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

wannHello everywann,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and if you’re new here in 2021, welcome to your favorite German learning website. Seriously… all the other sites are okay, but this one is the most okay of them all.
Anyway, let’s get on with the topic, and today, we’ll take a look at the difference between

wann and wenn

Both of them are translations for when and lots of learners are struggling to tell when to use which.
But all we need is one beautifully simple test that I’ll call the Einstein-Check.
Because… it sounds smart.
And it has to do with time, so why not.
Anyway, let’s light speed jump right in…

The one important thing to realize is that wann is a question word asking for a point in time. That means we should be able to replace it with other phrases that also ask for time, without ruining the structure.
And that’s the Einstein-Check:

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

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

  • Wann kommt der Bus?
  • What time/when does the bus come?
  • Seit wann lernst du Deutsch?
  • Since when, what point in time have you been learning German?
  • Bis wann musst du arbeiten?
  • Till when, what time do you have to work?
  • Von wann bis wann geht der Kurs?
  • From what time, when till what time, when is the course?

Now let’s do indirect question.

  • Thomas fragt Maria, wann genau sie nach Hause kommt.
  • Thomas asks Maria when, at what time exactly she is going to come home.
  • Ich werde meinen Chef fragen, bis wann er morgen im Büro ist.
  • I will ask my boss, till when, what time he is going to be in the office tomorrow.
  • I know exactly when, at what time the bus comes.
  • Ich weiß genau, wann der Bus kommt.

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 skip right down to the quiz and see if you really got it.

But we still have some time left here on our readable Podcast.
So 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?
There 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, if you have a little time, 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.

  • Ich sage dir, [wann ich zu dir komme.]
  • I tell you [when I am planning to come over to your place]
  • Ich sage dir [meinen Namen.]
  • I tell you [my name.]

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.

  • Thomas knows [when to leave Maria alone.]
  • Thomas weiß, [wann man Maria in Ruhe lassen sollte.]
  • Thomas weiß [viel über Deutsch.]
  • Thomas knows [a lot about German.]

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 [when I have finished my work].
  • Ich schreibe dir, [wenn ich meine Arbeit fertig hab’.]
  • 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 :).

Some Common Phrasings

The first one is dann und wann, which translated to every now and then or other similar expressions.

  • Dann und wann esse ich Sushi.
  • Every now and then I eat Sushi.

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.

  • Heute schaffen wir das nicht mehr aber kein Problem, wir machen das einfach wann anders.
  • We won’t be able to do it today, but no problem; we’ll just do it some other time.
  • Das muss ich dir mal wann anders erklären.
  • I will have to explain that to you some other time.

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.

  • Ich hab’ irgendwann letzte Woche deine Schwester gesehen.
  • I have seen your sister some time last week.
  • Irgendwann will ich mal nach Neuseeland.
  • I want to go to New Zealand at some point.
  • Hast du morgen irgendwann (mal) Zeit?
  • Will you have time tomorrow at some point.

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

  • Ruf an, wann du willst!
  • Call, whenever you want!

Cool.
So that’s it. This was our look at the difference between wann and wenn, and it really turned out not that big of a deal.
If you want to see if you can tell wenn and wann apart, you can take the little quiz I have prepared. But I have to warn you… I made it tricky :).
If you have any questions about it, or about the article, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

 

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Anonymous
Anonymous
1 month ago

First time seeing this site but this was a good article. Fairly to the point, but with enough informality and humor that it didn’t feel dry

michele
michele
3 months ago

I am confused with these two of your sentences:

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

2) 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.

I must have something terribly backwards because I only got 2 questions correct

michele
michele
3 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I thought I got this sentence, but still didn’t do much better on the quiz.

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

But it still seems in conflict with:
“If we can say at what point time instead of when, then we need to use wann.”

Isn’t answering “What time” (use wenn) and “at what point in time” (use wann) the same thing?

I obviously need more studying on this. Thank you for trying to help though.

Your part of the 2) makes sense to me. What will you tell me? use wann

michele
michele
3 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I don’t think I could explain it to anyone else yet, (my test of true understanding) but it is becoming more clear to me and I am getting more examples correct. Thank you for spending so much time with my question.

Kirill
Kirill
3 months ago

What is Exampledine? Our pharmacies don’t seem to carry it

Ali
Ali
4 months ago

Thank you so much for awesome explanation

Anonymous
Anonymous
11 months ago

,,

damagedamazonpackage
damagedamazonpackage
1 year ago

My first attempt at the quiz I got a 90%. But I cheated… kind of. I used process of elimination by filling in “when” with the phrase “as soon as”. If the substitution “as soon as” didn’t make sense in the english sentence I choose “wann”. Obviously the only question I got wrong was the question where both answers are correct. I think I’m missing a very important part of the lesson loll. But I’ll keep practicing. The concept seems to be right at the tips of my fingers.

faiwer
faiwer
1 year ago

Hello. Thank you for your article. I like your approach to languages. It’s logical. Logic is the thing that helps me with learning.

But nevertheless I struggle with the subject :(

Your offered 2 ways to figure out which word to use:

  • Replace with “at what time” and see does it break anything?
  • Just ask “what” or ask “when”

The 1st approach I saw in some youtube-videos about wenn & wann. But it looks like it doesn’t work well for me, because I am not an English native speaker and in some sentences where you can’t put the word – I can :) I don’t feel the language well enough. Luckily in English there’s only one “when”.

I tried to replace it with my mother language – Russian (“в какое время”). It worked better, cause I feel the language, but I struggle with it again. There’re always some examples that doesn’t work well. And the more I use it the worse I know Russian. Just because I started doubting with everything, lol.

So I concentrated my attention on the “what” & “when” boxes. It worked really well. And I can use this very quickly. Buuuut… You know, it looks like it doesn’t work in some cases.

  1. Ruf an, wann du willst. Ruf an was? Doesn’t make sense. Ruf an wann? Makes sense. Ok, use “wenn”. Nice… oh, the right one is “wann”. What the heck? :)
  2. Ich kann gehen, wann ich will. The same. I see here “when” box. Not “what” box.
  3. “Wann ich will” but “Wenn ich es will”. What magic happens here? :)
  4. What’s the difference between “Wenn ich Lust habe” and “Wann ich will”?

It looks like I have some understandings on what is going on. These wann-sentences are probably indirect questions. But how on the Earth can I differ them from conditional clauses?

For me “wenn ich Lust habe” and “wann ich will” have the same meaning. Nothing changed… except the w-word. It’s… you know – looks crazy. And if they have different grammar with the same sence, then how the heck do they work?

So, finally I’m frustrated. It looks like this language laughs at me :)

Could you please help me with it?

faiwer
faiwer
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Danke schön für so schnelle Antwort.

Кога? Когато … Is it the same in Russian?

Yes, they’re almost the same (“когда?” = “when?”, “когда то” oder “тогда” = “then”, “some time”). I will try them again with my sentences-cards.

But let me know if you need me to clear it up more.

I think I got the point. Could you plz clarify it for me – did I understand you properly that:

Wenn ich Lust habe ±= If I would have a desire

Wann ich Lust habe ±= At the time-point when I will have a desire

Wann ich will ±= At the time-point when I will have a desire

Wenn ich will ±= In case of me having a desire

Ruf an, wann du willst ±= Call me, when you will have a desire

Ruf an, wenn du willst ±= Call me, if you’ll find yourself in a situation when you wants to call me

? und so weiter

If these ^ are true, then I can formulate it as:

  • “Wenn” is about a condition (something like “if” + “when” or just a simple “if”)
  • “Wann” is about a point of time
  • In some cases they may mean the same things, because in these cases the condition may be the point of time (have a desire = it’s time when I want)

So I can use whatever I want (wann or wenn), and the difference is just a nuance (it’s either a condition or a time-point)? It means both “wann ich will” and “wenn ich will” are correct (even though one may be way more popular than other).

Or did I understand it wrong?

Thx!

Swdenis
Swdenis
1 year ago

Emmanuel, kann man sagen ‘Ruf an, irgendwann du willst!’, oder nur ‘Ruf an, wann du willst!’?

Jennifer
Jennifer
2 years ago

I don’t speak German and am not trying to learn, but I ran across this article during a family discussion about pronunciations and meanings of wan, win, when, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and kept saying, “I like this person! I want to have a conversation with this person.” :) We definitely share the same sense of humor!

mtaylor748
mtaylor748
2 years ago

Hey
I have looked through the comments to see if this has already been asked…can’t see anything.
“If” – I always translated this as “Wenn” also. For example: Nicht wenn aber Wann = Not if but when (making a plan more concrete but now the time needs to be agreed)
If you want to do that = wenn du das machen willst/magst. Ist das richtig?
I know there are other words for “If” but can “Wenn” be one of them? Thanks

rradish
rradish
2 years ago

This article owns. Very fun and helpful

Des_Esseintes_
Des_Esseintes_
2 years ago

Hi! Can I just ask then about the phrase ‘wann auch immer’, because to me that seems to go against your description of the use of ‘wann’. Wann auch immer means whenever, so in a sentence is that not giving a time rather than actually acting as the object? Ich tu es, wann auch immer es möglich ist. ‘wann auch immer’ there is telling you when you do it, right?

Sarahswids
Sarahswids
3 years ago

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
3 years ago
Reply to  Sarahswids

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)

Jo Alex SG
Jo Alex SG
4 years ago

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.

Jo Alex SG
Jo Alex SG
4 years ago

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/

Stella Middleton
5 years ago

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”!

Patrik
Patrik
5 years ago

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

Livia
Livia
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I would be interested too in this flow, but what is the difference between just once and nly once?

patrik.osgnach
patrik.osgnach
2 years ago
Reply to  Livia

That’s a mistake from my side. If the completed event happened only once you must use als, otherwise use wenn. Als refers to a single specific event or a single specific instance of that event. Let’s say you go often to the stadium. If you want to talk of what happened on one specific day I would use als, otherwise use wenn because you went many times to the stadium in the past

Livia
Livia
2 years ago
Reply to  patrik.osgnach

So if I understood correctly, it is :

Als ich in Stadium ging, sah ich Ronaldo. ( completed in the past, happened only that time)

Wenn ich in Stadium gehe, sehe ich der Kebabverkaufer (not completed, happens every week)

Ich bin auf dem Fussballfeldgras allergisch geworden. Aber früher, wenn ich Stadium ging, hatte ich ein Eis. (In the past, not only once)

But the following I think it‘s with als ( i remember the sentence „als ich ein Kind war“)

Als ich mit dem Schiedsrichter verlobte war, ging ich im Stadium zweimal pro Woche

patrik.osgnach
patrik.osgnach
2 years ago
Reply to  Livia

Should be fine. I’m not with the word ordering in “Aber früher, wenn” as it looks a direct order from an English translation. Wenn should appear before, as it is a conjunction

alanmarsee
alanmarsee
5 years ago

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

alanmarsee
alanmarsee
5 years ago
Reply to  alanmarsee

I see wenn is used with immer and jedes mal?

alanmarsee
alanmarsee
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Danke

John Ford
John Ford
5 years ago

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

themaskedtoki
themaskedtoki
5 years ago

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