Aber vs. SondernWhat's the Difference?

Diving into German can uncover subtle nuances that are crucial for fluency. This article sheds light on the often confusing 'aber' and 'sondern', guiding beginners through their distinct uses.

The key to distinguishing aber and sondern in German is their use in contrast. Use aber to express a simple contrast or addition (similar to "but" in English), like "I would go, aber I'm busy." On the other hand, sondern is used when the second part negates or corrects the first, often following a negation, akin to "but rather" in English, as in "It's not hot, sondern cold."

Learning a new language involves understanding not just the meaning of words, but also their usage in different contexts. In German, two words that often cause confusion among beginners are aber and sondern.

While both can be translated to "but" in English, their usage in sentences is quite distinct. Let's dive into the details to clarify their differences.

The Role of Aber

The word aber is used to express a contrast or contradiction between two statements. It is similar to the English "but" and is used in situations where you are adding information that contrasts with what was previously mentioned, but does not necessarily negate it. For example:

Ich möchte ins Kino gehen, aber ich habe keine Zeit.

I want to go to the cinema, but I don't have time.

In this sentence, aber introduces a contrasting idea without negating the first part of the sentence. It's more about presenting an additional piece of information that provides a contrast.

Here are a few more examples using the word aber:

Ich möchte zur Party gehen, aber ich muss lernen.

I want to go to the party, but I have to study.
Sie mag Kaffee, aber sie trinkt ihn nicht nach 16 Uhr.

She likes coffee, but she doesn't drink it after 4 PM.
Er spielt Gitarre, aber er ist in keiner Band.

He plays the guitar, but he's not in a band.

The Role of Sondern

On the other hand, sondern is used when the second clause negates or corrects the first clause. It is often preceded by a negation in the first part of the sentence and could be thought of as meaning "but rather" in English. For example:

Er ist nicht mein Bruder, sondern mein Freund.

He is not my brother, but rather my friend.

Here, sondern is used because the second part of the sentence corrects or negates the first part. It's not just a contrast; it's a correction.

See how in these three examples sondern is used to correct or negate the previous part of the sentence:

Es ist keine Katze, sondern ein Hund.

It's not a cat, but rather a dog.
Er ist nicht nach Paris gefahren, sondern nach Berlin.

He didn't go to Paris, but rather to Berlin.
Sie ist nicht meine Schwester, sondern meine Freundin.

She's not my sister, but rather my friend.

Key Differences: Aber vs. Sondern

To summarize, the key difference between aber and sondern lies in the nature of the contrast they express:

  • Use aber when the second statement adds contrasting information but does not negate the first statement.
  • Use sondern when the second statement negates or corrects the first statement, often after a negation.


Understanding the difference between aber and sondern can significantly improve your German. It's not just about knowing what each word means, but also how they fit into the structure of a sentence. With practice, you'll start to feel more confident in your choices and your German will sound more natural.

Can 'aber' and 'sondern' be used interchangeably?
No, 'aber' is used to introduce a contrast that doesn't negate the first part of the sentence, while 'sondern' is used when the second part negates or corrects the first part, especially after a negation.
Do I always need a negation before using 'sondern'?
Yes, 'sondern' is typically used after a negation in the first part of the sentence to introduce a correction or a contrasting statement.
Is 'aber' used in the same way as 'but' in English?
Yes, 'aber' is similar to 'but' in English and is used to introduce a contrast or an additional piece of information that does not negate the previous statement.
Can 'sondern' be used to start a sentence?
No, 'sondern' is used to connect two clauses and cannot start a sentence. It always follows a clause with a negation.
How can I practice distinguishing between 'aber' and 'sondern'?
Practice by creating sentences where you contrast two ideas using 'aber' and then try to negate or correct the first idea with 'sondern'. Reading and listening to native German content can also help you see how they are used in context.

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