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

Written By: Emanuel Updated: November 2, 2023

 

 

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Week. And today, we’re actually talking about two words, because today, we’ll take a look at the question of

wann or wenn

Both wenn and wann are translations for when but they’re not interchangeable and lots of learners are struggling to tell the difference.

And today, I’ll actually give you not one but TWO ways to answer this question.
One is based more on meaning, the other one is more based on grammar.
Yeah… I know. You all just thought “Hmm, I think I’m gonna go with the meaning approach.”
And that’s fine of course. But I think it’s good to have a backup plan.
Here are the quick links, so you can jump around the article quickly:

And now let’s jump in…

Quick bit of background – of course wann and wenn and when were all related and there might have been a point in time when wann and wenn were synonyms or regional variants of the same thing. But if you’ve been learning German for a bit, well… you know how German is…

It just likes having two words for slightly different things.
And so wann and wenn eventually settled on the distinct meanings they have today.
And no, they’re never interchangeable and yes, it can be quite confusing if you mix them up.

So let’s see how we can tell them apart.

wann or wenn – The difference in meaning

The meaning of wenn is kind of hard to describe, so let’s leave wenn aside for a second, and focus on wann. The key thing to understand about wann is that it’s at its core a question word that asks for a point in time.
That means we should be able to replace it with other phrases that do the same, without ruining the structure.
And that gives us the so called Einstein-Test – a really simple test we can use to see if we need wann.
Here it is:

“Try replacing when with at what (point in) time.
If that works, use wann in German.”

Of course it has nothing to do with Einstein, but that makes it sound smart.
It’s a pretty good test though.
Let’s try it out.
First, with direct questions.

  • Wann kommt der Bus?
  • When/at what point in time does  the bus come?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Seit wann lernst du Deutsch?
  • Since when/ what point in time have you been learning German?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Bis wann musst du arbeiten?
  • Till when/ what time do you have to work?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Von wann bis wann geht der Kurs?
  • From what time/when till what time/ when is the course?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Pretty solid. Works well.
And now, let’s look at some indirect question – questions that are kind of integrated into a sentence.

  • 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 (point in) 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.

Again, the Einstein-Test works great.
But of course with every “truth” you need to try and FALSIFY it , so let’s do a counter test.

  • I’ll go home                   when at what time I am done.

Here, putting in at what time does NOT make sense, so it should be wenn in German.
And it is.

  • Ich gehe nach Hause, wenn wann ich fertig bin.

Perfect!

So yeah, this simple test of replacing when with at what (point in) time is really all we need and it’s enough to pick the right one.
So if you just needed a quick fix, you can skip right down to the quiz and see if you really got it.

But for those of you who want to dig a little deeper, let’s look at the grammar side of things.
And there’s we’ll find out WHY we sometimes can replace when with at what time and sometimes we can’t.
The reason is function, and that’s actually a REALLY useful concept for language learning because we can use this way of thinking to tackle a lot of problems.
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]
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich sage dir [meinen Namen.]
  • I tell you      [my name.]
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

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.]
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas weiß      [viel über Deutsch.]
  • Thomas knows   [a lot about German.]
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

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’.]
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • 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 the when-part 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?]
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

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 cool phrasings with “wann”

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.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

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.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das muss ich dir mal wann anders erklären.
  • I will have to explain that to you some other time.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

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.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Irgendwann will ich mal nach Neuseeland.
  • I want to go to New Zealand at some point.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Hast du morgen irgendwann (mal) Zeit?
  • Will you have time tomorrow at some point.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

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

  • Ruf an, wann du willst!
  • Call, whenever you want!
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

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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