The meaning of German “denn”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Day of the Word…. just making sure you are awake ;). This time we will have a look at the meaning of:

denn 

And we’ll start with a couple of quick fixed for common mistakes.
First of,there is a difference between German den and German denn and it matters! Denn is like the English word den, German den has a long, open “e”. Here they are.

den – denn

 

So please try to practice this.
And then second, a quick note about denn and dann because people often mix them up.
300 years ago, both words were synonyms. But just as their English brothers then and than diversified in meaning, so did the German denn and dann and they must not be mixed up.But of course the difference between denn and dann is different than the difference between then and than. Because just like it says in the Manifestum of Languages…  confusion of the learner must be attained.
 Dann does NOT mean than and denn often DOESN’T translate to then.
I don’t want to talk about dann here so let’s just say dann  is essentially an answer to the question when?

Denn on the other hand cannot, under no circumstances ever, answer anything.
But it can do a lot of other things and we’ll clear them all up today.
So are you ready to jump in? Then let’s go…

Denn has three meanings; or better functions. There’s its normal day job as a translation for because to pay rent, then, like any employee in 2020 it seems, it has a side hustle as a flavoring particle, and that’s actually going great. And sometimes it has to help out its gym buddy als with the comparisons.
Let’s start with the day job, which is a translation for because.

“denn” and “weil” and the difference

Denn and weil are both translations for because, so they both introduce a reason. And yet, they’re not interchangeable – at least not without modifcations. And the reason for that is the grammar and structure.
Weil is what in grammar jargon is called subordinating congestion… or … something like that. Let’s just call it intro-word – one of those words that are like “Verb, get out of my face!” sending the poor verb all the way to the end.

The second part of the sentence said as a statement alone would be:

Adding because in English doesn’t affect the structure at all; adding weil in German makes bin move to the end.
This does not happen with denn. Denn leaves the structure untouched.

You might be like “Awesome, I’ll just use denn then.” but that wouldn’t be very natural. This weird verb at the end stuff is at the very foundation of German (as I lay out in my articles on Word Order) so you shouldn’t just avoid weil.
Anyway, so yeah, weil makes the verb move, denn doesn’t.
So far so simple.
But there’s a second difference between denn and weil and we’ll have to wax a little nerdy for it… so please indulge me :).

A weil-sentence is basically a box with additional information about what is going on in the main statement, the main clause. It answers the question why? and it is like a child of the main sentence if you will. There are all kinds of such boxes (I talk more about this approach in a separate article, link below) . One tells us who, one tells us when, one tells us where and so on. It doesn’t matter what “form” the information has inside the boxes. So it can be just a word, or it can be a weil-sentence. What matters is that these boxes  additional information to the main action can be placed in different positions in the main sentence. It is not really crucial, where it is as long as it is given within the scope of the sentence.

All three version mean the same and are fully 100% grammatical. They just sound a little different, have a different rhythm, a different style. And yes, I just said style in context of the German language. So… the weil-sentence can stand at various positions in a sentence.

This is NOT possible with denn. Yes, a denn-sentence does answer the question why, but it’s not integrated as a box into the main statement. It’s a second main sentence that related to the first one in way of reason. Denn creates the connection to what was there before, BUT for that to work, there has to be something. That’s why we can’t move the denn-part around.

  • Ich esse eine Pizza, denn ich habe Hunger. (right)
  • Denn ich habe Hunger, ich esse eine Pizza. (not right)

Grammatically, the second one is correct, but denn refers BACKWARD and there is nothing there. And the pizza-part is not connected to the denn-part at all and that makes its sound wrong.

Now you might be wondering if the only difference between denn and weil is how you have to set up your statement. And in most everyday contexts, we can say yes to that.
But because of their different functionality, there is one aspect where the two words do indeed have different skills.
And that is scope. We’ve learned that weil is an embedded sentence, a child. It is pretty much a part of a sentence just like a noun.
That’s why, unless the context is chrystal clear, the weil-part is perceived as belonging to what’s right next to it.
The denn-part on the other hand, being a main sentence on its own, can ONLY refer to other main sentences.
Sounds complicated but here’s an example

  • Die Chefin ist sauer, dass das Meeting gecancelt wurde,
                   – weil sie nach New York geflogen ist.
                   – denn sie ist nach New York geflogen.
  • The boss is pissed that the meeting was cancelled because she flew to New York
  • Because she flew NY just for this, the boss is pissed, that the meeting was cancelled.

The weil -part come after the meeting-part and thus the native speaker brain automatically assumes it is part of it. The New York-part gives the reason for the meeting being cancelled. It can technically also be part of the main sentence, but it’s not automatically perceived that way.
The denn-sentence on the other hand can ONLY refer to the main sentence and that is the sauer-part.  Denn can NOT be understood to refer to the meeting-part because the meeting-part is just a box in the main.

That said though… this difference in “scope” is not always a factor and it’s nothing to worry about for you when you speak. For the most part, it comes down to style and personal preference which one people use. Sometimes the denn-sentence just sounds better and the same expressed with weil would be boring. Google-ngram (which shows frequency in books) suggests that both of them are used equally often with a slight edge for weil. I’d say in daily speech, weil is used about 70 % of the time.
For you it will be enough to use weil and let denn slowly unconsciously sink into your active vocabulary.
And speaking of active… I want you all to get down to the floor and give me 20 push ups.
And if you’re now asking yourself “Why?” then we’re right at our next point. Denn, the particle. 

“denn” – a curious filler

Just like doch or halt or schon, denn is also used as a flavoring particle. Here is an example from daily speech.

  • “Hey, ich muss dir was erzählen.”
    “Was denn?”
    “Ich habe heute 100 Euro gefunden.”
    “Oh, wo denn?”
    “Auf der Strasse vor meinem Haus.”
    “Lädst du mich denn auf ein Bier ein?”
    “Klar.”
  • “Hey I have got to tell you something.”
    Oh What is it?”
    “I found 100 € today.”
    “Oh, and where?”
    “On the street, in front of my house.”
    So, are you going to invite me for a beer then?
    “Sure.”

If you look at how denn is used here, you might notice one thing: it is only used in questions. And that’s no coincedence, because:

Denn as a flavoring particle DOES ONLY WORK IN questions!

But what exactly does it do?
Well, in many instances it is basically padding. Yup, padding. A “naked” question word would sound rather harsh.

To make this sound friendly you would need to lengthen it a lot while doing all kinds of turns with the melody… whaaaaaat? Both languages, English and German try to soften this by adding some filler like oh, and or was it or… denn.
Denn
 just makes you sound less harsh and it gives you more options to express your feelings with tone and melody.
It DOESN’T, as many sources online suggest, signal interest. I mean, come on people… it’s a question! “Denn signals interest.” is a lazy ass explanation.
What it really is is padding, an extra syllable that gives you room to express yourself tonally. You can make it sound annoyed, surprised, super curious, angry… whatever you want.

However, probably on account of its padding-power denn always sounds a bit casual. A detective would never ask the suspect where denn the money is because the padding-power of denn would take away the sharpness.
(Another argument against this “Signals interest”-nonsense, by the way. The detective is VERY interested in the answers, even without denn.)
Anyway, here’s a couple more examples…

As you can see, denn is not restricted to super short questions. Sure, these questions wouldn’t sound super harsh without denn.
I’d say in those examples denn gives the same flavor as an initial so does in English.
Sometimes it has a slight undertone of at least

But those are nuances that you’ll pick up over time.
The important takeaway is that denn is used to “pad” questions and possibly give you some room for your intonation to show your mood, so go ahead and start adding it to questions. Just don’t overdo it. Like… having a denn in EVERY question would be too much :).
Cool!
Now, we’re almost done, but there’s one more thing I want to mention real quick.

One more thing I want to mention real quick

Geez headline, you had one job!! Do it again, and correct this time!

“Denn” – the other “als”

Contemporary German (hahaha… writing that was a real joy for some reason) uses the word als for unequal comparisons.

But a few hundred years ago, German actually used denn for this purpose. No idea why people switched to als at some point, but be that as it may,  there are two occasions in which denn is still used that way. The first is to avoid double als. As you know als itself has a LOT to do and means a LOT of things so sometimes this happens.

Here we have a comparing als and a whatever you want to call that –als. In spoken German, I think most people don’t bother and say als als but in writing the comparing als will be replaced by denn. I have to say though, that this sounds really high class already. Do it and your German teacher will be secretly impressed.

Alright… there is also one fixed expression that still uses denn to for comparison: denn je.

This doesn’t even work with als. Denn je is still quite common but it certainly sounds like very high German. So if you drop a denn je in a sentence people will be secretly impressed by your level of German.
But other than that I would not recommend to use denn as than in German. Sometimes it works and you may read it here and there but at the least you will sound like your are stage acting and in the worst case people will be confused because denn has other meanings that are more common. But denn je is than ever so go ahead and make some jaws drop.

And that’s it for today. Yeay!!
This was our look at the meaning and use of denn. We’ve learned that can mean weil, but it has different grammar and a different scope and so at least in spoken German the more common denn is the question padding.
If you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of coure, if you have any questions or suggestions leave me a comment. I hope you enjoyed it.
Till next time.

further reading:

The Box Model – An incredibly helpful perspective on sentence structure

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