“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.

for members :)

56
Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
Michael Polychronakis
Michael Polychronakis

What is the right one: ich schreibe dich or ich schreibe dir ? (See the examples). Sorry I am a beginner in German and in English too ! Thank you Emanuel for all your work. It is very nice and helpfull !
MNP

Panton, Jacquelyn S.
Panton, Jacquelyn S.

Lame bedeutet blöd oder doof.

briguy

Another awesome blog. excellent job!
I have just two questions…
in a past blog, (I believe it was on da compounds, not sure though) anyway, you wrote something to the extent of
Ich freue mich darauf wann heute die Sonne scheint. But doesn’t “Wann” only work in a question, or am I completely wrong…

also I thought I’d piont this out…
Ich sage dir, wann zu dir komme.
I tell you, when I am planning to come over to your place.
In English “I tell you” sounds weird, too direct and kind of bossy. But “I will tell you…” (or even better “I’ll tell you”) sounds like 100 times nicer. another example of this would be “ich nehme (etwas)” when ordering food in English “I take (something)” sounds weird, but I’ll take is totally fine. Does it sound weird in German if I say “Ich werde dir sagen, wenn…”? let me know, I’ve always been a little confused about the laxness of the tenses in German.

rhys
rhys

sorry to dig up an old post but i just want to check because i get confused with expressions like “Bescheid sagen”.
would it be right then to say “sag mir Bescheid, wann du kannst” to mean “let me know, when you can” (as in when you can do it) and “sag mir Bescheid, ob du es machen kannst, wenn du kannst” to mean “when you can” (as in when you know/can, in a temporal way)? And if so, does that mean you could say something like “sag mir Bescheid, wann du kannst, wenn du kannst”? if that makes sense. thanks for your help! your articles are always really really good :)

rhys
rhys

ah so maybe that was in fact where i was getting it from haha. and i suppose really, to me at least, “wenn auch immer noch” can be broken down into the second usage where it is clustered so “wenn auch”/”immer noch”: “Mein Deutsch ist schon besser, wenn auch es immer noch nicht gut ist”. unless that has a different sort of feel for you and the “wenn auch immer noch” is more of a set phrase? interesting anyway, thanks again for looking into it!

Sherief ElGhandour (@SheriefElGhando)

Don’t you see that the explaination looks complicated? The only thing I got is that WANN means what is the time, asks about a specified point of time. And when it is used as a a clause it implies “I know (exactly) when this/that it took place). Am I right? On the other hand, you neglected WENN ..Why?

Anuradha Sarup

what a confused writing style. I couldn’t understand what the difference was at all. Heck half the time I couldn’t understand the English either!

Marcus
Marcus

I’m a beginner learner in German, but I think it’s helpful to think that ‘when (wann)’ is substitutable with ‘what time(s)’ when the German translation is ‘wann’, but isn’t substitutable when the translation is ‘wenn’.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Thanks, that really helped me! I thought “wann” was only used in questions and “wenn” in statements, but it seems I was wrong! Being a native french speaker, I realised “wann” is used when you can say “quand est-ce que” in french (last example: Quand je vais finir de travailler, je vais t’appeler et te dire quand est-ce que je vais être à la maison.) (not sure if you understand, but you speak french too, right?). Anyway, thanks for all your great articles! I am just a beginner, but they are helping, for sure :)

skinnykinny

Hi thank you for the brilliant explanation :)
Here’s a sentence from my Kurs Buch:
“Ich kann fahren, wann ich will.”
So he’s talking about the Vorteil of traveling with Auto.

I think wenn should be used here instead of wann?
Confused…
Hope you can help me =)

SOHAIB HADDAD
SOHAIB HADDAD

Hi, I have a question about this sentance “Wenn sie isst, trinke ich.” I don’t understand why ” trinke ich ” and not ” ich trinke ”
Thanks :)

themaskedtoki
themaskedtoki

Hallo! I just wanted to say that I have been looking for your blog for quite a while now (I didn’t remember what it was called xD), and I’m very glad I’ve found it because although it may be a little confusing at times, your blog really helps me to understand the complexity that is German, and in an entertaining way as well, which is mainly why I like this blog hehe :D So thank you for everything that you have shared x)

Okay, back to why I commented in the first place: May I just point out that when I opened the, um… mind map, apparently you put down ‘furniture’ instead of ‘future’? xD Just wanted to let you know xD

John Ford
John Ford

I’m excited about the program- it looks really good.

alanmarsee
alanmarsee

I don’t really quite understand the difference between wann and wenn. Help?

alanmarsee
alanmarsee

I see wenn is used with immer and jedes mal?

Patrik
Patrik

Hello, thank you for the time you are investing in this site.

One comment. Few days ago, my german teacher left me this algorithm:

1) is it a question (direct or indirect) ? Yes -> use wann. No -> go to step 2
2) is the “thing” “completed” (she used the word vergangen)? No -> use wenn. Yes -> go to step 3
3) how many times it happened? Just once -> use als. Only once -> use wenn

what do you think

Stella Middleton

So how do you say “It’ll get better when the bus comes”? “Es wird besser, wann der Bus kommt.” ??? This is a conjunction, not an adverb. It links two whole separate clauses with two verbs that aren’t modal or a complex past tense. But it refers specifically to time. I think you should use wenn here, but I’m not native and not sure. Don’t want it to be misunderstood as “if”!

Jo Alex SG
Jo Alex SG

Oh I must confess that first I needed to get the basic distinction between these two words to build my self-reliance on this topic, for only then to try and understand this much more intricate analysis which
Emanuel so brilliantly makes here and in the other posting about ‘wenn’ – and which grows in complexity with each new discussion brought about by most of the comments!
Please, I hope you understand my intention with this, Emanuel, as I would never try to downplay your excellent work, quite the opposite: I´m just admitting my own limitations for such intricacies, without first getting a previous foundation, so I can try to follow the complex analysis you´ve made here, which is, of course, very clever and actually helps us to develop our own capacity of analysis.
Vielen Dank, lieber Lehrer!
Here is my tip of a wonderful link for those who feel the same way about the need of a basic distinction as the foundation for more complex analyses on the distinction between “wenn” and “wann”:
https://courses.dcs.wisc.edu/wp/readinggerman/als-wenn-wann/

Jo Alex SG
Jo Alex SG

Sorry for the broken line and any other mistakes I might have overlooked but realized after my comment was posted! Oh, I so wish there were an edit button, smile.

Sarahswids
Sarahswids

Where can I go to learn the difference between when to use the direct and indirect pronoun?

In this example sentence: “Wenn ich mit der Arbeit fertig bin, rufe ich dich an und sage dir, wann ich zuhause bin.” I am unclear on why we use dich and dir differently when both seem to be the object of the action.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Dictionary says “jmdn. anrufen”, which implies accusative. You are the direct object of the verb “to call someone”. Ich sage dir etw., on the other hand, means you receive something, which is what I am telling you. You, as the receiver, are a dative (indirect object) while what I am saying is the object of the verb (accusative)