Word of the Day – “zwar”

Hello everyone,

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



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:

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:

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

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:

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.

Und zwar

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…

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

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

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.

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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!


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 :)


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!


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.


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!


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!!


I think you mean “inflect” where you say “conjugate”. cf. Blackadder, “English is an uninflected Indo-European language.”

The King James Bible (1611) is another good source of examples of the second person singular form in early modern English (ca. 1500 — ca. 1700). It appeared near at the end of Shakespeare’s life and after most of his major works, so the language is perceptibly newer. The Shakespeare we read in school had lots of footnotes that explained words and phrases for us (“Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?”), and we would have had a problem without them. We needed many fewer when reading the KJB.


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…


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.


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.

Oliver Neukum

I – me
thou – thee

we – us
ye – you


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.


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.

Sam Hardman

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!


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.


“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!)


@Fed >”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”. ”

Actually I think there are two elements to “zwar” – one is the affirmation that the statement containing it is true, and the other is that there is a “but” on the way. Now you can achieve both effects in English with the likes of “admittedly” or “I’ll admit” or “indeed”, but as you say we very often don’t bother and simply affirm the truth of something by emphasis on the verb or by adding a “do”.

However I don’t think that adds the “there is a but on the way”, at least where the first part of the sentence could otherwise happily stand on its own. I think the “I haven’t finished yet” comes from intonation. With one intonation you could say “I *do* love you.” and stop. It’s just an affirmation. Or with a different intonation on “you” it flags that the sentence is not finished – “I *do* love you … but no, I really do have a headache tonight.”

I’m trying to work out what difference if any there is in vibe between “The dress *is* expensive, but I’m going to buy it anyway.” and “The dress is ex*pen*sive, I’ll admit, but I’m going to buy it anyway”. Or whether they both translate equally well just as “zwar”. And suspect they probably do – the “I’ll admit” is just a way of saying the same thing but with a bit more “filler”. (Very German!)

At which point it also occurs to me to wonder which German particle you’d use to affirm truth without implying a “but” is on the way. An emphasised “wohl”? Or a “ja”?


The conversation you guys are having here is really enlightening for me. So thanks! I wanted to chime in (many moons later) that in
> “I *do* love you.” <
It's true that the speaker might not use a "but" or add some other opposing or contradicting information later, but when this is used standalone, it's often probably the case that the person they'e talking to is the one they're contradicting.
bob: You don't love me! *cry*
alice: Oh Bob, I DO love you! [but you just don't believe it]

If you say this without an opposing argument somewhere in the conversation, then it would (probably?) have to be a statement of agreement or affirmation.
bob: I'm taking you to IHOP! (read: i-hop. That's a restaurant chain, the International House of Pancakes. I'm not sure if they really are international.)
alice: Well I DO love pancakes!

It seems to me that the first example lines up better with a translation of zwar, but they're probably not a perfect match for all uses of "do + verb."

Zim the Fox

I think “und zwar” makes perfect sense. If zwar comes from “zu wahre” or “to the truth” then you could think of “und zwar” as “and, well, to tell the truth…”

Ich habe ein Problem, und zwar habe ich meinen Schlüssel zu Hause vergessen.
I have a problem, (and) well, to tell the truth, I forgot my keys at my home.

Thanks for this post! :D

Kirsten Marie

Well, this is amazing! Thank you so much. It seems to be a hard concept for my German friends to explain, so that you for doing it so concisely (and with audio).

Emily Martin

As for “old” or “ancient” English, that’s Beowulf. I think you meant to say Middle English. And the oldest-sounding form to my ears would be, “methinks thou lyest”. Maybe “it seemeth to me thou lyest” but that’s clunky. Thanks to the present progressive finally taking shape, the Viking “-ing” form (vs. -end) and the host of new tenses and constructions coming from the occupying Normans, you could also have all sorts of tenses recognizable today: not only simple present “thou lyest” but also thou art lying, thou dost lie,thou hast told a lie, thou wouldst that I believe thy lying tongue….etc etc


I think it’s not even as old as middle English. “Thou hast” sounds like early modern English to me. Circa 16th century. But it’s been years since I studied the English language so I could be wrong.

The rule of thumb for English is, if you can understand it even a bit, it’s definitely not old (ancient) English. If you could guess the meaning of a couple of words then it’s likely middle English. If it reads wierd but you understand the sentences, it’s early modern English (think Shakespeare).


what the….? I always thought that und zwar meant “and therefore” since my teacher kept using it that way. For instance “Wir haben wenig Zeit, und zwar müssen Sie die Aufgabe alleine machen”.



This is one helpful blog. And not only because of the “zwar…aber” explanation (which is why I got here) but on the sentence structure I just saw in the comments. Mind-blown.


Thank you for this very helpful article ! There is a problem with the downloadable PDF, though (other pages are probably also affected) : some characters are displayed as question marks. I think that it’s an encoding issue : your web pages use UTF-8, and I guess that you use a program to generate the PDFs from them ? In that case, you probably didn’t choose the right setting because when I check the “Fonts” tab in the PDF properties, I see that the “WinAnsi” coding is used. Would it be possible to fix that ?


Hallo, Emmanuel.
Da ich gerade deinen Artikel über ‘ein-‘ und ‘auffallen’ gelsen habe, beginne ich den Satz wie folgt, um zu prüfen, ob ich das mitgekriegt habe (Da kommt die eigentliche Frage):

Mir ist aufgefallen, das im gesporochenen Deutschem nicht so oft die Satzstruktur mit “obwohl” vorkommt. Ich tendiere, sie zu nutzen, weil ich ans englischen “although” gewöhnt bin, höre ich jedoch das deutsche “obwohl” nicht allzu häufig. Und jetz, nachdem ich den obigen Artikel gelesen habe, ist mir eingefallen (kann ich “einfallen” auch als “it occured to me” verwenden?), dass vielleicht die “zwar… aber…” Struktur die bevorzugte Option beim Sprechen ist. Was hälts du davon?

(Von da an schreibe ich Kommentare auf Deutsch /for exercise’s sake – keinen blassen Schimmer, wie ich das übersetzen soll/. Wenn dir einige grobere Felehr auffalen, zögere nicht, mich zu korriegieren – ich nehme es nicht übel).