What Are the Two "Buts" in German?

"Aber" and "Sondern" are like Ying and Yang

A man standing at a crossroads
German Conjunctions are leading the way. Claire Fraser-Imagezoo@getty-images

​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 with "but".

Take a look at the following sentences:

  1. The child didn't want to go home, but to the park.
    Das Kind will nicht nach Hause gehen, sondern zum Park.
  2. 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.
  3. 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, however is used after either a positive (1) or negative clause (2).
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 (3), and the second part of the sentence must contradict the first part of the sentence. Sondern can be best translated as but rather.

How Caruso's Little Brother Helps You to Create Better Sentences

One last thing: "aber" as well as "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". If you have questions about the German sentence order, you might want to read this article here

A Little Quiz

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

  1. Ich komme nicht aus England, _____ aus Schottland.
    I don't come from England but from Scotland.
  2. Ich bin hungrig, _____  ich habe keine Zeit etwas zu essen.
    I am hungry, but I don't have time to eat something.
  3. Sie spricht drei Sprachen: Englisch, Russisch und Arabisch _____ leider kein Deutsch.
    She speaks three languages: English, Russian and Arabic but unfortunately no German.
  4. Wir hätten gerne drei Cheeseburger, _____ ohne Zwiebeln.
    We would like (to have) three cheeseburgers, but without onions.
  5. Er hat keinen Kartoffelsalat mitgebracht, _____  Nudelsalat.
    He didn't bring potato salad, but noodle salad.
  6. Er hat gesagt, er bringt Kartoffelsalat mit, _____ er hat Nudelsalat mitgebracht.
    He said, he'd bring potato salad, but he brought noodle salad.

You will find the answers below but in opposite order to make it a bit more difficult to cheat. Not that you would ever do that, but our eyes are often quicker than our intentions.

Answers to the Quiz

6.  Er hat gesagt, er bringt Kartoffelsalat mit, aber er hat Nudelsalat mitgebracht.
   
 He said, he'd bring potato salad, but he brought noodle salad.

5.  Er hat keinen Kartoffelsalat mitgebracht, sondern  Nudelsalat.
     He didn't bring potato salad, but noodle salad.

4. Wir hätten gerne drei Cheeseburger, aber ohne Zwiebeln.
    We would like (to have) three cheeseburgers, but without onions.

3. Sie spricht drei Sprachen: Englisch, Russisch und Arabisch aber leider kein Deutsch.
    She speaks three languages: English, Russian and Arabic but unfortunately no German.

2. Ich bin hungrig, aber  ich habe keine Zeit etwas zu essen.
    I am hungry, but I don't have time to eat something.

1. Ich komme nicht aus England, sondern aus Schottland.
    I don't come from England, but from Scotland.

Edited significantly by Michael Schmitz on the 01st of August 2015