Aber vs. Sondern

Both aber and sondern are coordinating conjunctions that can translate into English as but. However, the two are not interchangeable!
(Note: coordinating conjunctions are words that connect two main or "standard word order" clauses. They do not affect word order.)

Sondern

Sondern means but rather, but instead, or on the contrary. It establishes contrast between two possible alternatives, and is often used in order to correct another speaker's false incorrect statement. You should choose sondern when:

  1. the first clause has a negated element, and
  2. the following clause offers an alternative as a "correction" of the negated element in the first clause.
Examples

Ich fahre nicht nach Berlin, sondern (ich fahre) nach Wien.
Er ist kein Professor, sondern (er ist) Pfarrer.
Sie fährt nicht mit dem Rad, sondern (sie fährt) mit dem Bus.

In each one of these sentences, you could say "but rather" in English. Also note that the subject in the second clause is almost always the same as in the first clause, which is why the subject and verb in the second clause can be omitted.

In sentences with sondern, the nicht is placed directly before the element that's being negated in favor of something else, even if normally the nicht would come after this element:

Examples

Ich sehe den Mann nicht.
(this is the standard placement for nicht.)
Ich sehe nicht den Mann, sondern die Frau.
Aber

Aber can be used after positive (or negative) statements in order to qualify that statement. However, it can never be translated as but rather.

Examples

Ich bin arm, aber meine Eltern haben Geld.
Ich habe kein Geld, aber ich bin glücklich.

In both of these sentences, aber qualifies (or "softens the blow" of) the first statement by adding important information in the second. Think of it as: "I may be poor, but my parents..." or "I may not have any money, but .."

Advanced Learners

Despite what you may have read, there are instances where both aber and sondern are grammatically and semantically correct.

Examples:

  1. Ich habe keinen Wagen, aber ich habe ein Fahrrad.
  2. Ich habe keinen Wagen, sondern (ich habe) ein Fahrrad.
The meanings here are slightly different:
  1. I don't/may not have a car, but I do have a bike.
    (Here you are trying to soften the blow of not having a car.)
  2. I don't have a car, but (rather) a bike.
    (Here you are explicitly correcting someone's false assertion that you have a car.



Copyright © 2017 Will Lehman. All artwork copyright © 2017 Milo Schuman.