Aber & doch can both mean 'but' - but only when used as conjunctions. Both aber & doch are also often used as modal particles and adverbs. In these cases, they have different meanings and aren't always interchangable.
When you first learn the German words aber & doch, both words seem to mean the same thing: They can both be translated into English as but.
However, at some point you'll notice subtle differences and contexts in which one can be used, but not the other. What exactly is this difference?
First, let's have a look at when "aber" & "doch" mean the same. Aber & doch can both be translated as "but" and in those contexts, they are interchangable.
Consider this sentence:
Will the meaning of this sentence change, if we replace the word "aber" with "doch"? The answer is no, the meaning will stay the same. And why is that so? Because in both sentences, "aber" & "doch" can simply be translated with "but".
So the above sentence has exactly the same meaning as this sentence:
In these example sentences, "aber" & "doch" are used as conjunctions. When they're used as conjunctions, you can always swap them out.
When aber and doch are used as conjunctions, you can swap them out for one another, without changing the meaning of the sentence.
However, the confusion that many learners have with "aber" & "doch" stems from the fact that aber & doch have more meanings than just "but". And when they take on any of those other meanings, they are not interchangable anymore.
In the next two sections, we're going to first have a look at the different meanings of "aber" and the move on to the different meanings of "doch".
As already mentioned, aber is often used as a conjunction. This is the sense of aber, that students learn first and when it's translated as "but":
A second meaning of aber that is very common with native German speakers is its use as a modal particle.
What are modal particles? Modal particles are those little filler words that you will find in German once in a while (well, quite a lot, actually). They give the sentence a little bit more spice and accentuate the meaning in different ways.
Here are two example sentences that include 'aber' as a modal particle:
In these sentences, the word 'aber' is used to express that the film wasn'st just interesting, but very interesting. And the holiday wasn't just beautiful, but an especially beautiful holiday.
When using 'aber' in this way, there is also an element of surprise there: I might have expected the holiday to turn out beautiful, but I didn't expect that it would be that beautiful. After seeing the trailer for the film, I might have looked forward to watching the film, but didn't expect it would be that amazing.
Before we move on, let us just mention that in older texts aber can also sometimes mean 'again'. We won't go into this here though, since using it this way is really not so common anymore.
As we've already seen, a very straightforward translation of doch is but. This is the conjunctive use of doch:
There is nothing crazy or difficult about this, so on to the next one! 😊
Now we've already seen what modal particles are in German and how 'aber' can function as one.
"Doch" can also work as a modal particle.
Modal particles are usually not translated into English. When used as a modal particle, "doch" often underlines that there is an element of surprise.
It's also often used to cast some doubt on an issue:
Or to affirm and emphasize something:
Lastly, you also often hear the phrase "aber doch" in German, which is just "aber" & doch strung together, meaning the very same thing: "but", or "yet".
And that is it. Now you know the difference between aber & doch. Wasn't that difficult, was it? 😊