Same same but different — aber vs. sondern

It’s that day of the year again, when we in europe decide that we should all set our clocks to be an hour earlier. Spring ahead. Americans and Canadians did this two weeks ago. The result is a lack of sleep and confusion both mentally and physiologically as we force our bodies to reset their internal clocks.

This all comes across as nonsensical, especially when we go and reset those same clocks in autumn to do the exact opposite. Sometimes languages come across the same way and there are words or expressions that are either redundant or illogical or both.

This is true of the German words “aber” and “sondern”. If you look them up in a German-English dictionary, you will see the translation as being “but”. A good dictionary will also tell you that they are both coordinating conjunctions, which means that the word order in the clauses does not change. Also note that they are preceded by a comma.

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  1. Stephan · · Reply

    Exercise 5 is a tricky one. My feeling tells me both is possible. But the emphasis is different:

    “Die Prüfung ist nicht schwierig, sondern lang.” mainly corrects the wrong assumption that the exam was difficult.

    “Die Prüfung ist nicht schwierig, aber lang.” places more emphasis on the fact that sitting the exam takes a long time, which was not directly asked.

    1. Very good point Stephan. As usual there’s always an exception and of course interpretation. Thank you for pointing that out.

  2. […] you might wonder what is the difference between aber and sondern. The answer is that sondern is only used after a negative clause where in the second clause […]

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