Word of the Day – “zwar”

zwarHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and today we’ll have a look at the meaning of:

zwar (pron.: tsvuh)

And just as it can happen in a real German class, so it can happen here:  an unannounced quiz… hooray. But unless you’re a tuna you won’t be graded… badum tish.
So… Which if the following origin stories of zwar is correct:

  1. it comes from the Polish word zwał that means pile
  2. it is a mumbled, contracted version of zu wahre which means something like to the truth
  3. it is the short version of this sentence German adolescent boys say all the time “zu wenig Arsch” (“not enough butt”)

Have you picked your mate… I mean made your pick? Cool. Now I’ll tell you the meaning and then you can reconsider :)
So here is what zwar does… 

it sets up a but.
So what is the correct answer… hmmm, let’s see… piles are kind of set up, aren’t they, so maybe 1 is correct…. but wait… maybe he meant to say butt and just mumbled the second t, that would mean number 3 is the right answer…
Well, surprise surprise… the correct answer is 2.
Back some centuries ago it used to be 2 words… zi wārezi was pretty much the same as zu and wāre was a “noun-ified” adjective with the meaning truth… so together it meant something like to the truth or more abstract to speak the truth and people back then used zi wāre to underline that their statement were true…. here is an English example I manipula… I.. I mean found:

  • “He that once loves with a true desire never can depart,
    For Cupid is the king of every heart, zi wāre.”, John Doe said.
    (from a song by D. Coupland I have on my J-Pod Tou… wait, I feel like I’m mixing up something…)

By the way…There is another word with the same idea… fürwahr… and this has kept its meaning… but back to zi ware. So, Germans apparently used this way of underlining a lot… which is not surprising given we’re roughly talking about the era of knights here, with all their ideals of honor and honesty… and since mumbling also existed back then zi ware was quickly contracted and became a new word zwar.

  • “Ihr habt den Drachen erschlagen? Mir scheint, Ihr lügt.”
    “Neyn zwar, ich habe die Bestie getötet.”
  • “Thou hast killed the dragon? Thou art lying (thuo lyst), it doth seem.” (thanks to Briguy for the awesome ancient English)
    “Nay, I swear/it’s true/truth is, the beast is dead.”

So this is the original zwar. And then, slowly, a change happened. Zwar became more and more associated with a follow up but. I don’t know when or why this started but maybe the noble class in the medieval times took joy in mocking the common man… picture Earl Michael giving a speech from his balcony…

  • “Oh meine geliebten Bauern, ich weiß wohl, wie hart eure Arbeit
    Tag für Tag ist. Ihr verdient zwar eine Belohnung…”
  • “Oh my beloved pawns, I know well, how hard is your labor day
    after day. You forsooth/truely deserve a reward…”

And everyone was like “Oh, nice, what a kind-hearted prince” and hopes were high. And then Earl Michael continued…

  • “… aber ach, geben werde ich euch keine.”
  • “… but oh, I shall give you none.”

And everyone was like “oh what a let down…” and Earl Michael was like “Gotcha again suckers hahaha… “.
Now, if this happens often enough people will eventually get used to it and already expect a but whenever they here zwar… and thus we have turned a once reinforcing word into a mere but-setup.
Seriously… of course it probably didn’t happen that way but it did happen and today zwar does NOT work without but. .. or aber in German. Zwar does nothing but setting it up and if you put zwar into your sentence you HAVE TO say aber… people are waiting for it and if it doesn’t come that it is really really confusing. Examples:

  • Das Kleid ist zwar teuer, aber ich kaufe es trotzdem.
  • The dress is expansive but I’ll get it anyway.
  • Ich muss zwar noch ein bisschen arbeiten, aber heute abend habe ich Zeit.
  • Well, I do have a little work left but as for tonight I am free.

As you can see, I did not translate zwar because it really isn’t doing much except setting up aber thus giving it more… aber-ness I guess. All the translations with indeed or whatever dictionaries are suggesting are adding a flavor to it that just isn’t there most of the time in a German zwar sentence.
So would the sentences be the same without zwar? Well, as far as meaning is concerned, I would say yes. Zwar is not a coloring particle. It doesn’t add a whole new feel to a sentence as doch or schon do. It does change the tone a bit. Without it, the sentences would sound a little robotic in my ears. Zwar just makes for a better but-experience. Just like in good movies… you have a setup and a pay-off. An out-of-the-blue-but can be nice, too, but an introduced one often feels more smooth. More examples:

  • Ich habe zwar keine Lust, aber ich gehe trotzdem mit meiner Freundin in die Oper.
  • I don’t want to,but I still go with my girlfriend to the opera.

Now, one question many of you are certainly asking is “Where does zwar go in a sentence”… and the answer is, as often, when it comes to German word order.

It depends!

Yes, it’s in yellow so it is even more annoying . So… zwar can go in a a lot of places but basically it comes before the main statement of the sentence.. the core, the part that you will contradict with aber

  • Ich muss heute meinem Bruder bei seinen Hausaufgaben helfen aber danach habe ich Zeit.
  • I have to help my brother with his homework today but after that I will have time.

Now here are the possible versions:

  • Zwar muss ich heute meinem Bruder bei seinen…. yes, this is possible, too, but it sounds a bit scripted
  • Ich muss zwar heute meinem Bruder…. here, the whole chunk is what is going on
  • Ich muss heute zwar meinem Bruder … is possible but a bit weird
  • Ich muss heute meinem Bruder zwar bei den… is possible… here only the “help with homework” part is the core, while heute and Bruder feel like optional side information.

All those are acceptable and express pretty much the same thing… at least to me that is. The second option is the best if it is just a general statement. Now what about this:

  • Ich muss heute meinem Bruder bei seinen Hausaufgaben zwar helfen…

This is really really odd and only very precise intonation can make that sound correct. The thing the aber-part contradicts here is really only the helfen so all the rest of the info (brother, today, homework) will remain untouched. A possible aber-part would be this:

  • Ich muss heute meinem Bruder bei seinen Hausaufgaben zwar helfen aber ich muss sie nicht für ihn machen.
  • I have to help my brother with his homework today, yes, but I don’t have to do it FOR him.

So helfen is contradicted to machen. This is incredibly specific compared with the general time example. So… once again we have seen, that word order kind of evades rules in German. The best advice I can give you is this…bring your zwar as early as possible but don’t use position 1 because that would sound as if you’re stage acting. This is no 100% guarantee… just a rule of thumb.

All right. Now before we wrap up we need to talk about the other zwar. What? There is another zwar…as in … a different one?? Yes, of course there is. It is called und zwar the translation is namely and I have absolutely NOOOOO clue why the combination of und and zwar would means that. As a matter of fact…  I took German as a native language when I was in childhood and still I  learned NO EARLIER than a few months ago that it is spelled that way. I am serious. I though it was spelled unzwar, with the same un- in there as in, say, ungesund (unhealthy)… and that made soooooo much sense to me. Zwar is setting up a but, unzwar doesn’t… but anyway…

  • Thomas trifft sich mit ein paar Freunden, und zwar mit Marie, Stefan und Kolja.
  • Thomas meets a few friends, namely Marie, Stephan and Kolja.

Here it introduces a list but it also works without a list…

  • Ich habe ein Problem, und zwar habe ich meinen Schlüssel zu Hause vergessen und jetzt blah blah blah…
  • I have a problem, you see /which is as follows, I forgot my keys at home and now yada yada yada…

Here, it kind of creates a pause before a somewhat longer story sets in. But it doesn’t even need to be long.

  • Ich will was Japanisches essen und zwar am liebsten Sushi.
  • I want to eat Japanese and Sushi would be my favorite.

Here, it kind of connects the 2 parts.Without und zwar it would be a little disjointed and staccato. But I don’t think that there is a need to always translate it. Sometimes it means namely and sometimes it is kind of just the essence of namely…

Anyway, I think we’ll wrap it up here. Most important to remember is not to ever use zwar without a follow-up aber. Why not? Because it is REALLY unsatisfying… like… not getting the kiss after the first date or, 2 weeks later, having the parents of your love interest come home and you are upstairs passionately, hey by the way … it is still freaking cold in Berlin. See… that’s how disappointing it is if the aber is missing after zwar
So… that was our Word of the Day zwar. If you have any questions or suggestions or you want to write some fan fiction based on the last part, just leave me a comment. Here’s a good title for it.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

32 responses to “Word of the Day – “zwar”

  1. Wow, I bet I’v disappointed alot of Germans. I always used zwar like “eigentlich” and seldom followed it with “aber” :)
    nur eine Frage, warum verwendet man “sondern” anstatt aber nicht?”. Es scheint mir, dass “Sondern” passt hier besser, weil es “but instead” auf Englisch bedeutet.

    aber ach, geben werde ich euch keine – Why is the word order the way it is in this sentence.

    great article, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hehe.. the sentence structure :)

      So here is the sentence again:

      – Aber ach, geben werde ich euch keine.

      The first part (aber ach) is just an exclamation (but oh) and not really part of the sentence so we’ll ignore that. And here is the break down.

      Geben = position 1 has one element
      werde = main verb in position 2 as the rule of thumb demands
      ich = subject, has to come now based on the general rule
      euch keine = indirect object followed by direct object just as the rule of thumb says.

      So what’s weird here is the geben in position 1… and that is possible. The left-over of the verb/action of a sentence can be put into position 1, too. Be it a verb or a prefix or a ge-form… here some example:

      – Gegessen hab’ ich heute eine Pizza.
      – Ich habe heute eine Pizza gegessen.

      – Auf mache ich das Fenster.
      – Ich mache das Fenster auf.

      – Verstehen kann ich ganz gut.
      – Ich kann ganz gut verstehen.

      or as always something extreeeeeeeme:

      – Schlafen lassen müssen hättest du mich.
      – Du hättest mich schlafen lassen müssen.

      Putting the left over of the verb in position 1 shines a HUUUUUGE spotlight on it. It is unusual and you have to have a reason for it. But it is not wrong and it can sound elegant, just as it does in the example with the prince.
      Is it used in daily speech… yes, not with prefixes, but with ge-forms and especially helperverb constructions … people do talk that way sometimes, when it fits the overall construction

      – Paris ist eine schöne Stadt, aber wohnen will ich da nicht.

      This is perfect and people say it. Doing this here has 2 effects. Wohnen gets a strong emphasis as it is so unusual to be in position 1. So wohnen is kind of put into contrast to other activities you can do in Paris like visiting or working. For those it may be a fine city but for living it’s not. And then, the second effect is that the nicht is now final. This leaves your sentences open till the very last word. I mean the aber and the preceding part kind of give it away. But in the following example you just don’t know:

      – Gefallen hat mir der Film gut/nicht.

      The last word makes all the difference here. And that is something typical for German. This kind of arc in a sentence with the resolve at the end. Back to the original example:

      – Aber ach, ich werde euch keine geben.

      The original version is much better than this one. First of, the geben is boring. We know all we need to know after keine. What else could come there other than geben so it is boring to sit through those 2 syllables. And then having geben first makes for a better connection to the exclamation.

      – ABer ach. STOP Ich werde euch keine geben

      This would be not very fluent. Aber ach is not grammatically part of the sentence but it is vibe-wise… so position 1 kind of is occupied but not. Putting geben there satisfies grammar and also satisfies the desire to have the subject follow the verb because Aber ach made us think that a sentence with subject 3rd would follow.
      Wow… I think I really got carried away here :). I Can talk for hours about sentence structure. I love it.
      Anyway… I didn’t really understand you first question. Can you tell me, which sentence you mean? And sorry for not responding in German.I wanted to but then I simply forgot :)


      • Was? Unglaublich! It’s like I’ve been lied to the whole time. You’ve blown my mind. I clicked on ‘zwar’ to learn about… well zwar, but then find out that my basic understanding of German sentence structure was going to have a massive hole punched in it by Emmanuel!!? If the German language was a giant, rapids filled river, then sentence structure was my paddle in my canoe of vocabulary, and you just ripped the paddle from my hands and smashed it in two and handed me back the broken pieces saying “try again”. That was a terrible metaphor, but I just feel so betrayed now. It hurts to even think about what else I still have to learn.


        • I really like the metaphor :)… seriously though… I don’t know exactly what your creed was with German sentence structure but I think the “simplify” it in books so as to not scare off beginners but then they simply forget to address that later on… and I’m sure many are not really aware of just how flexible this language is structure-wise. There is a lot of “Halbwissen” out there and particularly the bits about sentence structure in books and especially online drive me crazy… anyway… it is nothing too scary really… I don’t know if you’ve read my post on “Box model” … you can just put any box in position 1… and a verb is kind of a what box… not as a object but still

          – Ich werde sie dir nicht [ ]

          I would be asking

          – WHAT?

          or this:

          -“Ich mache das Radio.”
          “WHAT? What do you make the radio?”
          ” An.”
          “Oh an, I see.”

          There is a lot of feel needed for German sentence structure… not so much for the basic right/wrong… no, I mean feel for how certain word orders sound in certain context. You kind of have to leave your canoe and get into the stream… the waters will sure wash you around but they won’t drown you and the rocks are actually cushions and they don’t hurt. Soon you’ll swim like a fish :)


  2. Ah, da ist dann deine “zwar” Artikel ! Du hast mir zwar schon eine Preview gegeben aber trotzdem habe ich wieder etwas davon gelernt :) Das es auch die “und zwar” Konstruktion gibt wusste ich nicht. Wird das umgangssprachlich oft verwendet? Es gibt übrigens einen kleinen Tippfehler in deiner Artikel. Das mit dem Quiz: “Well, surprise surprise… the correct answer is 3”. Ich glaube du meinst da 2 :)


    • Oh, dass du “und zwar” nicht kennst überrascht mich ein bisschen :). Es wird zwar nicht andauernd und jeden Tag verwendet aber manchmal schon, auch umgangssprachlich. Aber man kommt gut ohne aus. (dieser Satz verwirrt jetzt bestimmt ganz viele Leute :D)
      Und wegen dem Quizz… DANKE!!!! Das ist natürlich 2


      • hehe, Ich weiß ja noch lange nicht alles :) und das ist eigentlich auch gut da ich sonst keinen Grund mehr habe deine Artikel zu lesen und ich ein anderes Hobby suchen muss!


  3. Right after reading this, I ran into the following from Harry Potter:
    “Zwar hatten sie von Harry viel über Dobby gehört, doch gesehen hatten sie ihn noch nie.”

    Danke sehr! Deine Artikel sind immer nützlich!


  4. Ok, I have defiantly answered my own original question after reading your “aber vs. sonder” blog. but that huge reply you gave about the sentence structure was realllly interesting! I had no idea that you could do that. Gewusst habe ich vorher das nicht!!!? it still seems really weird, guess i’ll just have to practice it.


    • Almost perfect. It should be:

      Gewusst hab’ ich das vorher nicht.

      Das is direct object and that kind of has to come there… for … reasons beyond my reach :).
      Anyway… it is actually just logical to do that… I mean we can put anything in position 1 so why not the remainder of the verb… and it is an awesome way to illustrate that the definition of what the left overs are,or in other words, what is the full verb, is relative…

      Fahrrad fahren habe ich mit 5 Jahren gelernt.


      Fahrrad habe ich mit 5 Jahren fahren gelernt.

      Both is correct. The first version treats Fahrrad fahren as one unit, Fahrrad fahren is the what box… what have I learned? Fahrrad fahren…. just like anrufen, only in 2 words. So the action in that sentence is lernen.
      The second version treats fahren as the verb while Fahrrad is just a regular direct object. It is the what box… what did I learn to drive? Fahrrad..
      And here the action is learn how to drive…. so it’s all a bit relative :)
      No difference in meaning, just difference in sound… but I’ll talk more on that in a post on sentence structure


  5. A few corrections on your middle English
    “Thou have killed the dragon? Thou are lying, it seems.”
    “Thou hast killed the dragon? Thou art lying (thuo lyst?… maybe), it doth seem (it seemeth… maybe).”
    I’m not positive that this is 100% correct, but it’s defiantly very close! (not bad for about 10 minutes of research)
    Even tho it’s totally irrelevant (and useless) I find the similarities in conjugations (especially “hast) really interesting!


    • Hehe… yeah, my emulating old English is basically limited to using thou, thee and that… your sentences are awesome!!! Thank you so much. I definitely added them. What exactly did you do to find out about that? Because as you said, it is really really incredible to see how damn close German and English once were… I mean, I knew they were closer back then, but the verb endings were news to me…. English truly has come a long way :)


  6. It hath come a long way indeed:)
    We learn these in our English class from reading Shakespeare, but allot of what is out there about this period of English (Elisabethian period, aka “early modern English”) is incorrect. You will often hear bad imitations like “Thou hast comest far indeed”. this is obviously wrong because of the double conjugation (should be “thou hast come far indeed”) also one often tries to conjugate to much when speaking this form of English, only the du (thou) and er sie es (he she it) forms are conjugated (thou love(e)st and he she it run(e)th) and only present tense. also, when the noun starts with a vowel, the possessive articles change.
    my chair
    mine apple
    They chair
    Theyn apple
    I’m defiantly not an expert on this stuff, and there are plenty of people with and more accurate knowledge on this topic (although most of them are dead:)) If you are a tooooootal nerd (like me!) and want to study this more, I suggest checking out the Wikipedia links below, or buying books written in that time period but avoid books that may be “appear” to be in early modern english, but rather are just made to sound archaic and not actually following the rules of the language.

    Hope this was helpfull, keep the blogs coming, there awesome!!


    • mine apple, theyn apple…. kind of like…. mein Apfel, dein Apfel :D. Thanks for the links and the advice. I will use it next time I try to use ancient English, which I will because I love it.


  7. The “ancient English” is indeed awesome but… incorrect, is it not? “Thou” is an archaic second-person informal singular pronoun in English, cognate with “du”—”Ihr” seems like a bad match…


    • Hehe… I know, you’re right. Those were some impolite knights talking. Let’s call it ancient sounding English instead :)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yea very good point. If I remember correctly, ‘thou’ is technically still part of modern English (just fallen out of use). We all have very skewed ideas of Old-Middle-Modern English as well. What most people consider old English is in fact middle, even Shakespeare pushes into modern English (but is nowhere near old). Old English is essentially ‘pre-french’, and to the average modern-day English speaker, completely unreadable (just go take a look at an original copy of Beowulf). Through a series of additional Germanic, and mainly french influences it grew into what is considered a ‘middle-English’. For examples of this, I believe Chaucer is the best literary source. ‘Ancient English’ just seems like a gross overstatement :)) Either way, most people understand the medievalness of the added conjugations. :)) I hate to further kill the buzz.


  8. Kenny’s right, “thou” is informal singulare, But I just cant find what “ihr” was back then (I think just “you”). If thats the case, than there is no conjugation for verbs (only thou, he she and it congugated, not plurals). The cool part about the old english was how similer the conjugations were, especialy with “hast” so even if there not right, I still think its was cool, at least for me, to realize how close the two lnguages were a few hundered years ago. If “you” replaces “thou” in the above example, then the whole conjugation is lost, making it identical to modern english, making it more correct, but less awsome.


  9. Ich komme zwar aus Deutschland, stieß aber gerade auf der Suche nach einer Übersetzung von “zwar” auf deine Seite und bin entzückt, wie schön du das hier erklärst! :) Danke.


  10. I haven’t read all the comments, but it seems to me people are missing that the sentence structure found in “Aber ach, geben werde ich euch keine” exists in English also.

    An example I just used at work in an email:

    “Attached are the minutes from the meeting.”

    It seems to serve exactly the same function as the German version – bringing the important verb to the beginning.


  11. I’ve just come across this use of zwar form the German wikipedia page on the European anthem: –

    “Es gibt zwar verschiedene Textvorschläge in unterschiedlichen Sprachen, die zum Teil auch auf Veranstaltungen von Chören vorgetragen wurden.”

    There is no ‘aber’, or ‘doch’, in this sentence and there is no ‘und zwar’ either. Could you explain what zwar does here? It’s a little confusing!


    • The solution comes at the end of the paragraph:

      – Die Europäische Kommission lehnte den Antrag jedoch ab und auch keiner der anderen Textvorschläge wurde offiziell anerkannt.

      The key word is “jedoch” which could be just as well “aber” here. “Zwar” can reach across sentences…. a sentence is a more or less arbitrary thing anyway. So here, they spend two sentences to define what is going to be “aber-ed” and then it comes. But the “zwar” already tells us that it’ll happen. So when the “jedoch” comes, no one is surprised but rather gets this feel of closure of an arc.
      Hope that helps :)

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Ich habe zwar heir besucht, um einen artikel über kehren zu finden und habe gar nichts gefund aber dann habe Ich etwas ganz anders bekommt. Ich sehe dieses wort jeden tag und bin sehr froh, dass es endlich klar ist. Danke sehr und mach weiter so.


    • Ah “kehren”… ja, das ist tatsächlich ein interessantes Wort. Ich glaub’ das mach ich mal auf die (lange lange lange) Liste :).
      Ein paar kleine Korrekturen:

      – Ich habe hier besucht….

      “Besuchen” kannst du eignetlich nur Personen, oder Orte wie Museum oder so. Aber nicht “hier, da, dort”. Du brauchst ein Objekt, aber “Hier” ist nur eine wo-Info. Man benutzt “besuchen” sowieso nicht so oft, wie in Englisch. Daher am besten:

      – Ich bin hier hergekommen

      – … habe nichts gefund… muss “gefunden” sein
      – … habe ich etwas ganz anders bekommt…. muss “anderes bekommen” sein.

      Insgesamt ist das “zwar” nicht falsch, aber die beiden Teile (Ich habe zwar besucht – ich habe was anderes bekommen) sind nicht sehr stark miteinander verbunden (inhaltlich). Bei dem “zwar” habe ich was erwartet, was dem “Besuchen” widerspricht. Ich würde es so machen:

      – Eigentlich bin ich hier hergekommen um einen Artikel über kehren zu finden. Den habe ich zwar nicht gefunden, dafür habe ich aber etwas ganz anderes bekommen.


  13. “As you can see, I did not translate zwar because it really isn’t doing much except setting up aber thus giving it more… aber-ness I guess”

    Hi! I would actually argue, that you can (and do) translate “zwar” into English, und zwar (couldn’t help it)) by stressing the “be” or the “have” verb, or by adding a “do”. Going to borrow some of your own examples here:
    The dress is expensive, but I’ll get it anyway. (Here you could put the accent on “is” to foreshadow the “but” part – and that’s exactly what “zwar” does)
    Well, I do have a little work left, but tonight I am free. (And here you actually add the “do” with the same exact purpose, so in this case “do” is the translation of “zwar”)

    P.S. I sort of felt sorry for the poor little “zwar”, because online translators do tend to simply ignore it, so I just wanted point out that there is a place for it in english)

    Oh, and i love your blog!)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s