When to use beide, and when to use sowohl? I am aware that both of these words mean the same - "both".

Can you provide few examples explaining the usage?

3 Answers 3


You are wrong. The word »sowohl« does not mean both. It means "as well" in the construction "as well as", and always comes together with »als auch« (which is the second "as" in the same construction):

  1. Er spricht sowohl Deutsch als auch Englisch.
    He speaks German as well as English.

Compare it with this construction, which is different, but expresses the same meaning:

  1. Es spricht beides, Deutsch und Englisch.
    He speaks both, German and English.

The first construction (sowohl ... als auch) is much more common in German than the second, while in English you use more often the second one. In fact in German the first appearances of the second version was bad translations from Englisch texts. This construction was not usual in German some decades ago and still is bad style.

But since both sentences mean the same, you normally change the construction when you translate:

  1. Er spricht sowohl Deutsch als auch Englisch.
    He speaks both, German and English.

But this does not mean, that sowohl in any manner can be identified with both. The two grammatical constructions in example 3 do not match, so you can't compare single words out of it.

In German you normally use both only to talk about two things that build a pair, i.e. that belong together.

Hast du meinen linken Schuh gesehen? Gestern waren noch beide in der Garderobe, aber heute ist nur mehr der rechte da.
Did you see my left shoe? Yesterday both of them was in the cloakroom, but today only the right one is here.

  • 1
    "He speaks both, German and English." - I think this should be "He speaks both German and English.", without the comma. In English, the construction "both ... and ..." has the same meaning as "sowohl ... als auch ...". Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 17:25
  • He speaks German as well as English: Könnte auch »Er spricht Deutsch so gut wie Englisch« heißen.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 18:42
  • @Philipp: Ja, aber nur in diesem Kontext. z.B. bei »He visited Germany as well as England« geht das nicht. Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 5:13
  • This answer (that gets everything right about the German side of the topic!) should really be corrected. At least, it should be pointed out that the grammatical constructions in "Er spricht sowohl Deutsch als auch Englisch." and "He speaks both German and English." match precisely. Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 7:19
  • 1
    @infinitezero Das kann man aber auch in Deutschland sagen. Für mich wirkt es eher schriftsprachlich, man kann es aber auch in (Nord)Deutschland sagen. Vielleicht ist es in anderen Teilen Deutschlands verbreiteter.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 10:50

You need a grammar book besides your dictionary. And a good text book which shows you the differences by example:

Er kannte beide Wörter.

Er kannte sowohl das eine Wort als auch das andere.

Beide is a number word meaning all two of them. (Same as English both.) In contrary sowohl is a conjuction which is almost always paired with als auch.

The negation is as follows:

Er kannte keines der beiden Wörter.

Er kannte weder das eine Wort noch das andere.

  • 1
    "Same as English both." - it seems the OP's source of confusion is that in English, "both" can be used in both cases. Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 8:05

You are absolutely right: Depending on the context, both translates to either beide or sowohl.

The former is used to refer to two things (people, objects, concepts, whatever) that are described elsewhere (i.e. at least in a separate subordinate clause). For example:

  • "A and B do something. Both ..." = "A und B tun etwas. Beide ..."
  • "X and Y are countries in Asia. Both countries ..." = "X und Y sind Länder in Asien. Beide Länder ..."

The latter is only the case in a special construction that emphasizes that both out of two items are meant, namely

  • "both A and B" = "sowohl A als auch B"

The German word beide cannot be used in this sense.

With the above said, there are a few noteworthy differences between English and German:

  • beide can stand for itself, whereas English sometimes tends to expand the phrase to both of them. A phrasing like "beide von ihnen" or "beide davon" is unidiomatic.
  • On the other hand, the plural pronoun is sometimes added for clarification: wir beide, ihr beide, sie beide = both of us, both of you, both of them.
  • beide can be used with a definite article, die beiden, where it rather matches the two [people, ...] in English. This form can also be combined with "wir" and "ihr". While "ihr beide" emphasizes that the two addressed people are both included in whatever is currently discussed like with the English "both of you", "ihr beiden" is more like a generic placeholder to avoid a more definite term such as "ihr Kinder" or "ihr Freunde".
  • Lastly, while "both" can only ever refer to two things, "sowohl" can also introduce a longer list. While you may not want to stretch it too far, it is perfectly fine to highlight the inclusion of, for example, three things by saying "sowohl A als auch B als auch C".
  • Why was this downvoted? Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 7:08
  • Good detailed explanation. Upvoted.
    – xji
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 21:29

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