Word of the Day – “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:


And a quick note on pronunciation first: try to make a difference to the German  den. Denn is like the English den, German den has a long “e”. Here they are.

den – denn


Cool. Next, a quick note an 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 and mustn’t be mixed up nowadays, so did the German denn and dann. But of course the meanings in German are different than the ones in English. I mean come on… things gotta be confusing, right? Dann does totally NOT mean than and denn often DOESN’T translate to then.  I don’t want to talk too much about dann here so let’s just say  dann  is essentially an answer to the question when?

Denn cannot under no circumstances ever answer anything.
But it can do a lot of other things and we’ll clear them all up today. Sounds good? Then let’s jump right in…

Denn has 3 meanings or better functions… it has a normal every day job to pay the rent, it also has a flourishing flavoring particle business going on the side and sometimes it has to help its buddy als with the comparisons. Let’s start with the day job.

“denn” and “weil”

Denn is a possible translation for because. Just like weil. Both words do the same thing: they introduce a reason for something. And yet, there is a difference between denn and weil and that difference lies in the grammar and structure. Weil is what in grammar jargon is called subordinating congestion… or … something like that … but we’ll just call it intro word. So weil is one of those words that make the verb leave its precious second position and go 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 habe move to the end.
This does not happen with denn. Denn leaves the structure untouched.

So here you have pretty much a word to word translation in the same order. BUT:  Don’t think that weil is weird or an exception. If fact most the vast majority of introductory words make the verb move. Denn is the exception here. Denn hangs out with aber and und at the stranger table.
Anyways.. so weil makes the verb move, denn doesn’t. So far so good.
There is a second difference between denn and weiland I will get a little nerdy here in my explanations… so please indulge me :)
The weil-sentence is what I call a minor sentence… it is sort of additional information to what is going on in the main sentence and it answers the question why?. Now, 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 3 version mean the same and are fully 100% grammatical. They just sound a little different, have a different rhythm. The last one certainly is the least common one, and yet it might be chosen at times when it nicely fits the style of the surrounding sentences…. mind you… we are not talking about content here… just style. Yep… we are talking about style in the context of German. So… the weil-sentence can stand at not all but various positions in a sentence.

This is NOT possible with denn. The denn-part is also answering the question why? but it is maybe a little less additional but rather a second action put in relation to the first. The connection is expressed using denn. But you cannot use a connector if hasn’t been anything to connect to and hence denn  only works if the first part has been already said… wow that was complicated… it all boils down to: the denn-sentence is always after the other part, the weil-sentence can move around around.

  • Ich esse eine Pizza, denn ich habe Hunger. (right)
  • Denn ich habe Hunger, ich esse eine Pizza. (wrongst)

Both sentences are NOT connected in the second version. There is NO connector between them. There is just the denn-connector at the beginning, but there is nothing to connect to there. If you are confused by all this reasoning, don’t worry… it is not important after all. Just remember that the denn-part always has to be second while the weil-part doesn’t.

Now what about the usage of denn and weil? Well, for the most part they are doing the same thing so you can chose either one. There is one difference however and that is scope. Weil is closer to the part that came right before it while denn has a bigger range. This can make a difference. Here is 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 -sentence doesn’t span very far so it sounds as if it gives the reason for the meeting being canceled. The denn-sentence is different. Remember… a denn-sentence is a major-sentence with a verb in position number 2. So it is on par with the “boss is pissed”-sentence and thus, although there is a side sentence in between, we assume that the denn-sentence refers to the other main sentence so it tells us why the boss is pissed. We can make it even more clear if we give reasons for both parts.

It is pretty contrived but I hope it helps illustrate what is happening. The weil-sentence explains the one right before it. The denn-sentence, being a top-level sentence explains the other top level sentence… the one telling us that the boss is pissed… My English translation probably sound awful and people would use a different phrasing altogether but anyway. Denn and weil have a different range so in more complex sentences one might be more appropriate than the other.
However, in many situations it depends on flow of the text or personal preference which one people use. Sometimes the denn-sentence just sounds better and the same expressed with weil would be boring. Google-ngram 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.

“denn” – a curious filler

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?”
  • “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?

There are 2 observations we can make here… the first one is that denn doesn’t seem to have a consistent translation… wow. That is SO unique for flavoring particles ;). The second and more important feature is that denn is only used in the questions here. That is no coincidence. Denn as a flavoring particle DOES ONLY WORK IN questions!
And what exactly does it do? First of all it is a filler. An important filler. 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.
 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… it’s a question! That’s what signals interest.
Denn is a filler, an extra syllable that gives you room to express yourself. You can make it sound annoyed, surprised, super curious, angry… whatever.

However, probably on account of its filler-power denn always sounds a bit casual… a detective would never ask the suspect where denn the money is. That wouldn’t sound too intimidating.
So, I hope this gives you an idea. Now some more examples.

As you can see, denn is not restricted to short questions. But in a long question, there is nothing to fill especially not if there are other fillers in there, too. Well… in German there can never be enough filler. 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 I think you can figure that out yourse.. ok ok I am just too lazy :).. what? If I can denn make an example? Of course.

Alright… so… feel free to include denn into all questions you have… but never… never in an answer. It just doesn’t work as a flavoring particle there.

“Denn” – the other “als”

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

This is confusing for English natives as als looks awfully like as while than looks awfully like denn or dann but you will have to put up with it. If you don’t like it then get a time machine (buy a time machine at Amazon) and go back some hundreds of years. Back then Germans were using denn a lot more. Still a bit confusing because it is not dann but anyways. I have no idea why Germans switched from denn to als for uneven comparisons but they did. However, there are 2 occasions in which the old fashioned comparing denn still has to do the job. 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.
Now, as a quick recap here is the then-than-denn-dann-als-as mind map … in writing.

Then is dann.
Than is als.
As is wenn, als and if as is introducing a reason also denn.

German can be so much fun, right? Meh, not really.
Anyway, that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning and use of denn. It can mean weil, but it has a different scope and at least in spoken German the more common denn is the question filler. People add it to questions to make them sound more casual or, in combination with question words, to get a little more room to express yourself using your voice.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions leave me a comment. I hope you enjoyed it.
Till next time.

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