Word of the Day – “wann vs wenn”

wannHello everywann

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. It is pretty messy, I have to admit.
But with the German is Easy wenn-falls-ob-als-wann-Miniseries, there’s no problem anymore. In the 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 for those of you who don’t want to read everything, I have prepared this beautiful and helpful mind map ….
So, today we’ll have lots of fun cause it is time for wann.

Wann is likely a translation when. In fact, it is ONLY a translation for when. It has nothing to do with if. So the main question is this:

What is the difference between wann and wenn? How do I know which is the correct translation for when?

And the one crucial thing to understand is this:

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

Examples:

Just like all other question words,  wann  can of course also be used for indirect questions… like this one.

Wait, is that’s indiscreet. Indirect would be this:

This is an indirect question – a question that is kind of reported. It’s hard to describe so let’s just look at examples.

Cool.
So far we’ve learned that wann is THE question word for time so whenever we’re dealing with a question that asks for a point in time, direct or indirect, wann will be our man.

Now what about this:

Clearly, this is not a direct question. And  it isn’t an indirect question either. Heck, there is not the slightest notion of question in there.  I already know everything.
So why exactly do we have to use wann here and not wenn? Well, we could say knowing something and not knowing something are two side of the same coin and the sentence like some sort of an anti question.

  • I know when it’ll come.
  • I don’t know when it’ll come.
  • I wonder when it’ll come.
  • I ask when it’ll come.

So, if that logic makes sense to you, then you can stop reading here. But there’s actually another way to look at it that makes the decision pretty darn simple…. and it has to do with grammar.

Grammar – making things simple

You see… a wann-clause as part of longer sentence is always kind of the object of the verb.
For those of you who have read the post on the box-model: a wann-sentence is the what-box.  So… when I want to ask for a wann-sentence  I would ask what?, and when I want to ask for a wenn-sentence I would ask when – or wann in German.
Wait, whaaaaaaat? I ‘m confused too. Quick let’s pop some Exampladine 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 are the [something] in to say something. Let’s do the same with to know something. 

So whenever your when-sentence can be replaced by a thing, then you need to use wann in German and you do NOT need to bother with meaning.
And you know what is really cool? We can use this logic even for direct questions. Imagine a very noisy street…

We used the question what to ask for the wann-sentence :).

And what does a wenn-sentence answer to? It answers to when or in box-speak… it is a when-box. It cannot be replaced by a thing, but by a point in time.

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

Just like before you can see that the wenn-sentence has the very same function as the simple word tonight.

And now a combination:

English relies on context here to make clear what the speaker means with when, but German uses two different words for two different functions. So that 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. Another nice example with both words in one sentence  is this German idiom:

or the slightly different version:

You can use these whenever someone is hesitant about doing something while you think now is just as good as any other time.

There are 2 other phrasing with wann that are worth mentioning. 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.

Alright. So to wrap this up here is the rule. Wenn answers a when-question, wann asks one. And because that sounds confusing, here is a different rule.
If you want to translate a when-sentence, then :

Use wann,  if you can replace the when-sentence with a thing, the direct object of a verb. Or if it is a direct question. 

So… that doesn’t seem too complicated. But all good things are 3 so here is one last way to tackle the issue. Try to replace when with at what time . If this works, use wann in German.

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.

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