Understanding and Using German Conjunctions

Close up of a postcard stand in Berlin, Germany.

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​Conjunctions are words that link two sentences. In German, they belong to the group of non-declinable words, which means that they never change, no matter what case you think you should use or what gender a following noun has. However, while in English you might only have one option, in German you will often find several possibilities to choose from. Such is the case with aber and sondern, which your dictionary will most certainly translate both as "but."

Using 'but' in German

Take a look at the following sentences:

The child didn't want to go home, but to the park.

  • Das Kind will nicht nach Hause gehen, sondern zum Park.

I don't understand what you say, but you will certainly be right.

  • Ich verstehe nicht, was Sie sagen, aber Sie werden schon Recht haben.

She is exhausted but doesn't want to go to sleep.

  • Sie ist erschöpft aber will nicht schlafen gehen.

As you can see, both aber and sondern mean but in English. How do you know which but conjunction to use? It is actually quite simple:

Aber, which means but or however, is used after either a positive or negative clause.

On the other hand, sondern is only used after a negative clause when expressing a contradiction. In other words, the first clause of the sentence must contain either nicht or kein, and the second part of the sentence must contradict the first part of the sentence. Sondern can be best translated as but rather.

Caruso's Little Brother Helps You to Create Better Sentences

One last thing: aber and sondern are so called "ADUSO"-words. ADUSO is an acronym for:

  • A=aber (but)
  • D=denn (because)
  • U=und (and)
  • S=sondern (contradicting but)
  • O=oder (or)

Those conjunctions all take position zero in a sentence. To remember that, you might want to think of ADUSO as the little brother of Enrico Caruso, the great opera singer. But he never grew out of his famous brother's shadow and remained quite a loser. Imagine the "o" in "loser" as a zero to remember "position zero."

A Little Quiz

Let's test your knowledge. Which German version of "but" would you use in the following sentences?

  • Ich komme nicht aus England _____ aus Schottland.

I don't come from England but from Scotland.

  • Ich bin hungrig, _____ ich habe keine Zeit etwas zu essen.

I am hungry, but I don't have time to eat something.

  • Sie spricht drei Sprachen: Englisch, Russisch, und Arabisch, _____ leider kein Deutsch.

She speaks three languages: English, Russian, and Arabic, but unfortunately no German.

  • Wir hätten gerne drei cheeseburger _____ ohne Zwiebeln.

We would like (to have) three cheeseburgers but without onions.

  • Er hat keinen Kartoffelsalat mitgebracht, _____ Nudelsalat.

He didn't bring potato salad, but noodle salad.

  • Er hat gesagt, er bringt Kartoffelsalat mit, _____ er hat Nudelsalat mitgebracht.

He said, he'd bring potato salad, but he brought noodle salad.

Answers to the Quiz

  1. Ich komme nicht aus England, sondern aus Schottland.
  2. Ich bin hungrig, aber ich habe keine Zeit etwas zu essen.
  3. Sie spricht drei Sprachen: Englisch, Russisch und Arabisch aber leider kein Deutsch.
  4. Wir hätten gerne drei Cheeseburger, aber ohne Zwiebeln.
  5. Er hat keinen Kartoffelsalat mitgebracht, sondern Nudelsalat.
  6. Er hat gesagt, er bringt Kartoffelsalat mit, aber er hat Nudelsalat mitgebracht.