Word of the Day – “wenn”

preparing to talk about whenHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will look at the meaning of:


Wenn is one of the most confusing words for a lot of people who are learning German and even people who are almost perfectly fluent confuse wenn and als or wenn and wann,because they don’t know the difference. These problems are part of a broader issue. The English words if and when have 5 possible German translations: wann, wenn, falls, ob and als and I will write in article explaining the differences between all of those. But I don’t want it to be pages and pages and pages so we will look at every word in detail first and then put that together…

So for today our focus is wenn and because the issue is so important to a lot of people, I have decided to get some help for this. So I have invited one of the most renowned philosophers of our time: Steven B. Smith… welcome Steve… 

Hey Emanuel, thank you for having me.

German is easy (GIE):
Thanks for being here. Steve, many people have only a shadowy picture of what philosophers do…

Niiiice one … (laughs)

Glad you got that… so tell us a little bit about your current projects.

Well you know… so of course I am teaching at different universities but my main  focus during the last year has been on a project I am realizing with some colleagues … I don’t want give too much away now as we have an article in Philosophers Digest comin’ out in a few weeks but this much I can say: you will be able to play both on Facebook and on any smart phone, you can play against OR with your friends and it will have something to do with gardening…

Oh…  See I had no idea that philosophers are actually involved in these kind of projects…

Oh most of us are, I mean… we have to eat, right? (laughs) 

Well, I guess so… anyway. So you’re here today to help me explaining the German word wenn. 

Yes… from a philosophers point of view it is a really fantastic word… or should I say
wenn-tastic… (laughs)

Oh no, don’t bother about wordplays and stuff. The audience here doesn’t really find those funny…

Oh really?

Yeah, all pretty stiff, serious and focused folk….

Oh ok, I’ll turn off my funny then… So let’s make a little detour and have a quick look at English first.
In English you have the words if and when with if indicating a possibility and when indicating a time be it past present or future.

  • When I come home, I will watch TV.

Oh … sorry but could you possibly say all whens, ifs and wenns in italic and bold… just for clarity…

Oh sure no problem. So:

  • When I come home I will eat something.
  • When I was a kid had a cat.

These are examples for time. 

  •  If I don’t get my train, I will be late for the meeting.
  • If I told you the truth you wouldn’t eat that ever again.

So we have the poles possibility – time here.
Now ask yourself this… how certain can you be that you WILL be doing something until you’re actually doing it?

Hmmm… I don’t know… depends I guess…

Exactly…  maybe you can be 99,99% sure that you will be at home if you are right in front of your house, but still you do not know whether you will have a heart attack right the next second. So you cannot be absolutely sure about events in the future. There is alway a degree of uncertainty to it. Something can be very likely or very unlikely to happen but you do never know for sure. Thus we have a smooth transition from if to when and the 2 are interchangeable at times.

Do you maybe have an example for this transition?

Oh of course. So here is something rather unrealistic. 

  • If I saw a billion dollars lying on the street I would just leave it there..

This is not very probable to happen and this is expressed by using if and the conditional forms of the verb. Now let’s look at this one.

  • If I see/saw a penny on the street I will/would just leave it there.

So is that a statement of time or a statement of possibility? The answer is up to the beholder to decide and it doesn’t matter after all in that case.
And for something rather realistic.

  • When/if I see dog shit  in the street I will just leave it there.

If you live in Pleasant-ville you might prefer if, but in a large city it is not a question of if but when you will see the next pile. 

Ok … now  is there absolute certainty at all?

Yes. Whenever something has happened this is 100% certain. Take the sentence “I ate a pizza”. There is no question that you did eat the pizza. So here when is the only appropriate choice.

  • When I came home, I ate a pizza. 

So English has the 2 poles when (time) – if (possibility) and the space between is a continuum. Now how does that relate to German and to wenn.

German has different poles. The 2 choices are certainty – possibility. And there is no transition here, so either something is 100% certain or not. If it is 100% certain the German word is als and as 100% certainty is only possible in the past, als is THE ONLY proper translation for when in the past.

  • Als der Film zuende war , musste ich weinen.
  • When the movie was over, I had to cry. 

As soon as there is the slightest doubt, you HAVE to use wenn, regardless of whether it was if or when in English. Als does totally fail there, and it’s might not even be understandable. So whenever you talk in future or conditional the proper German word is wenn. Let’s look at them back to back.

  • When I am 40, I want to have a cat.
  • When I was 10, I had a cat.

The when of the first sentence is in the future, hence it is wenn, the when in the second sentence is in past hence it is als.

  • Wenn ich 40 bin, will ich eine Katze haben.
  • Als ich 10 war, hatte ich eine Katze. 

Let’s do one more example.

  • I will call you when/if I find my phone.
  • Ich rufe dich an wenn ich mein Handy finde.
  • I called you when I came home.
  • Ich habe dich angerufen, als ich nach Hause gekommen bin.

So basically when I talk about past I use als and when it is not past it will be wenn, is that correct?


So what about possibilities in the past, like “If you had invited me, I would have come to your party.” I mean, it is 100% certain that I was NOT invited, so what do I do here?

Good question, so the statement is that you would have come to the party, had only you know, but you actually can’t know that for sure because it never happened. Maybe you wouldn’t have come because you would have met the love of your life on the way to the party and you 2 went home for sexual intercourse. You cannot know for sure what WOULD have happened, because it DIDN’T happen…. so these  ifs will also be wenn in German.

  • Wenn du mich eingeladen hättest, wäre ich zu deiner Party gekommen. 

So the difference between wenn and als is that als is used for the past and wenn is used for future and fantasy land, to not use the term conditional again.

Yap. And future and fantasy land are sort of the same thing, at least from a German language point of view, and that is reflected by wenn being if and when.

Well Steve, I have to say, that was really awesome. Thanks you so so much for this. Are you going to join us for the rest of the show?

Oh of course…

Cool. So guys… I hope that things are a little more clear now. If you are wondering about the difference between wenn and falls, I will talk about that more in the post about falls, but don’t worry too much there, this is not a critical distinction.
There are some little things I want to say before we finish. First of, wenn – also als – is one of these words that don’t get along with the verb very well, so sentences with wenn are always side sentences with all the verbs hangin’ out at the end.

  • Wenn ich den Zug, der um 10:30 am Hauptbahnhof losgefahren ist, nicht gekriegt hätte, wäre ich zu spät zu meinem Termin gekommen.
  • If I hadn’t caught the train, that was leaving from Hauptbahnhof at 10:30, I would have been late for my appointment.

And then there are some fixed expressions with wenn that don’t really fit the explanations above. The first one is the best as it brings together what mustn’t be mixed up :) … als wenn. This means pretty much the same as als ob so it is as if.

  • Es riecht als wenn es brennt.
  • It smells as if it was burning.

Then there is wenn auch. This is somewhere in the vicinity of although. In a sentence wenn auch is usually followed by so doch

  • Wenn ich auch müde war, so habe ich doch Hausaufgaben gemacht.
  • Obwohl ich müde war, habe ich Hausaufgaben gemacht.
  • Although I was tired I did homework.

In this case wenn is used although it is in the past and 100% certain that I was tired.

And now to wrap this up… Steve, do you know any idioms with wenn by any chance?

Yeah.. I think one is “Wenn schon denn schon!” but I don’t really know what it means.

Yeah think of that as a very very short form of something like “So when this condition does apply, and it apparently does, then  let’s at least do something this way.”

Oh that is really abstract.

Yeah true, mostly we use it to say “Ok, If we are going to do it then let’s do it to the max”. So imagine you clean your flat, and you go all out on it. Your girlfriend comes home and she is amazed by how aseptic the place is… then is the right moment for “Wenn schon, denn schon.”
Or if you go from long hair to bald or from drinking nothing for weeks to totally trash yourself in one night…

I think I get it… that’s a nice one.

And then there is the one that perfectly captures the idea of uncertainty:

  • Wenn das Wörtchen wenn nicht wär’, wär’ ich längst schon Millionär.
  • If the word if didn’t exist, I would be a millionaire by now.

(laughs)… hah I hear THAT for sure…

So… I think we’re done. So wenn is correct for future and fantasy land, als is correct for past and DO NOT MIX THEM UP. Steve, thank you so much for the philosophical insights…

My pleasure…

… and good luck with that browser game.

Thank you.

And for the rest of you, thanks for joining. I hope this helped and as usual if you have any questions or suggestions just drop me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

!!! EDIT !!!

I forgot an important aspect about wenn and als. If you’re talking about
a repeated action in the past, like a habit or something, then you’d also
use wenn and not als

I’ll work that into the article but for now you should check out the comments for details. Sorry ;:)