German Two-Part Conjunctions: entweder… oder, je… desto & more!

In this German grammar lesson I will teach you how to use the two-part conjunctions, sometimes also called “compound conjunctions” or “Doppelkonjunktionen”. By the end of this lesson you will be an expert on all of the German two-part conjunctions and can test your knowledge with a worksheet via this link

If you are pressed for time, you can skip down to the TL;DR version of this lesson by clicking here.

How to Use Two-Part Conjunctions in German: entweder… oder, je… desto & more!

Other lessons in this series:
Coordinating Conjunctions
Subordinating Conjunctions
Adverbial Conjunctions

What are German two-part conjunctions?

First, we need to define what we are talking about. What are two-part conjunctions? Well, as the name implies, they are conjunctions that are used in two parts. That is a terrible definition. How about: They are words that connect other words, phrases and clauses, but require you to put one piece in one half of the sentence and another piece in the other half. That is a bit wordy, but it is at least more precise. Basically, these are words that we use in two different parts of a sentence to connect the words, phrases or clauses within that sentence.

Luckily for everyone involved, most of these conjunctions are considered “coordinating”, in that they don’t change the word order. The most difficult part about using them is knowing where to put them. Once you have that down and you know what they mean, you will be able to use them with no problem. 

entweder… oder
either…. or

First up is the combination of “entweder” and “oder”. In English we use “either” and “or”. This conjunction connects two or more options and sets them up as you can only have one. You know, like that Venn diagram that shows your options as a student. Good grades, enough sleep or a social life. Choose two. 

Two-Part Conjunctions Memes
Two-Part Conjunctions Memes

In order to use this conjunction and the others on the list of coordinating two-part conjunctions, you put “entweder” in front of the first option or first half. Then you put “oder” before you start the second option or the second half of the sentence. You can use these two parts to introduce an entire clause or simply a word or two. Let’s start with just a couple of words. 

Ich möchte entweder einen Foxterrier oder einen Schäferhund.
I would like either a fox terrier or a German shepherd. 

Er hätte entweder gern einen Tee oder einen Kaffee.
He would like either tea or coffee. 

Ich möchte entweder eine Cola oder ein Glas Milch.
I would like either a cola or a glass of milk.

Two-Part Conjunctions with Full Clauses

When you use a two-part conjunction to connect two complete clauses in German, you need to have each part at the beginning of their respective clause, meaning that the first half of the conjunction goes in the first half of the sentence. The second half of the conjunction goes in the second half of the sentence. For example: 

Entweder du stirbst als Held, oder du lebst lang genug um der Böse zu werden.
You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Harvey Dent 

Entweder gehe ich nach Hause, oder ich gehe ins Kino.
Either I am going home, or I am going to the movie theater.

Entweder schreib etwas Lesenswertes oder tue etwas Schreibenswertes.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
– Benjamin Franklin

An alternative version of this quote could be: 

Schreibe entweder Dinge, die lesenswert sind, oder tue Dinge, die schreibenswert sind.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
– Benjamin Franklin 

In this version, you see that “entweder” isn’t at the beginning of its clause. This is due to the special nature of “entweder”. It can go first in the sentence or after the verb. I could have said it with “entweder” as the first word and it would still be correct. Just don’t forget that while “oder” can be used on its own, “entweder” cannot. It must be used in conjunction* with “oder”. 
*I apologize for that terrible pun.

More Than 2 Options with “entweder… oder”

You can have more than two options with “entweder… oder”. For example: 

Ich möchte entweder einen Hund, eine Katze oder einen Goldfisch.
I would like a dog, a cat or a goldfish. 

Entweder du räumst dein Zimmer auf, du spülst das Geschirr oder du reinigst das Bad.
Either you clean your room, you wash the dishes or you clean the bathroom. 

weder… noch
neither… nor

Next up is the negated version of “entweder… oder”, “weder… noch”. In English we simply add N to the beginning of each word and we now have “neither… nor”. In German we removed the “ent-” and swapped “oder” for “noch”. The end result is still the same. This German two-part conjunctions means you have several options, but you can’t have any of them. This is usually just two options, but just like “entweder… oder” you can have more than just two options. Here are a few examples of it in action. 

Ich habe weder eine Katze noch einen Hund.
I have neither a cat nor a dog. 

Er möchte weder Kaffee trinken noch einen Keks essen.
He would like neither to drink coffee nor to eat a cookie. 

Wir dürfen weder ins Kino gehen, noch in die Disko, weil ich Hausarrest habe.
We can neither go to the movies nor to the club, because I am grounded. 

Sie will weder Diamanten noch Perlen.
She wants neither diamonds nor pearls.

Wer sich weder durch Lob verführen, noch durch Tadel in Verwirrung bringen lässt, der besitzt großen Herzensfrieden.
Great tranquility of heart is his who cares for neither praise nor blame.
– Thomas à Kempis
(Literally: Who is neither led astray by praise, nor is allowed to be brought into dismay by reproach, he has great tranquility of heart.)  

“weder… noch” is an Adverbial Conjunction

“weder… noch” also does something weird. If you have two full clauses that you want to combine, “weder” pushes the subject to the other side of the verb. This happens with adverbial conjunctions, which is the topic for next week. The basics is that it acts like an adverb and just like any other adverb, if you start the sentence with that adverb, it pushes the subject to the other side of the verb. For once the English word order mirrors this and also pushes the subject to the other side of the verb. For example: 

Weder darf er ins Kino, noch kann er es ihm leisten.
Neither can he go to the movies, nor can he afford it. 

Weder arbeite ich heute, noch muss ich in die Schule.
Neither do I work today nor do I have to go to school. 

Weder hat er Geld, noch ist er hübsch.
Neither does he have money, nor is he handsome.

nicht nur… sondern auch
not only… but also

On the other end of the continuum we have “nicht nur… sondern auch”. This combination means “not only… but also” in English. It indicates that both the first thing and the other thing are true. Unlike the conjunctions mentioned so far, the “nicht nur” part of the sentence doesn’t start with “nicht nur”. Instead you put “nicht nur” after the verb in the first clause. “sondern auch” is also a bit odd, in that it can be split with extra words between “sondern” and “auch”. You do start the second clause with “sondern”, however. Let’s start by combining just a few words and work our way up to full clauses. 

Er hat nicht nur einen Hund, sondern auch eine Katze. –
He has not only a dog, but also a cat. 

Er trinkt nicht nur einen Kaffee, sondern auch ein Glas Wasser.
He isn’t drinking just a coffee, but also a glass of water. 

Wir fahren nicht nur in die Stadt, sondern kaufen auch ein.
We are not only driving into town, but also shopping.

Sie bringt nicht nur Wein für meinen Eltern, sondern gibt den Kindern auch Schokolade.
She isn’t just bringing wine for my parents, but also giving the children chocolate. 

Mein Bruder ist nicht nur hässlich sondern auch glatzköpfig.
My brother is not only ugly, but also bald.

Er hat mir nicht nur mein Geld genommen, sondern auch mein Handy.
He has not only taken my money, but also my phone.

Where to put “auch” in a German Sentence

How do you know where to put “auch”? Sometimes it is next to “sondern”, but more often there are a few words between “sondern” and “auch”. How many words? Is there a limit? The “auch” in these sentences acts kind of like the placement for “nicht” in other sentences. If you reword the clause into a stand alone sentence with “nicht”, you can find the placement for “auch”. For example: 

Wir kaufen nicht ein.
We are not shopping. 

Wir kaufen auch ein.
We are also shopping. 

Sie gibt den Kindern nicht/keine Schokolade.
She isn’t giving the children chocolate.

Sie gibt den Kindern auch Schokolade.
She is also giving the children chocolate. 

sowohl… als auch
as well as

A synonym for “nicht nur… sondern auch” is “sowohl… als auch”. It still translates as “not only… but also” in English, but there is a subtle difference between the two. “nicht nur… sondern auch” indicates a sort of standard vs surprise/unusual juxtaposition, whereas “sowohl… als auch” means that both things are the same. The difference in English could be expressed by the difference between “not only… but also” and “as well as”, with “sowohl… als auch” being more like “as well as”. For example:

Sowohl mein Bruder als auch meine Schwester haben blonde Haare.
My brother as well as my sister have blonde hair. 

The Difference Between “nicht nur… sondern auch” and “sowohl… als auch”

If you switch the brother and sister in this sentence, nothing changes in the meaning. 

Sowohl meine Schwester als auch mein Bruder haben blonde Haare.
My sister as well as my brother have blonde hair. 

If you try to switch them with “nicht nur… sondern auch”, you change the meaning slightly. 

Nicht nur mein Bruder, sondern auch meine Schwester haben blonde Haare.
Not only my brother, but also my sister has blonde hair.

(Brother was expected to have blonde hair, but it is somewhat surprising that another family member, namely the sister, also has blonde hair.) 

Nicht nur meine Schwester, sondern auch mein Bruder haben blonde Haare.
Not only my sister, but also my brother has blonde hair.

(Sister was expected to have blonde hair, but it is somewhat surprising that another family member, namely the sister, also has blonde hair.) 

When the Difference Between “nicht nur… sondern auch” and “sowohl… als auch” is a Bigger Deal

This difference between the German two-part conjunctions “nicht nur… sondern auch” and “sowohl… als auch” can be more striking in some situations. The previous example didn’t really make much of a difference, but it would make a big difference in the following example. 

Ich führe sowohl meinen Hund Gassi, als auch meine Katze.
I walk my dog as well as my cat.

(Both parts are equal. It is not surprising that either of them are brought on the walk. If you switch the dog and the cat, nothing in the meaning changes.) 

Ich führe nicht nur meinen Hund Gassi, sondern auch meine Katze.
I don’t only take my dog for a walk, but also my cat.

(It is pretty standard to take your dog for a walk. Cat’s aren’t big fans of leashes, so this is a bit odd. Therefore we used “nicht nur… sondern auch”. If you switch the dog and the cat in this example, the difference is much bigger, as people don’t normally walk their cat.) 

sowohl… als auch vs und

Generally speaking, you can use “sowohl… als auch” where you could use “und”, which is why it isn’t very common to see full clauses connected by “sowohl… als auch” and why I didn’t use any here. 

More Examples of “sowohl… als auch”

Sowohl 2013 als auch 2016 bin ich mit Schülern nach Deutschland gereist.
Not only 2013 but also 2016 I traveled to Germany with students.

Ich bin sowohl krank als auch müde.
I am not only sick, but also tired.

zwar… aber
yeah… but

The next German two-way conjunction is “zwar… aber”, which is basically like “yeah… but”. It indicates that the first is true, but that there is some additional info that is needed to contextualize this info. Here are a few examples. 

Zwar habe ich genügend Geld, aber ich möchte es nicht ausgeben.
It is true that I have enough money, but I don’t want to spend it. 

Zwar bin ich klug, aber ich mache auch manchmal Fehler.
It’s true that I am smart, but sometimes I too make mistakes.

You can also move the position of “zwar” to the adverb position. 

Ich habe zwar genügend Geld, aber ich möchte es nicht ausgeben.
It is true that I have enough money, but I don’t want to spend it. 

Zwar kann ich Deutsch sprechen, aber ich bin kein Deutscher.
It is true that I can speak German, but I am not a German. 

Ich kann zwar Deutsch sprechen, bin aber kein Deutscher.
It is true that I can speak German, but I am not a German. 

Meine Hündin ist zwar jung, sie ist aber auch klug.
My dog is young, but she is also smart.

The Difference in Meaning with “zwar” at the Beginning

This time I moved not only the word “zwar”, but also the word “aber”. This is not necessary, but again, possible. Moving “zwar” or “aber” is simply a stylistic choice and has little difference in the meaning. If you start a sentence with “zwar”, you are drawing attention to the “it’s true” part of the sentence. If you move “zwar”, it could be better translated in English by adding vocal emphasis on the helping word. Sometimes this is a form of “being”, but it can also be a modal verb, like in these examples.  

Ich kann zwar Deutsch sprechen, aber ich bin kein Deutscher.
I can speak German, but I am not a German. 

Ich habe zwar genügend Geld, aber ich möchte es nicht ausgeben.
I do have enough money, but I don’t want to spend it. 

When you move “aber”, it is more like adding the word “however” to the English translation. 

Ich kann zwar Deutsch sprechen, bin aber kein Deutscher.
I can speak German, am however not a German. 

Ich habe zwar genügend Geld, möchte es aber nicht ausgeben.
I do have enough money, wouldn’t like to spend it, however. 

einerseits… andererseits
on the one hand… on the other hand

There are a few ways to compare and contrast the clauses in a German sentence using two-part conjunctions. The first on my list is “einerseits… andererseits”. This is most closely related to the English “on the one hand… on the other hand”. For example:

Einerseits brauchen wir Lehrer, andererseits wollen wir sie nicht gut bezahlen.
On the one hand, we need teachers, but on the other hand we don’t want to pay them well.

Einerseits finde ich sie ganz nett, andererseits kann sie manchmal nervig sein.
On the one hand I find her quite nice, on the others hand she can be annoying sometimes.

“andererseits” without “einerseits”

You don’t always have to have “einerseits” in order to use “andererseits”. It can be used as a normal adverbial coordinating conjunction. This means that the subject is on the other side of the verb after “andererseits”. For example: 

Du hast vermutlich recht, andererseits könnte er einfach “hallo” sagen wollen.
You are probably correct, on the other hand, he could just want to say “hello”. 

Word Order with “einerseits… andererseits”

You do have to have “andererseits”, however in order to use “einerseits”. While “einerseits” can’t stand on its own, you can put “einerseits” or “andererseits” in an adverbial position in the sentence and the conjunction still works. For example: 

Er wollte sich einerseits berühmt machen, andererseits hatte er sein Publikum sehr genervt.
He wanted to make himself famous on the one hand, but he annoyed his audience a lot. 

Arguments with “einerseits… andererseits”

The combination of “einerseits” and “andererseits” is great for showing two sides to an argument. 

Einerseits sollte er seine Hausaufgaben machen, andererseits sagen seine Eltern, dass er sein Zimmer aufräumen sollte.
On the one hand, he should do his homework, on the other hand his parents say that he should clean his room. 

mal… mal
sometimes… sometimes

If you want to say that sometimes an event goes this way, while other times it goes that way, you need the word “mal” twice. It may seem odd to consider the same word a German two-part conjunction, but it is. On its own “mal” generally translates as “once” or “sometimes”. When you put it at the beginning of each clause, it pushes the subject to the other side of the verb and shows a contrast between “sometimes this” and “sometimes that”. For example: 

Mal bist du der Vogel, mal der Wurm.
Sometimes you are the bird, sometimes the worm. 

Mal ist mein Sohn sehr süß und lustig, mal schreit er nur.
Sometimes my son is very sweet and funny, other times he just screams. 

Mal höre ich Rockmusik, mal höre ich Rapmusik.
Sometimes I listen to rock music, sometimes I listen to rap music. 

teils… teils
partly… partly

Along the same lines is “teils”. This is another conjunction that simply repeats itself, but instead of “sometimes”, “teils” means “partly” or “in part”. Again, it is used like an adverb, meaning that it moves the subject to the other side of the verb if you use it first, but it is also possible to move “teils” to the normal adverb spot. For example: 

Teils war der Film interessant, teils war er langweilig.
The film was partly interesting, partly it was boring. 

Mein Frühstück besteht teils aus Cornflakes, teils aus Milch.
My breakfast consists partly of cornflakes (cereal), partly of milk. 

je… desto
the… the

All of the German two-part conjunctions so far for today have been coordinating conjunctions, meaning that they don’t change word order or adverbial conjunctions meaning they push the subject to the other side of the verb. The last few that I want to talk about today are subordinating conjunctions that are split into two parts. 

The first of these is by far the most common of them “je… desto”. This is the weirdest one to translate for me, as in English it is simply “the… the”. It is followed by the comparative form of some adjective or adverb. If you don’t know what the comparative and superlative forms of adverbs are I have a lesson about that linked here. You can also probably figure out what I mean in these next few examples: 

Je mehr ich esse, desto dicker werde ich.
The more I eat, the fatter I become.

Je früher ich aufwache, desto mehr Arbeit kann ich erledigen.
The earlier I wake up, the more work I can get done. 

Je älter ich werde, desto weniger weiß ich.
The older I get the less I know. 

Je mehr ich lese, desto klüger werde ich.
The more I read, the smarter I become.

Je kälter wird das Wetter, desto mehr Kleidung ich trage.
The colder the weather becomes, the more clothing I wear.

Word Order with “je… desto”

Notice that the verb goes after the comparative form in the second clause. This is why “werde” is after “dicker”. When a subordinating conjunction is used in the first clause, as “je” is in these examples, the conjugated verbs are next to the comma in the middle of the sentence, but since we have two parts to our conjunction this time, we have to put the conjunction first, which has to be used with the comparative form after it. 

So the word order is: first half of the subordinating conjunction (je), subject, whatever else is in the sentence, conjugated verb, comma, second half of the subordinating conjunction (desto), comparative form of an adverb or adjective, conjugated verb, subject, the rest of the stuff in the sentence. 

je… umso
the… the

You can switch out “desto” with “umso” without any change in the meaning. 

Je schneller ich fahre, umso höher ist die Möglichkeit einen Strafzettel zu bekommen. –
The faster I drive the higher the possibility of getting a ticket. 

Ich mag Kekse. Je größer umso besser.
I like cookies. The bigger the better. 

Du musst mich von der Schule abholen. Je eher, umso besser.
You have to pick me up from school. The sooner the better. 

ob… oder
whether… or

The last one on my list for today doesn’t really count in my opinion, as it is simply a combination of a subordinating conjunction and a coordinating conjunction. You saw me use it last week and didn’t even notice it. This is “ob… oder”. It is best translated as “whether… or”. Here are a few examples with it. 

Ich weiß nicht, ob der Hund einen Knochen im Garten vergraben hat oder ein Eichhörnchen meine Pflanzen gefressen hat.
I don’t know if the dog buried a bone in the garden or if a squirrel ate my plants. 

Er muss mir es erklären, ob er den roten oder gelben kaufen möchte.
He has to explain it to me if he would like to buy the red or the yellow one. 

That’s my list of two-part conjunctions in German. Some are simple coordinating conjunctions that are split in two, which don’t affect word order. Others are adverbial conjunctions, that push the subject to the other side of the verb. The last group are subordinating conjunctions that push the conjugated verb to the end of the clause.

TL;DR Version

This video is from a series called “3 Minuten Deutsch” in which I attempt to explain German grammar in short digestible videos, each around 3 minutes in length. This video doesn’t go into nearly the amount of depth that the rest of this post does, but it gets the general idea right.

If you want additional materials to go with this 3 Minuten Deutsch lesson along with all of the other lessons in that series, they are available for free here.

More about Conjunctions in German

Below is a list of posts about various kinds of conjunctions in German. If you enjoyed this lesson, you will love these as well.

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