Word of the Day – “sondern”

the three but-lings... sondern, aber and außerHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will look at the meaning of:

sondern

 

or as I like to call it: the second one of the three butlings.
The three but-lings are the three German words but translates to. The other two but-lings are aber and außer and even though they all translate to but, they stand for a different concepts.
Ausser is easy to explain – it’s the German word for except. And aber is kind of the default, normal but.
The one that’s really tricky is sondern and that’s what we’ll tackle today.
Yes, I know it’s Mercury retrograde again. But I don’t really believe in Chemistry, so this shouldn’t affe… wait… Mercury doesn’t refer to the element, does it?
Off, great now, I’m already confused. Damn you, retro-Merc!
Anyway, let’s jump right in.
And let’s start with the word but itself. It originally was a combination of by and out and it’s essence is expressing a  contrast or contradiction between two parts.

  • I’m tired and I keep watching the Witcher.
  • I’m tired but I keep watching the Witcher.

As we can see in the version with and, the context already makes us feel some sort of a contradiction between the two pieces. I shouldn’t be watching the Witcher if I am tired. In fact, I shouldn’t be watching it at all, because it’s cheap and I feel weirdly attracted to Henry Cavi… erm… anyway, so there’s an implied contradiction or contrast, but the but in the second sentence really solidifies it.
And how does that help us with sondern?
Well, sondern expresses a specific kind of contrast or contradiction – we could call it “exclusive“.
In the first example we had, the two parts are in contradiction, and yet they coexist. I am tired AND I am watching the Witcher (regardless).
That’s different in the following example:

  • I’m not watching the Witcher but rather the Mandalorian.

Of course, I can technically watch both shows, I could even watch them at the same time. But the way we phrased it, we’re “excluding” one option in favor of the other.
And that’s exactly what sondern is used for.

  • Ich gucke nicht The Witcher, sondern The Mandalorian.

Or in a more general way…

  • not      A     but (rather) B (instead)
  • nicht  A    sondern B

In English, you sometimes have to add rather or instead in order to convey this “exclusivity”. In German, that’s built in with sondern. And that makes sense, too. You see, sondern is related to besonders (special, especially), sonderbar (strange) and the English asunder and even though these words seem very different on the surface, there’s a common underlying theme:
separation.
And that’s pretty much what sondern does. It sets the two options apart and pits them against each other.
Let’s look at some more examples.

Now you might be like:
“Wait a second, Emanuel… that last one is not really the same. We’re having BOTH options here. A and B. How does that fit it there?”
That’s a very good question. The basic structure is this:

not only A but also B

And this will ALWAYS be done with sondern.
But if we look at it like the options are only A vs A AND B then it fits right in with what we had before.
Yeah, I know it’s a little forced maybe. If you want you can also look at it as a separate structure.
Cool… so basically, we need to use sondern whenever our basic structure is one of the two:

not A but (rather) B (instead)
not only A but also B /A AND B

But what happens if we actually mess up and use an aber? Why can it be so confusing to native speakers?
Well, let’s look at Henry Cavill agai… I mean let’s look at the example with the Witcher again…. that’s what I meant.

  • Ich gucke nicht The Witcher sondern The Mandalorian.

This is what we already know. The Witcher loses in favour of the Mandalorian.
Now, let’s replace sondern with aber.

  • Ich gucke nicht The Witcher aber The Mandalorian.

This sounds a bit odd, but the message is something like this:

  • I’m not watching the Witcher, but I AM watching the Mandalorian… so I am watching something.

We’re still preferring the Mandalorian over the Witcher but now, we don’t focus on the contradiction, but rather on what they have in common… they’re both TV shows I might watch.
So the opposing option here is actually s “not watching anything”.

  • I’m not watching A but I’m watching B. #watchingconfirmed

Let’s do another example…

Can you tell the difference :)?
In the first one, sondern puts my sister in direct opposition to my brother. A bit like this, though  not as dramatic:

  • It’s not my sister who has the book – it’s my BROTHER. Dun dunn dunnnn.

The version with aber on the other hand kind of puts brother and sister on the same side. A fitting translation would be this:

  • My sister doesn’t have the book, but my brother has it.

Can you feel how there’s a notion of “so it’s okay” in the air? It’s really hard to say where it comes from, but my sister and my brother having the book are kind of on the same side of the coin and the implied opposite option is that neither of them has it. So you can see that aber and sondern clearly have a very different subtext and perspective. And why it can be so confusing to a German native speaker if you mix them up.

Now, English as well as the Romantic languages don’t use distinct words and I can imagine that it’s takes a while to wrap your head around it and develop a feeling for this contradiction that sondern expresses.
But it’ll come over time.
And until you have that feeling, just check if you can add a rather or instead to the but that you want to translate.

  • not A but rather B instead
  • not only A but also B

And speaking of translating… to wrap this up here is a little but-laden text. Can you tell them all correctdetermine the correct but-lings?

Today I woke up pretty late but I still felt very tired. So I decided not to
get up but to stay in bed a little longer. But then my phone rang. I tried to
ignore it but it wouldn’t stop. So I got up but it turned out that it wasn’t
anything important but just some stupid opinion poll. So I took my
chance to bitch at the people a bit. I told them not only how puzzling it
was that they had my number but also how daring it was to call at 1 pm
in the morning. I waited for a response but the guy had nothing to say
but “Sorry sir, good day sir.”

 

The solutions: aber, sondern, aber, aber, aber, sondern,  sondern, aber, ausser

What’s that you’re saying? The last one was unfair because we didn’t talk about it?
Well, that’s called a cliffhanger. Just like in  The Witcher. If you want to keep watch… I mean learning, just follow the link below.
So, this was our Word of the Day sondern. If you have questions or suggestions just drop me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

further reading:

Word of the Day – “außer”

for members :)

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John
John

Brilliant! Thank you so much, informative as well as entertaining :)

unsandled

VIelen Dank!!.Gute Erklärung.

conanon

Haha. Thanks to you, I have finally got what sondern is. And that last exercise was damn funny. :D

Charles
Charles

Just a minor correction for one of your English phrases:
“Today I have start working at 11 instead of 9.”
should instead read
“Today I have to start working at 11 instead of 9.”

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vacarussel

Hi! Thanks for the post I really needed to get that thing out of my head… the diference between sondern and aber.

In Spanish there is a more suitable translation for the 3-but-lings actually. Its really much more simpler than English. In Spanish the equivalent for ‘aber’ would be ‘pero’, the equivalent for ‘sondern’ wold be ‘sino’ (in most cases but not all), and for ausser we have ‘menos’ or ‘excepto’.

– ◾Heute muss ich nicht um 9 arbeiten sondern um 11.

– Hoy no debo ir a trabajar a las 9, sino a las 11.

Just wanted to share some of my mother language. Great post, schone Erklarung!

NessD
NessD

Amo esta explicacion. Ich muss nicht nur nie über dieses Thema wieder nachdenken, sondern ich habe gerade auch ein tolles Plan für die Namen meiner Kinder. “Menos-excepto” wird den Intelligentest werden. Sure hope German-is-easy does not mind I send you flowers and invite you to the baptism. Great post, wie immer. Would be great if I got corrections on my attempt at nicht nur…, sondern auch.
PD: ( I do not have my “tildes” and apostrophes down on this qwerty keyboard, sorrz)

Janet
Janet

Thank you, I had fun with your explanation. A good alternative word for sondern is “rather”. This is falling out of use in everyday English, but it gets across the idea of the second idea being an alternative to the first nicely. “I start work at 11 rather than 9 today”.

Jack
Jack

Do you think you may in the future do a short post about how to use “aber” as a filler word like “doch” and “ja”. I sorta use it to express a contradiction, but it gets confusing as to whether I should use “doch” or not. Thanks!

Harinder
Harinder

Thanks a lot , ich verstehe jetzt was bedeutet eigentlich

nuriootpa
nuriootpa

Ha! I got all the butlings right in the but- stuffed piece- except the last one, which I wasn’t sure about as I could tell it was different. The way I got it was that aber is qualifying the first part of the sentence but sondern is instead of- not rice but wheat.
Thanks for the lesson- I know it’s a bit late but I got my German homework out from 1988! Maybe I’ll take it up again.

julio
julio

Meine Freunde hören nie Rockmusik, sondern nur Country. — this is a good example of why theres no need for a “not” in the sentence to use “sondern”. Excelent blog by the way, really helpful!

Aditi Ghosh

Your writing is not only informative ‘sondern’ also fun :)

Dave
Dave

I like your description. As a comment said earlier, “rather” can help. And I think that technique can help more than you realise. If you say a sentence with “but” in your head, and then, knowing but has 3 variants, force yourself to choose which is best using the rules:

however = aber
rather [fact] = sondern (fact stolen from above ;-) )
except = ausser

Then you get:

“Today I woke up pretty late however I still felt very tired. So I decided not to get up but rather to stay in bed a little longer. However then my phone rang. I tried to ignore it however it wouldn’t stop. So I got up however it turned out that it wasn’t anything important but rather just some stupid opinion poll. So I took my chance to bitch at the people a bit. I told them not only how puzzling it was that they had my number but rather also how daring it was to call at 1 pm in the morning. I waited for a response however the guy had nothing to say except “Sorry sir, good day sir.”

This “pick a different word in English” also works with other words, such as “if”,

Whether = ob
can’t use whether, must use if = wenn

you don’t get the issue of “rather” fact/preference, cos you know in your head what you mean, you are just trying to find a different word in English that still fits.

In any case this has really worked for me when there are a variety of translations. Of course doesn’t work 100%, but gets me really close.

Off now to find if you ever did that doch article!

awal
awal

That is a fantastic way to think about it. The only exception I would make is just to tell people to memorize that “not only, but also” is always “nicht nur, sondern auch.” I think that the “but rather” construction is fairly kludgy sounding in English, so it may not be entirely intuitive using your excellent guidelines.

Meddy
Meddy

This was really helpfull……I appreciate…
I wish I could, get more of such quotes….

DantesDame

Many people said many nice things, but I do want to tell you that I LOVE your real-world sentences. That, with your etymology, are my two favorite parts. Oh, and your sense of humor :) But really the real-world sentences help me the most, because then I can see how things are supposed to fit together, and having the English translation allows me to dissect it even further. Thanks again for making this blog so fun to subscribe to!

space1oddity
space1oddity

First of all, thank you very much for what you do, it is much appreciated! :) Secondly, I tried to translate your example from the article to german. I struggled severely with the sentence: ,,I told them not only how puzzling it was that they had my number but also how daring it was to call at 1 pm in the morning.” (and generally it was quite difficult). I finally put together some sentences, but as I am self-taught, there is nobody around to correct my mistakes. Would you please take a quick look if this is ok/understandable/or at least ok for a beginner that I certainly am? Thank you sooo much! :-) Btw do you have any suggestions on grammar check of written text, when I don’t have any teacher? Thanks.

Heute bin ich ziemlich spät aufgewacht aber ich fühlte mich immer noch sehr müde. Ich habe beschlossen, nicht aufstehen sondern im Bett etwas länger bleiben. Aber dann mein Handy klingelte. Ich versuchte das zu ignorieren aber es würde nicht aufhören. Also ich stand auf aber es hat sich herausgestellt, dass es war nicht wichtig sondern nur irgendeine dumme Meinungsumfrage.
Ich habe die Chance zu schimpfen über die Leute ein bisschen genutzt . Ich sagte ihnen, nicht nur wie verwirrend es war, dass sie hatten meinen Nummer sondern wie dreist war mich um 1 Uhr im Morgen zu anrufen. Ich habe auf die Antwort gewartet aber der Mann hatte nicht zu sagen ausser : ,,Entschuldigung Sie mir bitte Herr, guten Tag Herr“

carloxavier
carloxavier

Thanks again, sometimes I feel the next sentence had exactly what I was wondering about =)

Peter
Peter

I thought there was supposed to be a comma before “sondern?” When I learned German, I was taught that coordinating conjunctions need commas (except for “und” and “oder” where it is optional). Source: “Mittendrin” by Goulding, Stehl, von Schmidt.

Patricia Baker
Patricia Baker

Thank you for this blog. I think it help me remember. In Engish we have sunder meaning separate, sundry ,sundries and asunder. I cant work this key board.

Mariam
Mariam

I didn’t understand the part when you used both of them