Word of the Day – “falls”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. Do you guys ever eat? Oh… wow, what a dumb question. I need more coffee. Of course you eat.
But hey, do you ever have left-overs? Some people love leftovers. Their fridge is packed with dozens of little plastic boxes, all filled with remnants of meals long passed. In the bar, flirting with their kind they would be like:

„You have 2 spoons of rice from last September? Nooooo way, I don’t belive you…“
“I swear… and I got some sticky pasta from June, too.“
Overcoooked?”
“Yessss.”
Oh my god, oh my god, I’m sooooo jealous…“
Hey… erm.. what say we go to my place and I show you my … collection.“
Sounds fun…“

I used to live with such a person for a while and extracting one single item from the fridge and fitting everything else back in was like solving the freaking Rubic’s cube … with your eyes closed.
So, as you can tell, I am not too enthusiastic about leftovers, and I never have any when I eat.
Unfortunately though, I do have leftovers on this blog. Wow, what a transition :). There are some articles, that are long overdue to be finished. And one of those “ripened” things is the last article in the series on the differences between wenn, wann, ob, als and falls….
Well, it is time for closure. Today, we’ll look at the meaning of

falls

 

First, a quick look at where it comes from. Falls comes from the verb fallen which is to fall in English. There is also the noun der Fall in German… and this translates to … surprise surprise the fall. But not only to that. It also translates to case. What’s that? Oh no… beer case is not Bierfall der Fall is only a word for abstract cases. Like…

All right. And where does the s in falls come from? Is it like the plural s in cases? Well, no… the plural of der Fall is die Fälle. The s in falls came from the genitive case and then, over time, it just froze there. If you now secretly think “Oh German, genitive case, frozen s… good thing English doesn’t have these kinds of things…”, then I say, maybe not as many as German but English does have some of those frozen genitive s too… for instance the s in nowadays… or the one in anyways :).

So anyways… what do we have so far? Falls is closely related to case… let’s keep that in mind. In case we need it ;).

When you look up falls in a dictionaries you’re likely to find if as a translation. But that is so incredibly imprecise and confusing that it is almost wrong. You see, if (and the si of the Romance languages) is actually used for two different things. There is the whether-if and there’s the condition-if. The German word for the former is ob and ob only What’s left is the condition-if but this is actually very broad and falls only covers a fraction of it. So, let’s have a look at when and how falls is used and what the difference is between falls and wenn.

In my opinion, falls has two main characteristics.

  1. falls is grounded in the present and reality. It does NOT work for impossible “if”s
  2. falls is skeptical

Let’s look at them in detail. First, what do I mean by grounded in the present and reality. That means that it is not going to be a translation for if, if if is used in a completely unrealistic, hypothetical sentence. Like this one:

  • If Marie had studied she would have passed the exam

This is an example for pure fiction or speculation. The exam is over, she failed and there’s no way for her to ever change that… unless of course she travels back in time (aint’ got a time machine yet? Get your own time machine at Amazon, 20% off till yesterday). Now let’s look at the German translation.

Okay, admittedly I am actually not sure how wrong it really is. It might be okay grammatically, based on what some books say. But it sounds off to me. People don’t usually use it that way.
Let’s do another one of those.

Now, those two examples were in the past. How about the future, though? Can we come up with impossible things there, too?

Now, why does the first example only sound “wrongish” and second one only weird? Well, falls sounds wrong for IMPOSSIBLE things. But these sentence are in the future which we can hardly foresee. We can be pretty certain that tomorrow is not going to be yesterday but as for the aliens….. who knows. Maybe the will land. They told me they wouldn’t when they were done probing me but who kn… wait… you should not know this. Forget what I just said.

  • If the world ended tomorrow, I would be sad.

This if-sentence is NOT impossible. It is the future, so we can’t know and it isn’t a paradox as the ones in the past. But it sure is speculation. And in highly speculative sentences falls doesn’t sound very good to me.

So… for impossible ifs, falls sounds flat out wrong and for highly speculative ones it sounds a bit odd.
The same thing expressed in a more grammatical way: falls just doesn’t sound very good with conditional forms of verbs. Wenn is just way more genuine right there. Falls is more like this down to earth kinda guy. It hangs out with normal honest verbs, verbs that get up every morning and conjugate every day to earn their living… not some snobs from the could-should-would-club.

In fact, you know what… let’s actually put that to the test. Let’s look at some of our examples again and remove the speculation (or the conditional if you will) and make them realistic instead. We’ll have to make a few modifications here and there so as to not have it sound stupid but in essence they’re the same.

  • If Marie has studied, she will pass the exam.
  • Wenn/ falls Marie gelernt hat, besteht sie den Test.
  • Falls /wenn Thomas wusste, dass Maria das Buch braucht, dann hat er es auf jeden Fall mit zur Uni genommen.
  • In case Thomas was aware that Maria needed the book, then he certainly brought it with him to school.(lit.)
  • Thomas has certainly brought the book with him to school provided he was aware that Maria needed it.

  • If aliens land tomorrow I’ll be surprised.
  • Wenn / falls morgen Aliens landen, bin ich überrascht.
  • If the world ends tomorrow, I will be sad.
  • Wenn / falls die Welt morgen untergeht, bin ich traurig.

In all these examples falls sounds at least okay. Because they are realistic …more or less. But they don’t use conditional so at least from that point of view they are realistic. And now falls works. Even for this:

  • Falls/wenn morgen gestern ist, bin ich überrascht.
  • If tomorrow is yesterday I’ll be surprised.

This is not realistic at all, but the lack of the should-would-could club makes falls sound okay.
So… the first characteristic of falls is that it doesn’t work well with conditional forms and hypothetical things. But what’s the difference then between falls and wenn if we have a “realistic” condition? Well, that leads us to the second characteristic of fallsfalls sounds doubtful. Now you are probably screaming: “CONTRADICTION!!!!”. Didn’t I just say that falls is down to earth and connected with the real world… well it is, but it has seen a lot. It has been disappointed a lot and now it is skeptical.

  • If I have time tomorrow…
  • Wenn ich morgen Zeit habe…
  • Falls ich morgen Zeit habe…

The wenn-sentence is indifferent with regards to the probability of my having time. It may or may not be the case but there is a fair chance for it The falls-sentence is more like a “Well, there is a chance that I have time but I can’t by no means guarantee it so don’t be disappointed if I don’t”.

  • If Marie has studied…
  • Wenn Marie gelernt hat… (and there is a fair chance she did)
  • Falls Marie gelernt hat … (despite her laziness or her being busy with work)

So in the realm of reality – and only there falls is used – falls sounds less likely than wenn does. The following dialog happens millions of times in some form and it perfectly shows it.

Now, this is kind of hard to translate to English. We can’t use when because the difference between wenn and falls is NOT the same as the one between when and if. Anyways… I think and hope you can understand it. The person saying falls just found the statement of the other person presumptuous and wants to stress that it is not just if but really IFFFFFFF.

This skeptical nature of falls makes it a nice counterpart of wahrscheinlich.

  • Also, ich habe morgen wahrscheinlich keine Zeit aber falls doch,…
  • So, I probably won’t have time tomorrow, but in case I do….

And here we actually had what I consider the best translation for fallsin case. Which makes sense by the way, considering the words are related (you may recall that now :)). But they have more in common than just origin. I don’t know how skeptical in case sounds but as far as the down to earthiness is concerned falls and in case are akin.

  • In case you would have called me, I would have answered.In case tomorrow were yesterday, I would be still be surprised.

This doesn’t sound right to me and falls wouldn’t either here. I think, roughly we could say, whenever in case works, falls ought to work, too.

All right… so falls is a real world word for real situations and it is skeptical. You can always replace falls by wenn but not vice versa.
And I think that’s it. That was our German Word of the Day falls.
And now that it is done I can admit:
It was my nemesis.
It really was. I wrote the article, then changed large parts of it and then I deleted almost everything because … well … it sucked. I did it again, and liked it okay.

Then, a year later (which is now), I read it again and I was baffled at how jumbled and full of mistakes it was. My god. I changed quite a bit and I feel okay now but let me know if that actually makes sense to you or not :)
I definitely think it is a pretty accurate description of the word but keep in mind that it reflects what I perceive to be falls in daily use… not falls in grammar books. If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave me a comment. It is really always great to read them.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

for members :)

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Bash
Bash

hehehe, quite a humor you have in these posts :D

one tiny thing: “fail save” should be “fail-safe”

but besides that, great post! I really like reading them :)

Manni
Manni

Thank you for this lesson, it still takes me some time to get used to using ‘falls’ rather than ‘wenn’ which I’m used to using :)

JEAP
JEAP

FINALLY!!!

I’ve looking for this for quite some time, only to be even more confused. Someone finally came up with a “down to earth” explanation on this subject.

Vielen Dank!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Thank you for your blog. I’ve been reading it nonstop the last couple of days. You could say, I’m addicted.

One thing I noticed in this entry that is wrong is the sentence: “If Thomas knew how much it costs he hasn’t bought it.”
That doesn’t make any sense in English and I’m trying to figure out what you might have meant to write.

Two sentences that make sense: “If Thomas knew how much it cost, he wouldn’t have bought it.” or
“If Thomas knows how much it costs, he won’t buy it.”
Note also that in the first sentence “cost” is used instead of “costs”. “Cost is used for past tense (it cost, they cost), future tense (will cost), the subjunctive (might cost, would cost, etc) and “costs” is used for the present tense for subjects/objects that take the singular.

Also, I asked my German husband (who just happens to be named Thomas) about the German sentence and he said that it was incorrect and should be: “Wenn / falls Thomas gewusst hätte, wieviel das kostet, hätte er es nicht gekauft. ”

But he’s not a German teacher…

Anonymous
Anonymous

Thank you. Yes, the whole entry really does “falls” justice. I like your suggestion that an English speaker think in terms of “in case”. It makes perfect sense, really. And I believe I intellectually comprehend it much better now thanks to your article (it remains to be seen how well I implement it into my daily speech – but that is up to me of course:)

As far as the new sentence… it’s still problematic in English. The concept of “in case” makes sense when talking about “falls”, but the sentence itself doesn’t hold up. I’m trying to figure out why and can’t seem to make the sentence work without using the conditional or present tense. Perhaps it’s because we don’t use “in case” with the past tense.

I think that must be it, but I’m not an English teacher…

Anonymous
Anonymous

Those two sentences definitely sound right. I still can’t think of a sentence with “in case”, however, that uses both parts of the sentence in the past tense. It will be interesting to hear what other native English speakers have to say about it:) I thought of one sentence that uses the past with “in case” and then the present: “In case we’ve already left by the time you get here, feel free to make yourself at home.” Or is the first part using the conditional? I’m afraid I didn’t retain much from my grammar class. As a native speaker I know what sounds right, but I can’t tell you what the proper terms are. At the same time, the sentence: “In case we’re gone by the time you get here, feel free to make yourself at home” actually sounds much better. Would the first part of that sentence be in the past tense or present? I’m not sure.

L'anglais sprechen
L'anglais sprechen

This is an old comment but I was thinking about it so wanted to add my thoughts.

First, I’m almost certain that “in case” doesn’t work in the past tense in English. It feels like it refers to situations where there is doubt as to the outcome, and that is doubt period, not just doubt to the speaker or another relevant person. So as the past is fixed, “in case” just doesn’t work in the past. Maybe this is similar to the way that “wenn” doesn’t work in the the German past tense? Unfortunately though, it does seem to mean that “in case” is not a one-size-fits-all translation for “falls” (if only life was so easy).

Then there’s the difference in the two German sentences:

(1) Wenn Thomas gewusst hätte, dass Maria das Buch braucht, hätte er es auf jeden Fall mit zur Uni genommen.

(2) Falls / wenn Thomas wusste, dass Maria das Buch braucht, dann hat er es auf jeden Fall mit zur Uni genommen.

As you explain, in the first the speaker knows the outcome of the condition and is talking about what would have happened if things had gone differently. In the second, the speaker does not know what happened so the conditions are not unreal and so non-conditional tenses are used.

I would translate the second into English as “If Thomas knew that Maria needed the book then he will definitely have brought it to school.” I don’t think there is any effect of using “to know” on the grammar, and nor does using the simple past force the final clause into conditional. I think it is hard to figure out because each clause takes place at a different time and German and English assign different tenses to those. Unfortunately, I don’t think either of your English translations of this in the the main article quite work. :$

It seems that German uses a tense for each clause based on when the action in each clause takes place. English, on the other hand, assigns tenses to the clauses where there is doubt based on when the action over which there is doubt takes place (ie when Thomas did or didn’t know), whilst in the main clause the tense seems to be assigned as if the speaker pretends they are speaking when action over which there is doubt takes place. Those differences can’t make it easy for a German trying to speak English or vice-versa.

Vanio
Vanio

Not only is this post termendously helpful but it is humorous as well.Loved it as much as I loved other posts on wenn,als…etc.Thank you

Anonymous
Anonymous

Stephanie Meyer is not the author of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, as your article suggests.

Jack
Jack

I think in the following case, I have a good English translation for Falls – well, it helps me get it anyway.

“Alles klar, also, du rufst morgen an, wenn du Zeit hast…”
“FALLS ich Zeit habe…”
“Ok, ok… FALLS du Zeit hast.”

“Alright, so you’ll call me tomorrow if you have time….”
“IF I have time…”
“Ok, ok… IF/(on the off chance that) you have time.”

Just like “falls”, “on the off chance” is also an “if” but it definitely displays a greater lack of possibility. Works for me :)

alexviajero
alexviajero

This was another great article for the grammar, but the laughs/humor are almost as much an incentive to keep coming back as the language instruction. It is tremendously funny to see when some of your humor goes right over the heads of some of the commenters. In your “About” section, I laughed every time I saw someone asking how you could be 32 years old, but also that you were 54 when in Finland, and that you have taught German for 72 years?! Haha! In this case, the commenter who informs you that Stephanie Meyer did not write the Lord of the Rings Trilogy also must have completely missed the what was funny about that invented quote which you attributed to her, i.e the importance of having a second sentence follow a first sentence! You must crack up at some of these “helpful” comments! H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S!!!

anonymous
anonymous

You should use a title besides The Lord of the Rings; it’s just too obvious something is wrong. Maybe ‘Stephanie Meyer, author of “Best Methods of Opening Doors”‘

jfornes

Hi there! Here just another German learner that loves this blog of yours!!!

Gehen wir ans Eingemachte!!

We learn now this strange and sexy word -falls-, and searching at my big grammar German book, I found, it means also “por si a caso” “für alle Fälle”, I mean:

Ich nehme den IPod mit, falls die Conferenz viel zu viel langweilig ist.

but:

Ich nehme für alle Fälle den IPod mit.

What do you think about this use of “falls”? Does it make sense?

An Spanish speaker fan of you!!! Grüße!!!

Wesley
Wesley

I love your blog so much. You make this language so much easier to understand. It’s really a logical language if you just take the time to learn about it. Darum liebe ich es.

novellizator

Hallo! Falls du das liest, könntest du mir einigen Linken über “frozen genitive” empfehlen?
Ich konnte nichts an Google finden. (ja und korrigiere bitte meine Fehler in diesem Text :) )

gabriel
gabriel

Hello! In “Wenn Thomas gewusst hätte, das Maria das Buch braucht, hätte er es auf jeden Fall mit zur Uni genommen.”, shouldn’t de first “das” be “dass” (with two ss)?

Anonymous
Anonymous

Your last example also doesn’t feel right in english.
‘In case you would have called me,’
It has that same ‘wierd’ feeling to it that you were saying about falls and the coulda/shoulda/woulda group.

Tolles Artikel :)

Anonymous
Anonymous

Thank you. this helped me out a lot. :)

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hi
Thanks for this work. It is really good.

1 question
in this example

Alles klar, also, du rufst morgen an, wenn du Zeit hast…”
“FALLS ich Zeit habe…”
“Ok, ok… FALLS du Zeit hast.”

Falls is working in a conditional sentence,Isn’t it?
beto

Anonymous
Anonymous

Ok.
Falls is a little tricky, but now I have another question.
Wenn = if, whether, and if conditional
Falls = if conditional and if not conditional
but ob?

I want to say sorry, if you already answered this question in another article.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hi, maybe I’m a bit late to weigh in on this, but your description of “falls” had intrigued me. I do not think that “in case” carries the same connotation of doubt that “falls” apparently does. In fact, I really don’t think any English word does. You hit it right on the head when you used an emphasized if to express doubt (IF as opposed to if), which naturally only works in spoken form. In written form (this works for speaking as well) I think English speakers will use some kind of modifier. “If Marie ‘really’ has studied…” implies that you doubt she has, however “in case Marie has studied…” does not. I don’t know how “falls” comes across in German, but in English I think adding in this extra emphasis of doubtfulness comes across as rude (maybe I only think this because im a Midwestern American :) ) In English I think this expression of doubt is unnecessary, and if it is included it is because the speaker is trying to express some irritation or is just being rude. I think that what “in case” does imply is an idea that what follows is a contingency, or a “plan B”; it is not your best option.

“In case I don’t make it outta here, you be sure and tell my folks I love ’em, ya hear?”
“No George, don’t say that! You’re going to be fine!”

Which may be doubtful, or may not be depending on the context and tone of voice. In the above sentence it sounds quite likely. By contrast:

“In case I get a bad score on the ACT, I have arranged for a re-take.”

May sound very doubtful if said with all smugness, or very likely if said nervously.

I don’t know if others will agree with my input, but I hope it helps.