word order. We also review the language apps Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, and Busuu, and compare the most popular online dictionaries Linguee, dict.cc, dict.leo and Collins. So check out our blog and let us know what you think.


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