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 hardest one to explain is sondern, so we will start with this one today. The other two but-lings are aber and außer. If you want to read up on außer click here.
I will not discuss aber separately as it is kind of the default case, so when it is neither sondern nor außer, aber will be fine.
The 3 words stand for 3 different concepts and for a German native they are definitely not related at all. If you pick the wrong one, you might not be understood… so knowing the differences is really a “must have”… yeah …marketing lingo is sooo coool. 

I wasn’t really able to dig out some etymological background on sondern… yes.. I do consider a Google search as digging… I mean… I did look at page 2 after all. Anyway… there is a sort of outdated verb sondern in German which means something like to separate. It is never used in daily speech though. I just mentioned it because it might help you to understand sondern and other things with sonder in them like besonders (particular-ly) or sonderbar (strange).
What’s that? You want to get to the but-ling already? Ok ok. So but is translated to sondern whenever your structure or idea is something like this:

not A but B instead.

not A but rather B.

not only A but also B.

Now I know how you hate real life examples. They really are a pain. But I will give them anyway… hah!

  • Ich fliege nicht nach London sondern nach Paris.
  • I don’t fly to London but to Paris.
  • Ich fahre nicht mit dem Auto sondern mit dem Fahrrad.
  • I don’t go by car but by bike.
  • Ich trinke meinen Kaffee nicht mit Zucker sondern mit Honig.
  • I don’t drink my coffee with sugar but with honey.

Obviously, there is always some sort of contradiction or replacement indicated by sondern. The second thing you mention, the one after the but, is instead of the first.
This hint of course does not really apply for the not only but also construction. This, however, also works with sondern.

  • 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, this article here  is certainly not the first attempt to explain the difference between aber and sondern. I have read some discussion boards and the core of most explanations is that it will be sondern if there is a “not” in the first part of the sentence… the part before the but. This is not wrong but it is NOT complete either, as having a “not” in the first part does NOT automatically make your but  sondern.  You really have to understand the concept of contradiction if you want to master sondern vs. aber. To make this contradiction a little more clear, let’s try to directly compare sondern with the first but-ling aber. The translations are chosen to illustrate the meaning rather than being literal.

  • Heute muss ich nicht um 9 arbeiten sondern um 11.
  • Today I have to start working at 11 instead of 9.
  • Heute muss ich nicht um 9 arbeiten aber um 11.
  • Today I don’t have to start working at 9 but I have to work anyway … from 11.

So as you can see, there is a “not” in the first part in either version. I hope you can see the different focus  of sondern and aber. Let’s do one more of those examples.

  • Meine Schwester hat das Buch nicht sondern mein Bruder hat es.
  •  Not my sister but my brother has the book. (And that is a huge difference as they live in 2 different cities)
  • Meine Schwester hat das Buch nicht aber mein Bruder hat es.
  • My sister does not have the book but my brother has it. (So it’s ok as long as one of ’em has it)

So you can see that aber and sondern clearly have a different subtext. If you still feel uncertain about when to use which that is totally fine. If you are not used to the distinction between sondern (but instead) and aber (but) your first steps are sure to be a bit clumsy but you are not alone. Many European languages, mainly the Roman ones, do not have the distinction and they all have to get used to it when they try to learn a Germanic or Slavic language. But it is important that you try because to someone who natively makes this distinction aber and sondern are really not the same.

To wrap this up here is a little but-stuffed text… but-stuffed… hmmm… is that really appropriate… I guess it was until I asked :). Anyway, can you guess … oh I meant determine 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

The last one was unfair. That was the 3rd but-ling and we haven’t talked about it at all today.  But what’s the golden rule of pedagogics? Always send home  your students with the experience of epic failure. Because if they feel too smart they won’t return :).

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.

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