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:


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:
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.

  • Ich fliege nicht nach London sondern nach Paris.
  • I don’t fly to London but (rather) to Paris.
  • Ich fahre nicht mit dem Auto sondern mit dem Fahrrad.
  • I don’t go by car but (rather) by bike.
  • Ich trinke meinen Kaffee nicht mit Zucker sondern mit Honig.
  • I don’t drink my coffee with sugar but with honey instead.
  • Ich habe nicht nur mein Zimmer aufgeräumt sondern auch die Küche und das Bad.
  • Not only did I clean my room but also the kitchen and the bathroom.

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…

  • Meine Schwester hat das Buch nicht sondern mein Bruder hat es.
  • Meine Schwester hat das Buch nicht aber mein Bruder hat es.

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”

5 15 votes
Article Rating

Newsletter for free?!

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Your Thoughts and Questions

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 months ago

Ihre beispiel im zwar aber post.. Zwar ohne aber ist gleiche hat freundin aber kein kuss

1 year ago

i think “jedoch” should be there somewhere in the article .. it has the same meaning sometimes … why is it not one of the but-lings?

2 years ago


Neal More
Neal More
2 years ago

You over-write absurdly … in English

3 years ago

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

Patricia Baker
Patricia Baker
4 years ago

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.

4 years ago

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.

5 years ago

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

5 years ago

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“

6 years ago

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!

7 years ago

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

7 years ago

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!

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Definitely not pointless! The escape rules I make in my head don’t work 100%, however it’s generally useful to realise that if a word has multiple translations, picking a different English word is often the solution… Found doch, haven’t had the courage to read it yet…

3 years ago
Reply to  Dave

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.

Aditi Ghosh
7 years ago

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

7 years ago

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!

7 years ago

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.

7 years ago

Thanks a lot , ich verstehe jetzt was bedeutet eigentlich

8 years ago

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!

8 years ago

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”.

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yes, you are right. (How did you get to be so good at English?!)

Rather, even in the 9/11am example, does not fully discard an option in feeling. It is clear that 9 o’clock rules and 11 is “tolerated” as a variation this day only. “I work at 11 today, not 9” lacks that shade of feeling. The person may almost always, or never again, work at 9. More information would be needed to know. E.g. It could mean “i wrote down 9 incorrectly in my diary”.

Nonetheless, sondern translates to “rather” in my mind, not “but”, by the very virtue of this push-pull alternative aspect. The “rather” of fact (a or b) not the rather of preference (lieber).

Oh, and as for rather moving around, i am not good at grammar, i only operate english, and do not really understand it; but i think that rather always belongs to one option.

I start work at 11 rather than 9. I’d rather drink water than cola. (is that idiomatic?) – yes, although normally it would come with a reason.

I think the rather belongs to 11 and water, whether or not it is positioned in front or behind the word. And you thought only german hurled words around sentences and let them fall where they may (for the confused foreigner to sort out using the tenuous clues of one or two character variations in word-endings…)!

Again, thanks. You write how i would, so i love reading it and savour each little joke.


Sent from my/von meinem iPad gesendet. (Hence uncapitalized words, and general laziness.)

8 years ago

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!

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Actually in Italian we have “bensì”, that has the same meaning. Is old-fashioned and used very rarely, but it si understood nonetheless.

3 years ago
Reply to  vacarussel

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)

allemand | Annotary
8 years ago

[…] yourdailygerman.wordpress.com […]