I was reading a grammar book's lesson on modal auxilaries and came across the following two sentences in a reading exercise (which, I should add, do not directly follow each other).

(1) Anna spielt Klavier gern, nicht so gut aber wie die Mutter.

(2) Seine Stimme ist nicht stark, und doch nicht besonders schwach; sie ist aber schön.

The placement of aber in both cases bothers me. In the first, the English translation, if I'm not mistaken, should be

Anna likes playing the piano, but [she does not play it] as well as [her] mother.

But it's weird to me, as an English speaker, that the aber is placed in the middle of the clause, rather than at the beginning. There's a similar problem to me with the second sentence to me.

For what it's worth, the book I'm using is fairly old -- it was published in 1968, and it even gives Knabe as the translation for boy. (I'm borrowing it from a library.) So I'm not sure if it simply has outdated conventions or something. But regardless:

  • I'm assuming that there is nothing wrong with the placement of aber in either case. If so, is this the result of some more general rule or convention governing conjunctions? Is there thus some sort of flexibility with placement? Or does this have anything to do with the connotations of the two sentences here specifically?

  • Does said rule possibly depend on whether or not the conjunction is subordinating? If I'm not mistaken, aber isn't one of the subordinating conjunctions, and at least "intuitively" (and as someone whose German knowledge isn't that high), I imagine that it'd be more difficult to justify any potential word order change for subordinating conjunctions. (Naturally, I could be wrong -- again, my German knowledge isn't that high.)

  • 4
    As with so many things, when you change the word order in German: you change emphasis. In this case, it gives the impression, that Anna likes to play the piano, but she really is not very good at it. That being said: the construction does sound quite formal and fairly complex, I doubt many people would speak this way. To me, it has a bit of a poetic touch to it (but not exclusively).
    – Gerhard
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 7:19
  • 2
    I don't want to write an answer but I have a quick note on terminology .. as soon as the "aber" is not in position zero it is not a conjunction but an adverb (same meaning pretty much as "however"). Conjunctions can per definition not be moved around.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:23

3 Answers 3


The first example sentence is perfectly fine but old-fashioned. (More precisely, it is something I would expect to read in texts up to the early 20th century. It was certainly old-fashioned in the 1960s.)

(1) Anna spielt Klavier gern, nicht so gut aber wie die Mutter.

In today's German, aber normally translates to but. But it can also be used like though. This was once common in more contexts than it is now:

(1) Anna plays the piano gladly; not as well though as her mother.

Except for the use of gladly, which is and was less common than gern, this translation should feel old-fashioned in much the same ways that the German sentence does.

The second example sentence also has old-fashioned features, but the placement of aber is not among them.

(2) Seine Stimme ist nicht stark, und doch nicht besonders schwach; sie ist aber schön.

(2) His voice is not strong, and yet not particularly weak; it is beautiful, though.

As you can see, this is another case where aber should be translated as though. However, this time the placement in German differs slightly from that in English. Also, this construction is by no means old-fashioned but is perfectly standard in modern German. (What is old-fashioned in (2), though, is the use of und doch as well as the comma preceding it.)

  • @Hans Adler : Could you specify which part is emphasised with ,,aber'' in this sentence ,,Anna spielt Klavier gern, nicht so gut aber wie die Mutter.''? Is it ,,nicht so gut'' or ,,wie die Mutter'' that is emphasised via ,,aber''?
    – Eunice
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 4:50
  • At Lynnyo: I am not sure what you are asking. There is no special emphasis evident in this sentence. As to stress, the main stress of the entire sentence is on gern and another rather strong one on gut. The other stressed syllables are as follows: "Ánna spíelt Klavíer gérn, nícht so gút áber wíe die Mútter." The purpose of aber / but / though is just to connect an almost-contradiction to what was said before. (If Anna likes to play the piano, we might expect her to play as well as her mother. But she doesn't / She doesn't, though. This is probably a slight understatement.)
    – user2183
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 5:48

You read this sentences in a grammar book about German language? It's hard to believe. The word order of the first sentence is allowed, but very unusual. This is how I would write it:

(1) Anna spielt gern Klavier, aber nicht so gut wie die Mutter.

Anna loves to play the piano, but she doesn't play as good as the mother.
A more word-by-word translation: Anna plays the piano gladly, but not as good as her mother. (plays gladly is ugly english, but now you have play as the verb that now can be referred by as good as)

Let's look at aber:

Here it is a conjunction, which means, that it joins the both parts of the sentence. And this is why in good German it should stand between both parts.

German is very flexible with word order. Your version is allowed, but it sounds better if you replace »aber« with »jedoch« (synonym of »aber«):

Anna spielt Klavier gern, nicht so gut jedoch wie die Mutter.

It's a little better, but still unusual.

Now for the second sentence:

(2) Seine Stimme ist nicht stark, und doch nicht besonders schwach; sie ist aber schön.

It is ok (except for the interpunctation), but this would be better:

(2) Seine Stimme ist nicht stark und auch nicht besonders schwach. Sie ist aber schön.

Let's have a look at the wrong comma:
In the fist sentence you give an enumeration of what his voice is not. This is the pattern for enumerations like used in this case (watch the commas!):

<subject> <verb> <item 1>, <item 2>, ..., <item n-1> und <item n>.

Examples that use this pattern:

Hans ist müde, hungrig, durstig und schläfrig.
Jürgen liebt Lisa und Andrea.
Ich aß eine Suppe, ein Schnitzel und eine Torte.

You have a comma between each part of the enumeration, except for the last position. Between the last and the next-to-last item you have no comma, but the word »und«.

Now for auch/doch:

»Doch« is a word that expresses opposition. But in »Seine Stimme ist nicht stark und ???? nicht besonders schwach« you list characteristics that have something in common: They all don't fit to his voice. So you better use a word, that expresses similarity, and this is »auch« (english: »also« or »too«)

The second sentence (»Sie ist aber schön«) is a complete German sentence. You better end the first sentence with a full stop and start this new sentence with a capital letter.

But the usage of the semicolon is ok too.

  • I disagree. Seine Stimme ist nicht stark → I am now expecting the voice to be weak. und doch nicht besonders schwach → okay, so it actually isn't weak. There is a clear opposition between expectation and statement following which perfectly justifies the doch imho
    – Jan
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 11:16
  • @Jan: Wenn du den Gegensatz betonen willst: »Seine Stimme ist weder stark noch besonders schwach.« Das ist dann keine Aufzählung mehr und erfordert auch kein Bindewort. Andere Möglichkeit: »Seine Stimme ist nicht stark aber auch nicht besonders schwach. Das ist ebenfalls keine Aufzählung, sondern eine Gegenüberstellung (daher aber statt und), aber auch hier wäre »doch« fehl am Platz. Eine Aneinanderreihung mit »und« (das Gemeinsame betonend) gefolgt von »doch« (den Gegensatz betonend) finde ich etwas seltsam. Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 12:52
  • "Anna spielt gern Klavier, nicht so jedoch gut wie die Mutter." That's not correct German in my mind. You could say "Anna spielt gern Klavier, jedoch nicht so gut wie die Mutter." Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 20:01
  • I am pretty sure that "so jedoch gut" is a typo for "so gut jedoch". - While I intuitively don't quite agree with Hubert's intuition in this case, it is interesting to note that it is supported by the fact that jedoch is based on doch, the German cognate of English though, which is used in the same way.
    – user2183
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 5:55
Anna spielt Klavier gern, nicht so gut aber wie die Mutter.

Sounds strange to me.

Maybe you missed a comma.

Anna spielt Klavier gern, nicht so gut, aber wie die Mutter.
  • Nope, I checked, and that's exactly what the book says (though again, the book is pretty old).
    – Maroon
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 9:02

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