German Adverbs: 'Erst' vs. 'Nur'

The two are similar in meaning, but they are not interchangeable

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The two German adverbs "erst" and "nur" are close in meaning and are sometimes used interchangeably: They should not be. Doing so changes the meaning of your sentence, as the translation of this following sentences demonstrates. (The German word or phrase is presented in italics on the left and the English translation is listed on the right throughout this article.)

  • Meine Schwester hat erst zwei Kinder. > My sister has two children at the moment.
  • Meine Schwester hat nur zwei Kinder. > My sister has only two children.

Learning the difference between these two important German adverbs, and when to use them, will help you greatly in your studies of the language.

"Erst" Definition and Examples

"Erst" can have a temporal definition meaning "only" or "not until." Use "erst" in its temporal sense when the context suggests a restriction to a point in time or when the speaker’s expectations for a point in time has been changed. These examples show "erst" in its temporal definition:

  • Mein Mann kommt erst am Samstag. > My husband is coming only on Saturday.
  • Es sieht so aus, dass mein Mann erst am Samstag kommen kann. > It now looks like my husband won’t be coming until Saturday. (The speaker’s expectation of her husband’s arrival time has been changed.)
  • Es ist erst neun Uhr. > It is only 9 o’clock. (The speaker thought it was later than 9 o’ clock.)
  • Sie wird erst schlafen wenn sie heimkommt. > She is going sleep only when she comes home. (Only then will she sleep.)

"Erst" can also have a quantitative definition, meaning "only" or "no more than." "Erst" is used in its quantitative definition when the context suggests a provisional restriction of a quantity or of time that is likely to change. For instance:

  • Magst du den Übeltäter des Buches? > Do you like the villain of the book?
  • Ich kenne ihn noch nicht. Ich habe erst fünf Seiten dieses Buches gelesen. > I don't know him. I’ve read only five pages of this book. (The speaker is going to read more.)

"Nur" Definition and Examples

"Nur," by contrast, means "only" or "just." This may seem similar to "erst," but "nur" serves to pinpoint a definitive point in time, a quantity or action that isn’t expected to change. For example:

  • Mein Mann geht nur am Samstag zur Konferenz > He is going only on Saturday to the conference. (That’s the one and only day that he is expected to go.)
  • Sie bleibt nur eine Stunde. > She is staying only one hour.
  • Ich bin müde, deswegen habe ich nur fünf Seiten dieses Buches gelesen. > I am tired, that is why I have read only five pages from the book. (The speaker is not going to read more than five pages.)
  • Sie will nur schlafen > She wants to just sleep. (That’s all she wants to do now.)

Exercise: Nur O der Erst?

Fill in the following sentences with either nur or erst: Sometimes both are possible, depending on what you want to say. Then check your responses against the answers below.

  1. Meine Tante ist _______ heute abgefahren.
  2. Ich habe _______ zwanzig Euro in meinem Porte-monnaie.
  3. Sie ist _______ seit drei Tagen abgefahren.
  4. Unser Sohn kommt _________, wenn er uns braucht.
  5. Meine Nachbarin kommt _________ für zehn Minuten.
  6. Es ist ________ acht Uhr.
  7. Ich werde ________ Fernsehen gucken, wenn ich mit meiner Hausaufgabe fertig bin.
  8. Ich will _________ Fernsehen gucken.

Answers

  1. Meine Tante ist erst heute abgefahren. > My aunt left only today.
  2. Ich habe nur zwanzig Euro in meinem Porte-monnaie. > I have only 20 euros in my wallet.
  3. Sie ist erst seit drei Tagen abgefahren. > She left just three days ago.
  4. Unser Sohn kommt erst/nur, wenn er uns braucht. > Our son will come once he has need of us. / Our son comes only when he needs us.
  5. Meine Nachbarin kommt nur für zehn Minuten. > Our neighbor is coming only for 10 minutes.
  6. Es ist erst acht Uhr. > It is only 8 o’clock.
  7. Ich werde erst Fernsehen gucken, wenn ich mit meiner Hausaufgabe fertig bin. > I will only watch TV when I am done with my homework.
  8. Ich will nur Fernsehen gucken. > I just want to watch TV.