“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 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 it’s actually not difficult at all and we can do it with 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.

Now let’s do indirect question.

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

  • I’ll go home whenat what timeI am done.
  • Ich gehe nach Hause, wennwann ich fertig bin.

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 Podcast (yes, it used to be a radio show, but it’s 2020 now, so it’s a podcast, I guess).
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.

You can see that my name and when I am planning to come over to your placehave 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 wannin 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…

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 :).

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 thenor other similar expressions.

There are other ways to say this in German. For example ab und zu or hin und wiederthose 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 butwann 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.

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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