What’s the difference between “sowohl … als auch” and “nicht nur … sondern auch”? When should I use which?
I know that both mean “A is right and B too”.
My mother language only uses one, so I can’t find a difference between them.
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"sowohl...als auch" is used, when there is no connection between the two events.
Sowohl ist Erwin gross, als auch Erich. (Erich and Erwin are friends, not brothers, and there's no relationship between one's height and the other's.) "A and B both being right" is "random."
"Nicht nur...sondern auch" is used as an "intensifier," when there is a connection or comparison between the two. Usually the second clause represents "something extra" over and above the first. From "O Tannenbaum",
Du grünst nicht nur, zur Sommerzeit, nein auch in Winter wenn es schneit..." ("nein auch," here is synonymous with "sondern auch").
The idea is that the Tannenbaum (evergreen tree) is different from other trees in being green not only in summer, but also in winter.
They are almost the same and I'm sure there are many situations in which they'd be pretty much interchangeable. Still, there is a slight difference.
"nicht nur ... sondern auch" sounds to me as if you wanted to stress, that both A and B are right and it's kind a special thing. Like
"Oh look, not only is A right, but B is also. What a nice/horrible surprise!"
This makes it seem like the rightness of B directly affects the effects that the rightness of A has. Or as user1583209 phrased it:
To me, * nicht nur ... sondern auch* sounds as if the special thing is that B is right (while A being right is normal/not unusual)
"sowohl ... als auch" doesn't really have that connotation with it, it just says A and B are right and sounds more literal.
Like I said, there may be situations when even this small difference doesn't really apply but it can also change the meaning of a sentance if you read between the lines.
I would say that sowohl X als auch Y is a rather ‘standard’ way of expressing that two things apply to a certain something.
Wir bieten Ihnen sowohl ein anregendes Ambiente als auch eine stilvolle Atmosphäre.
Unsere Mitarbeiten können Ihnen sowohl auf Deutsch als auch auf Englisch antworten.
There is no intrinsic reason to differentiate between the order of the parts. In both cases, I would be totally fine with inverting the order.
In the phrase nicht nur X sondern auch Y, there is a clear emphasis that X is taken for granted or at least somewhat more logically implied whereas Y is a somewhat surprising or extravagant addition.
Die Firma Hintermayr ist ein weltweit vernetztes, mittelständisches Unternehmen. Daher können unsere Mitarbeiter Ihnen nicht nur auf Deutsch sondern auch auf Englisch, Russisch, Spanisch und Chinesisch antworten.
(Hintermayr being a German name implies that people in the company will speak German especially with the added information of mittelständisch. The additional languages can be seen as unexpected bonus.)
Unser Hotel bieten Ihnen nicht nur eine finnische Sauna sondern auch ein türkisches Dampfbad, ein japanisches Onsen und eine russische Banja.
(Saunas (implying Finnish) are often present at wellness hotels, the others are more exclusive extras.)
Reversing the order in nicht nur X sondern auch Y will also reverse what you are trying to say; you would be making something else the ‘standard’ and the previous standard the ‘exceptional’.
Hence also why the line of the Christmas carol is:
Du grünst nicht nur
Nein auch im Winter
Wenn es schneit.
(Nein auch can be taken as a special form of sondern auch.) It is nothing special that a tree is green in the summer; practically all trees are. It is, however, exceptional for a tree to be greening in winter when most trees have lost their leaves and even some lose their needles.