German Language Blog

Es Sei Denn: The German For ‘Unless’ Posted by on Nov 28, 2018 in Grammar, Language

Guten Tag! Sometimes when learning a language you will come across little turns of phrase that you just can’t get your head around. Maybe they look like they should mean one thing, but they actually mean something totally different. We have looked at false friends on the blog before, which is a similar topic you might want to look at after this one. But today’s post is about the little phrase es sei denn, which means unless in German.


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She will see him tomorrow, unless he doesn’t come.
Sie wird ihn morgen sehen, es sei denn, er kommt nicht.

Whether you are new to German or have some experience with it, it might be difficult to accept at first that these three words, es sei denn, mean unless in German. If you saw the phrase es sei denn in a sentence and didn’t know what it meant, you might instinctively translate each word separately. Translated directly, es sei denn means it be because or it be for. So your sentence would read:

She will see him tomorrow, ‘it be because’ he doesn’t come.

… And that doesn’t make a lot of sense! Translated like this, es sei denn kind of looks like it should mean So be it. Confusingly, it is the similar-looking German phrase So sei es that means So be it!

Es sei denn = unless
So sei es = so be it

So now you know that es sei denn means unless!

You will either see es sei denn used on its own, or with a dass (that) on the end, like this:

es sei denn, dass

Here is the difference. Here is a sentence with just es sei denn:

Sie wird ihn morgen sehen, es sei denn, er kommt nicht.

Here is the same sentence, adding the dass (that):

Sie wird ihn morgen sehen, es sei denn, dass er nicht kommt.

Can you see the difference? When the dass (that) is in the sentence, the verb (kommt) goes to the end of the sentence, instead. However, the sentence is not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ with the dass (that) in it. Both versions are absolutely fine! Here is another example:

Wir fahren heute, es sei denn, du willst länger bleiben.

Wir fahren heute, es sei denn, dass du länger bleiben willst.

(We will go today, unless you want to stay longer.)

I hope this has been useful. Has the phrase es sei denn ever caught you out, or is this the first time you’ve seen it? Are there any other, little phrases or words that confuse or catch you out? Let us know!

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.


  1. Efrén:

    Hallo, good morning. Excellent commentary. I like It!!. Have a nice day.

  2. John E Loth:

    Long time student of German. Masters but never used it. Remain a hobby learner. I would suggest you consider reviewing German modal particles. See Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage by Martin Durrell (sixth edition) The 6th edition provides extensive updates in all areas, but especially in treatment of German modal particles. (pp 214-242). Excellent examples and English equivalents. Disregard earlier editions of this subject. The 6th is revolutionary. So helpful. JEL

  3. Joseph T Madawela:

    such phases are good to know. Hopefully we will have more. thankS