The meaning and use of – “sonst”

sonst-pictureHello everyone,

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



And sonst is a word you’ll hear, no matter where you are – in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bathroom or in bedroom. Wait… I guess, now that we’re all quarantened that doesn’t actually make sense.
What I wanted to say is that sonst is really really common and useful.
So you had better be ready to jump right in. OR ELSE ;)!!

If you look up sonst in a dictionary you’ll find that it can translate to else, besides, usually and before, and even of course or “duh!”. Seems a bit random on the surface and I can see how learners would find that a little confusing.
But there’s actually a common underlying theme and the key to that is the origin.

There are actually two theories  as to where sonst comes from. One of them really makes a lot of sense and helps a great deal at understanding the meaning.
So we’ll focus on the former.
This theory comes from the Duden, which is kind of the German Merriam Webster, and it says that sonst used to be three words a few hundred years ago… so ne ist (so nicht ist). Which means something like “if it is not so“.
This was then slowly fused together and became the sonst that we have today. But the original idea of “if it is not so” is still at its core.
Now let’s take a “model” of a sentence:

  • A, sonst B.

Using the core idea, this basically expresses something like:

  • A, if not so then B.

Now, don’t get this wrong. Sonst does NOT always straight up translate to “if not so then“.  That’s just the underlying idea.
It basically introduces other options BESIDES the one(s) mentioned before.
What we’ll do now is go over the various uses in practice and see if we can find this core notion there.

“sonst” – else

And we’ll start where many people start their day:  the bakery. I mean, in non-quarantene times, of course :).

  • “Was darf’s denn sein?”
    “Also, ich hätt’ gern 5 Brötchen und 1 Stück Mohnkuchen.”
    Und sonst noch was?
    “Nee, das war’s.”
    Dann sind’s 3 Euro 75 bitte.
  • “So what will it be today?
    “I’d like to have 5 buns and a piece of poppy-seed-cake.”
    Anything else?
    “Nah, that’s all.”
    Then it’ll be 3 Euro 75.”

This phrase “Sonst noch was” or the longer version “Darf’s sonst noch was sein?” is REALLY common in stores and on markets.
And not only there. Imagine your boss walking into the office being like

  •  I need you to do this, this this and this and then that and that and that, too.

That’s a perfect moment to sarcastically mumble…

  • Sonst noch was?
  • Anything else?

I think you get the idea :).
Now, some of you might be thinking that this use is more about addition.  You add bakery items to what you already have, you don’t replace them. But this sense of addition actually comes from the noch. The sonst adds a notion of “besides, other options”. Technically, the person in the bakery could just say “Noch was?”. This, too, would mean “Anything else?“. But now the focus would purely be on “addition”. The sonst adds a vibe of “other than that“, offering other options.

So let’s now look at a few examples where sonst is used alone. For instance this gem of German small talk.

  • “Na, wie läufts auf Arbeit?”
    “Oh, gut gut ich hab’ gestern erst blah blah blah blah blah….”
    “Hmm, ja….”
    “Ja ja…”
    “Und sonst so?”
  • “So, how’s work going?”
    “Oh good, good, just yesterday I blah blah blah blah blah …”
    “Hmmm, yeah…”
    “Well, well..”
    And … how’s the kids?”
    “And what else ?”(lit.)

True mastery. We Germans really crush it at small talk.
Now, I used the kids in the translation because Und sonst so?  has actually kind of become code for “We don’t know what to talk about.” and people use it to comedic effect. But the “normal” meaning it has is asking for alternative areas of life. Like… what else is up besides what you’ve told me.
Here’s another example….

  • “… blah blah blah… und ja, das ist meine Arbeit.”
    “Oh, klingt interessant. Und was machst du sonst so?”
  • “blah blah blah … so yeah, that’s what I do for living.”
    “Oh sounds interesting. And what are you doing when you’re not working/besides that?”

As  you can see here, it doesn’t really always translate directly. But I think the idea of “other options” is pretty clear.

Now, so far things were pretty clear, I think.
Now let’s get to the more “obscure” translations of sonst. Like usually for example.

sonst – usually

Behold the example…

  • “Wo ist Thomas? Es ist schon 10 nach.”
    “Komisch. Er ist sonst immer pünktlich.”
  • “Where is Thomas? It is 10 past , already.”
    “Weird. Usually, he is always on time.”

The translation is usually, and  that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the sonst from the bakery, for example.
But when we look closer, we can see the same core notion of alternative at work. Do you remember our sentence model from the beginning?
Here it is again.

  • A, sonst B.
  • A, if not so/otherwise B.

We can totally applies that to the example we just had.

  • [Thomas is late this time], otherwise (usually)  [Thomas is punctual].

Usually “contrasts” an instance with a bunch of other instances, and that’s kind of also what sonst does.
Here is another example.

  • “Ich trinke sonst immer Kaffee aber heute trinke ich Tee.”
  • Normally/usually, I always drink coffee but today I’ll drink tea.”

Now, just to make sure… sonst is NOT always a translation for usually. It doesn’t work if the focus of the sentence isn’t “alternative” or other options.

  • Today, I’ll just go the bar I usually go to.
  • Today, I’ll go to that new bar, not the bar I usually go to.

Sonst would only work in the second example, because there, we’re talking about alternatives. In the first one, the proper word is normalerweise and sonst would sound a bit out of place.
Anyway so yeah… sonst can mean usually if you contrast one specific instance against what usually happens.
This use is pretty common, but I think the next one is even more important. And it is about… consequences.

sonst – or else

And this use might actually be the closest so far to the origin of sonst – the three words “so ne ist” (if it is not so).
Here’s an example

  • Mach deine Hausaufgaben, sonst kündige ich deinen World of Warcraft Account.
  • Do your homework or (else) I’ll terminate your World of Warcraft account.

The parent in this example lays down an “option” (doing your homework) and then offers another option – the level 80 Night Elf “Legolas’ Reckoning” with his +50 awesomeness bracelet is no more.
Just like in English or, we could also use oder in German to express the same idea. The difference is subtle, actually, if there is one at all. Maybe the sonst has a little bit of a stronger focus on the notion of consequence, but it’s by no means always with a threatening tone.
It’s pretty common in daily life, so here’s a couple more examples.

  • Zieh dich warm an, sonst erkältest du dich.
  • Dress warm or you will catch a cold.
  • Ich nehme meine Sportsachen direkt mit auf Arbeit. Sonst muss ich nachher nochmal nach Hause vor dem Sport.
  • I’ll take my sport wear to work with me. Else, I would have to go home again before sports. (probably not the best English phrasing… sorry)

And now let’s get to the last use of sonst.

sonst – “of course”

This really seems to have no connection. But it’ll be clear in a second.
Take the question…

  • Was sonst?
  • What else?

Based on what we’ve learned so far, this asks for other options.
But now let’s put it in a context.

  • “Du trinkst Bier?!?!”
    Was sonst? Ich trinke immer Bier.”
  • “You’re drinking beer?!”
    “Are you going to drink beer?”
    What else? I always drink beer.”

Do you see what happens? Here, the idea of what else is the same as of course because it is a retorical question.
The phrase itself didn’t change its meaning, it asks for other options. But the context makes it clear that it like “What else would I be drinking!”

Using sonst in this retorical fashion is pretty common in German and it works for all kinds of questions… location, time, manner. You name it.

  • “Wo ist dein Kühlschrank?”
    “In der Küche. Wo sonst?
  • “Where is your fridge?”
    “In the kitchen, duh!/ Where else (if not there)?”
  • “Was für eine Pizza nimmst du?”
    “Salami. Was sonst?”
  • “What pizza are you gonna get?”
    “Salami. Of course (because I always and exclusively take salami)”
  • “Du machst dein Bier mit den Zähnen auf?!”
    “Wie denn sonst?”
  • “You open your beer with your teeth?”
    “Of course. How else would I do it?”
    (audio disappeared. sorry :)

The last example can actually be both, a retorical question or a genuine inquiry as to how else I could open my beer. It comes down to how it is said.
Anyway… so now you have a pretty good overview over how sonst is used and of its core idea of other option(s).
Now, before we wrap up, let’s take a look at the related words of sonst. Because those are pretty useful as well.

words based on sonst

And we’ll start with the closest relative ansonsten. Ansonsten has gained popularity in recent years, while sonst is going downhill ( you can see here ) and the two are kind of sort of the same thing. But I’m hesitant of calling them synonyms because they’re not always equally idiomatic. I can’t really explain when to use which, tobe honest.
The only guideline I can give you is that ansonsten tends to sound fine in longer sentences that are NOT questions.

  • “Wie war’s gestern im Club?”
    “Och naja, wir mussten ziemlich lange anstehen und Marie war total betrunken und hat auf die Bar gekotzt aber ansonsten war es eigentlich ganz lustig.
  • “How was your night out?”
    “Oh , we had to wait in line for quite a while and Marie was totally wasted and uhm .. barfed on the bar (no pun intended) but other than that it was quite fun.”

And ansonsten might be a bit more general and it doesn’t fit all these “special” uses of sonst that we went over … like the one about consequences or the retorical one.
So… I think any ansonsten can be replaced with sonst, but not the other way around.
All right.
Next up, we have the adjective sonstig (e/n/r/m/s). And this is basically a somewhat formal alternative for ander(e/n/r/m/s) and means  other.

  • Heute reden wir nur über die Frage von Thomas. Alle sonstigen Fragen müssen bis nächste Woche warten.
  • Today, we’ll only talk about the question of Thomas. All other questions will have to wait till next week.

Don’t bother using sonstige in spoken German, though. It’s enough to understand it when you see it.
The next word is way more useful… umsonst.
And here, we actually get back to that other possible origin of sonst… you know, the one that I said wasn’t helpful.
Umsonst used to be two words: umbe sus. Sus is a relative to thus and this and the original meaning of the phrase was something like “for (a) so/this”.
Which doesn’t make any sense by itself.
But people back a few centuries used a hand gesture to accompany those words: waving your hand as if you are casually  tossing something to the side. And together with that hand gesture, umbe sus meant pretty much for nothing, for free. And that’s what it still means today. And at least in spoken German, it carries both meanings – for free in sense of without charge and for nothing in sense of in vain.

  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Mein Bruder hat mich eingeladen.
  • I was at the movies for free yesterday. My brother invited me.
  • Ich war gestern umsonst im Kino. Der Film, den ich sehen wollte war ausverkauft.
  • I was at the movie theater for nothing yesterday. The movie I wanted to see was sold out.

Now… marketing and advertisement people don’t really appreciate this double meaning so the use words like gratis or kostenlos instead. And there are also some occasions in daily life when someone would correct me by saying:

  • Du meinst kostenlos, nicht umsonst.
  • You mean free of charge, not in vain.

But honestly, I think in daily life people use umsonst in both senses and only the context makes it clear what they mean.

  • Ich hab’ sooo viel gelernt. Trotzdem hab’ ich die Klausur verkackt. Alles umsonst.
  • I’ve been studying soooo much and still I flunked the exam. All for nothing.
  • Hey, in der Bar da ist so ‘ne Aktion… wenn du zwei Bier kaufst, kriegst du eins umsonst.
  • Hey, there is this special in that bar… if you buy two beers, you’ll get one for free.

The last example is of course wishful thinking. I mean….  not because bars wouldn’t make deals like that, but because they’re all closed. *sob
Oh well, hail the fridge, I say.
And I think you can tell by my veering toward beer…. this was it for today :).
This was our look at the meanings and uses of sonst. And I hope you got a good impression of the core idea of “other option” and the various things we can do with it.
If you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little quiz, I have prepared.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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4 months ago

hi Emanuel. I really thank you for what you’re helping us with. I have a tiny question: in one of your sentences ” es ist schon 10 nach , why did not you say: es ist schon nach 10? it’s already past 10 . you’re the best, thank you

4 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

now I got it! . you are doing a great job.

9 months ago

I came across an instance of sonst that I am unsure about. In #plueschmond vol1, the protagonist’s phone was damaged by a bully and, while telling her sister about it, says “Ich will nur meine Ruhe. Hab Angst, dass es sonst schlimmer wird …”. Now, without sonst, I would translate it as “I only want to be left alone. I fear that it would get worst…” However, I don’t understand how “sonst” would contribute to the sentence…

Nora Šaponja
Nora Šaponja
2 years ago

Thank you so much! I heard the word “sonst” on the learn German podcast and I have spent some time looking for it online… with scarce luck… until..!!! Thank you, this really helps.

2 years ago

“Sind so kleine Münder
Sprechen alles aus.
Darf man nie verbieten
Kommt sonst nichts mehr raus.”

This is from the beautiful song, “Kinder (Sind so kleine Hände). I take it that when she sings “kommt sonst nichts mehr raus”, she’s using “sonst” in the sense that “if you keep acting this way (A), then they won’t speak their mind anymore (B)”.

4 years ago

Hallo, Emmanuel,
toller Beitrag! Ich habe das Wort “sonst” nie so umfassend erörtert gesehen. Guter Job!

Es ist manchmal gar nicht so leicht, dieses Wort zu erklären. Ich sehe das auch bei meinen Schülern. Manchmal nehme ich in einigen Fällen die Synonyme “im anderen Fall”, “andernfalls” oder einfach “wenn nicht”, wenn ich “if not” sagen möchte. Den Ausdruck “Was sonst?” könnte man vielleicht mit “was mehr” erklären.


5 years ago

It seems like otherwise is closer to sonst than else. I think some direct translations might be clumsy in English, but understandable. What do you think?

5 years ago

what about “aber sonst” “.. weil man nicht überall sein kann. Aber sonst ist alles super und die Zeit vergeht wie im Flug.”

5 years ago
Reply to  cemeroglu

It expresses the idea of “other than that” here. Does that help?

Osama T.
Osama T.
5 years ago

Top notch post as usual, thanks a lot, I just have one question, can I use “Sonst(e)was” to start a sentence?
As in: “Who knows what we’ll find in there”
And if so how can I phrase it properly in German?

Thanks again.

Osama T.
Osama T.
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yeah actually I understood the point you made, thanks for the explanation, but now I am really curious as to the equivalent German phrasing for the English example I wrote, would you please write it in German.
Thanks a bunch.

Osama T.
Osama T.
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Wer weist was werden wir dort drin finden.

If it’s correct that would be largely thanks to your articles on sentence structure, I only understood the structures when I read those, and I loved the boxes idea by the way.
And if not I guess I should revise those articles.
Thanks. Your posts are much appreciated.

Osama T.
Osama T.
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks for clearing it up, this helps. I did feel that something wasn’t right but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

6 years ago

Moin, Moin!

Deine Erklärung is sehr hilfreich. Vielen Dank.

Kurzlich habe ich Urlaub in Deutschland gemacht. Von diesem Blog habe ich viel gelernt und in Deutschland verwendet. Besonders gut ist wie man sagt übliche Dinge wie ein echter Deutsche. Die meiste Zeit nach meiner Erfahrung nutzt man (ok…Amerikaner) deutsche Wörter um Englisch zu sprechen, als ob vom Fachbuch. Bei diesem Blog kann ich ein gutes Sprachgefühl entwickeln. Meine deutsche Familie hat das bemerkt.

Es gibt noch viel zu tun, aber bei diesem Blog kann ich mein Deutsch verbessern. Noch einmal, tausenden Dank!


6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Vielen Dank! Du verstehst genau, was ich meine. /Eric

6 years ago

A quick question about sonst in combination with nur.

For instance, in the dependant clause:
wie man sie sonst nur in Maerkte erhaelt.

I am struggling to figure out why sonst is in there, when it seems like nur could do the trick and mean that I can only get this thing in Markets.

Thanks, and great blog. I am learning a lot that helped on my recent trip to Germany.


Tony Nash
7 years ago

Thanks very much for that. I have a degree in German and taught it for 20 years, but reading a book in German recently I came across ‘ansonsten’, which I’d never seen before. The meaning was obvious, but I wondered whether it was now in common use. You have made it very clear.

8 years ago

I just got stuck over something. This is not about your article “sonst” but but during a contented sort of mind drift, I realised I have no idea how to say something like “because of you, my german is improving” :)

When I look up “because of”, most hits give me “wegen + genitive” but how can you genitive a person? There’s no genitive “you” or have i totally missed something over the last year?!

My alternative was “wegen deiner Hilfe, hat mein Deutsch sich verbessert” but I want to literally say “because of YOU, my german is improving”!

Danke im Voraus!

9 years ago

absolutely brilliant examples, as always. i think i’ll be muttering “sonst noch was?” fairly often under my breath this summer und werde sicher auch “sonstewann” mehrmals verweden. Z. B:

“Hey Sarah, am Abend gehen wir fort! Kommst du mit?”
– Na, schauen wir mal. Meine Chefin war so lieb meine Fehler in einer Liste zu schreiben. Ich werde sonstewann mit der Verbesserungen fertig.

Hoeffentlich passen die Saetze, und hoeffentlich passieren sie nicht. ;)

9 years ago

Your posts are awesome and so much more entertaining than my German textbook! :) I mean Kontakte is ok, but it would be so much more engaging with examples like “Mach deine Hausaufgaben, sonst kündge ich deinen World of Warcraft Account.”

9 years ago

Hey, dude! I’ve been doing some research about “sonstig”. Can I consider it as “remaining”? It seems to fit better your example and some others that I’ve seen.

9 years ago
Reply to  Filipe

Great artical! I suggested this word a while back and it really cleard some things up for me.
now my question, can you explain this “wieder mal am Deutsch erklähren” sentance to us, I’v done some research and it looks like “am” can be used for a prosses that is currently happening like “Im working right now/Jetz bin ich am arbeiten”. can you elaborate on this pleez.

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Hiya, could you say it means further. i.e. for any further things that have not occured yet? i.e. Hast du sonstigen Fragen? which is kind of like, anything else/further to add? but literally means Do you have any other (further) questions?

9 years ago

Hi Emanuel,

I love your blog and your posts, they really fuel my love for linguistics, language and German. I don’t know if my ability to speak and interpret the language would be here today without it and it really prepared me for my trip to Germany this year, which was wonderful. Having stayed there for six weeks and going to school with my exchange partner I pretty much became fluent, was constantly in an AWESOME environment (language and grammar analysis EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME. My host family’s mother was also a very very avid linguist, best coincidence ever!) and it cleared up essentially every issue I had with understanding parts of German beforehand. I really just need to get faster, more articulate and broaden my vocabulary. However with that being said there was one thing I simply could not get my head around even after thinking about it for six long weeks, and I was hoping you could clear it up for me.

How the hell do you use ‘asozial’? It’s not the same as antisocial in the sense that I heard it in a lot of situations that made little to no sense in English. I did however understand the concept vaguely without having to ask for clarification. What really surprised me was how often it was used, as antisocial is used quite seldom in English, especially in younger, teen environments. (such as mine)
I even heard it being used as ‘asi’ (eg. ‘Das ist voll asi, Alter! Mach’s eher nicht.’). What this suggested to me was that it’s become somewhat of a slang word that has this crazy feeling and idea around it, of just being plain rude. I couldn’t for the life of me make the connection and clear up the origin and morphing of the meaning. I’m a man of order and this really seemed to be the only thing that I couldn’t make rhyme or reason out of, despite understanding the gist of the meaning that was intended…

Hope you can help after reading my wall of text! Thanks man, much appreciated, Keep Up The Good Work! :D <3

9 years ago

I’m brazilian and I’m trying to learn the German language! Your blog is absolutely brilliant! Your explanations about the uses of some complicate words is precise and didactic, You’re a very good teacher.
Thanks for your time creating a blog to help people all over the world.
I’m starting to follow the blog NOW!

9 years ago

Deine Artikel sind sehr interessant,

9 years ago

How would you write the ‘ansonstigen’ example using sonst (supposing, of course, that you actually can)?
And what is the situation when we should use sonstig instead of ander? I mean, it didn’t get quite clear in the text.

By the way, it is good to know that there is such a huge difference between a question with sonst using noch or not. Thanks for showing us it!

9 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

OK, thanks!

9 years ago

Thanks for this post; sonst is one of the more confusing common words (along with doch, which you already pretty well cleared up) and this was very helpful for me.
Also, thanks for letting me know the secret ingredient in Mohnkuchen in your first dialogue. I will probably avoid it from now on.