People are different, circumstances differ. The German language has two words for expressing opposites: aber and sondern. They are used differently.
“Aber” And “Sondern” In Sentences
Aber and sondern combine sentences with contrasting statements.
Compare the following sentences:
- Jenny wohnt in Bremen, aber sie arbeitet in Hamburg.
- Jenny arbeitet nicht in Bremen, sondern sie arbeitet in Hamburg.
Sentence 1 consists of two positive sentences that make opposing statements. The verbs are also different (wohnt in Bremen, arbeitet in Hamburg).
Jenny lives in one city, she works in another. The contrast is between Jenny’s place of residence and her place of work. → you have to use aber.
Sentence 2 consists of a negative sentence (arbeitet nicht in Bremen) and a positive sentence (arbeitet in Hamburg).
Jenny doesn’t live in the city where she works. The contrast is in what she does. → You have to use sondern.
After a negative sentence, you have to use “sondern”.
“Aber”And “Sondern” With Adjectives
You can use aber and sondern with adjectives.
- Marie ist glücklich, aber arm.
- Marie ist nicht reich, sondern arm.
Sentence 1 consists of two positive adjectives. You have to use aber.
Sentence 2 consists of a negative adjective (nicht reich) and a positive adjective (arm). You have to use sondern.
After a negative adjective you have to use “sondern”.
Exception: “Aber” And “Sondern” With Nouns
You can use aber and sondern with nouns. But be careful: The rule above doesn’t apply here:
- Harald hat keinen Hund, aber eine Katze.
- Harald hat einen Hund, aber keine Katze.
- Harald hat keinen Hund, sondern eine Katze.
Note: Not all languages make a distinction between aber and sondern. For example English only uses but:
- Jenny lives in Bremen but she works in Hamburg.
- Jenny doesn’t work in Bremen but she works in Hamburg.
- Marie is happy but poor.
- Marie isn’t rich but poor.
- Harald hasn’t got a dog, but a cat.
- Harold has got a dog, but no cat.
Think about how you would write the example sentences in your own language. Perhaps there is a different way of expressing contrasts. Sometimes it helps to understand the differences between two languages on the basis of a “wrong” direct translation.