and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll take a look at the meaning of:
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.
- Wann kommt der Bus?
- What time does the bus come?
- Seit wann lernst du Deutsch?
- Since when have you been learning German?
- Bis wann musst du arbeiten?
- Till what time do you have to work?
- Von wann bis wann geht der Kurs?
- From when till when is the course?
Just like all other question words, wann can of course also be used for indirect questions… like this one.
- Hey Chef, wann hatten Sie Sex mit der Sekretärin ?
- Hey boss, when did you have sex with the secretary?
Wait, is that’s indiscreet. Indirect would be this:
- Thomas hat seinen Chef gefragt, wann er Sex mit der Sekretärin hatte.
- Thomas has asked his boss when he had sex with the secretary.
This is an indirect question – a question that is kind of reported. It’s hard to describe so let’s just look at examples.
- Ich möchte wissen, wann der Bus kommt.
- I’d like to know at what time the bus is going to come.
- Thomas fragt Maria, wann genau sie nach Hause kommt.
- Thomas asks Maria when 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 he is going to be in the office tomorrow.
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:
- I know exactly when the bus comes.
- Ich weiß genau, wann der Bus kommt.
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.
- 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 are the [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.]
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…
- “Excuse me, when does the bus go?”
“When does the bus go?”
- “Entschuldigung, wann fährt der Bus?”
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 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.
Just like before you can see that the wenn-sentence has the very same function as the simple word tonight.
And now 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.
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:
- Wann, wenn nicht jetzt?
- When, if not now?
or the slightly different version:
- Wenn nicht jetzt, wann dann?
- If not now, then when?
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.
- 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!
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.