“wann” or “wenn” – What’s the difference

wannHello everywann (haha),

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll take a look at the meaning of:

wann 

The English words if and when have 5 possible translations in German:

wenn, falls, ob, als and wann.

From the perspective of a German native speaker all those are very clearly distinct from one another. So mixing them up can REALLY confuse people or alter the meaning of the sentence.
But with the German is Easy WOW af miniseries there’s no problem anymore. Yeah… that acronym stands for wenn ob wann als falls :).
In this series, we have taken a detailed look at each word and what the difference is to words it could possibly get confused with (here are the links: wenn, falls, ob, als).
And if you’re like “Oh, this is sooo much reading), well, don’t worry!
I have prepared this beautiful and helpful mind map ….
Seriously though, today we’ll have lots of fun cause it is time for wann.

Unlike its brother wenn, wann has NOTHING to do with if.
It is ONLY a translation for when. Problem is, that also wenn is a translation for when.
So the big question is:

How do I know which is the correct translation for when?

And the simple key to that is to realize is that

“Wann” is a question word asking for a point in time.

And that means we should be able to replace it with other phrases that ask for time, without ruining the structure.

If we can say at what point time instead of when, then we need to use wann.

Let’s try it. First, with direct questions.

Now let’s do indirect question.

Seems to work great. But let’s do a counter test.

  • I’ll go home                   when at what time I am done.
  • Ich gehe nach Hause, wenn wann ich fertig bin.

Perfect! Here, changing when for at what time results in a nonsense sentence. And it’s the same in German, if we use wann instead of wenn.
So yeah, this simple test of replacing when with at what (point in) time is really all we need and if you just needed a quick fix, you can stop reading now.
But we still have some time left here in our radio show (yup, it’s a radio show now), and I thought we could explore WHY the last example sounds so wrong with at what time in it.
Like… why can we sometimes replace when and sometimes we can’t?
The must be an underlying difference and by exploring that, we’ll not only increase our level of nerd, we’ll also get a nice view at how function is really really important in language. Something that’s really useful for German because German has a penchant for using different words for different functions.
So let’s geek out for a bit.

Grammar – making things simple

The difference between wann or wenn  is actually pretty fundamental because they have different functions.
A  wann-clause is ALWAYS  functioning as the object of the verb.
For those of you who have read my article on the box-model (really important read :):
a wann-sentence is the what-box.
So… if I want to ask for a wann-sentence  I would do that by asking what?
A wenn-sentence on the other hand functions as a TIME indication. So if I wanted to ask for it, I would ask at what time.
Ooof…. I’m feeling slightly confused. Quick let’s pop some Exampledine 20mg and see if that helps.

You can see that my name and when I am planning to come over to your place have the same function…they fill the role of [something] in to say something.
Let’s do the same with to know something. 

Basically, whenever your when-sentence can be replaced by a thing, then you need to use wann in German and you do NOT need to think about whether it is an indirect question or not.

Now, let’s look at a wenn-sentence again. We said that it answers when (at what time).
Or in box speak: it fills a when-box.  So it can be replaced by any other time indication.

  • I’ll write you       [tonight].
  • Ich schreibe dir  [heut’ abend.]

And that’s all we need. No need for much thinking, just check what the when-clause is answering to:

if it answers to “what?” then use wann, if it answer to “what time?”, then use wenn

Pretty simple, actually.
Let’s do a combination…

  • [When I have finished work],               I will call you and tell you     [when I will be at home.]
  • [Wenn ich mit der Arbeit fertig bin,] rufe ich dich an und sage dir, [wann ich zuhause bin.]
    [what time is the call?]                                                                                  [what will I tell you?]

English relies on context here, which might be the reason why synonyms like as soon as or at what time are more common in English while German has a tendency to just use wenn. Because German uses two different words for two different functions – something that German likes to do :).

Cool.
So now we know what the difference is between wann and wenn.
But before we wrap up, let’s look at a few really useful phrasings and expressions with wann. Because… if not now then when :).
The first one is dann und wann, which translated to every now and then or other similar expressions.

There are other ways to say this in German. For example ab und zu or hin und wieder those are more common than dann und wann.
And then there is wann anders.

I am not sure as to whether this is a regional thing of northern Germany but I say it quite a lot. The “official” word would be ein andermal but wann anders just has more of a punchline character so I think that’s why people use it.
And finally there is the irgendwann which means at some point.

Oh … and to be super-turbo-comprehensive, wann is also often used as whenever.

And this is it. We’re already done for today. I know it sounds crazy but there is nothing more to say. If you think of anything… like… say…. questions or … hmmm… uhm…. suggestions, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.