Wozu, wofür, wobei – German Wo-Compounds Explained

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to the German online course section of this ABSOLUTELY EPIC website. Seriously – it’s like the Giga-Chad of German learning websites. And you’re a Learner Chad, because you actually read this far. Or a Chad-erella. Oh boy, I don’t even know what I’m saying.
Anyway, we’ll totally casually dominate one of the more hidden topics of German grammar

The German wo-words.

Which are officially also known as wo-compounds  – because the woe compounds.
Badumm tish.
Nah, seriously, they’re not that bad actually.

If you’re not sure what I mean by wo-words or wo-compounds wo-compounds are a combination of wo with a preposition like for example woran, wonach, wobei or vomit…. oh… I mean womit. Sorry.
English has the exact same structures – whereas, whereby, whereafter.
But the usage patterns are so different that we’ll kind of ignore the English versions and pretend like it’s a new concept, and then you can start looking for overlap after that.
So.. today, we’ll learn what they are and when and how to use them. And also, when we maybe don’t need to use them.

Here are the quick links so you can skip around (real Chads read in sequence, though)

And now let’s hop right in.

And one key thing to understand is that wo-words are the counterpart of the infamous da-words.
They’re like Yin and Yang.
They do totally different things and you can NEVER interchange them, but still they are deeply connected to each other and they both come from the same background… the German fetish for location.
German LOOOOVES to talk about location and it is very precise about it… just think of the whole hin and her insanity, or the bazillion prepositions or … the word da. Da means there and both are

the most  basicest answer to the question where.

  • Where? There.
  • Wo? Da.

One asks, the other answers. Don’t know if that’s really Yin and Yang but da and wo are definitely connected.
Now, Germans love this baby-word da so much, they even use it if they could just use a pronoun like normal languages do. Instead of saying über das (about that/it) people say darüber (lit. thereover) and so on.
All right. If we want to know what that is, we can ask for it. In English we’d it like this:

  • “What are you happy about?
    About that.” (pointing to pony)

About what? About that. One asks, the other answers. Looking at darüber we can see that da does the answering.
Guess who asks…

Wo-words as question words

Just like the da replaces the that, the wo replaces the what.

  • What are you happy about?
  • Worüber freust du dich?

Beginners often get tripped up by the wo. But it has NOTHING to do with location.

  • Worum geht es in dem Buch?
  • What is the book about?

Questions starting with wo can be what-questions. As long as you keep that in mind, it doesn’t even matter that much if you don’t understand the preposition exactly. It probably doesn’t make sense and is a different one than in English anyway :)

  • Wonach sehnst du dich?
  • What are you yearning for?

These wo-questions are really common,and  I would say that they are used more broadly and with more prepositions than the English what-questions.

  • Wobei hast du dich verletzt?
  • What did you get the injury from?
    What did you injure yourself by? (lit)
  • Hmmm… wonach riecht das denn hier?
  • What’s that smell?
    What does it smell after? (lit)

Now, this whole core idea isn’t all that difficult but of course it takes a while to get used to it. Just remember… if you hear a question that starts with wo but makes absolutely no sense as a question about location… it was probably a wo-word. And often you can guess what is being asked for from context.
And as far as using them yourself goes, I have good news. The need for wo-words is not as strict as it is for the da-words. That means that you can actually use the “normal” way without it sounding totally wrong…  mit was, von was, auf was. People do say that a lot and for some phrasings the wo-word even starts to sound a little tiny bit stiff… in spoken language that is.

  • Auf was/worauf hast du Appetit?
  • What would you like to eat?
    (Lit.) On what are you having an appetite?

Both are possible and I think I’d actually use auf was. Or at least 50-50. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn them.  I just wanted to mention that so you don’t feel fooled… like … you’re going the extra mile to get the wo-words right only to find all the natives merrily going like “nach was, bei was, durch was” :).
Knowing the wo-words and having a feel for them IS helpful, and, as we’ll see, there are even situations where not using them could change the meaning… dun dun dunnnnn
(Ha…that old “changes the meaning”-scare just never gets old)
But before we get to that, let’s dwell on the questions for a little bit.

So far, all the questions were direct. But just like all other question-words, wo-words can be used for indirect questions.

  • What did Thomas open his beer with?”…  direct question
  • I’d be great if you could tell me what Thomas opened his beer with?…
    indirect question used to ask something.
  • Maria asked what Thomas opened his beer with. …
    indirect question used for reported speech

Indirect questions often look a bit different than their direct counterparts. No matter what language, we might have to adjust some pronouns… like, changing “you” to “me” or something. In English we also might have to remove a do or did and change the other verb a bit, and in German the most crucial change is something all too familiar… we have to move the verb to the end. Very creative, German. So… indirect questions are side-sentences… just like sentences with dass or weil.

  • Womit hat Thomas sein Bier aufgemacht?”… that is direct.
  • Ich habe Maria gefragt, womit Thomas sein Bier aufgemacht hat.

Now, indirect questions are actually not limited to stuff like the example… asking without asking or reporting what someone asked. We’ll get into more detail when we talk about indirect questions (comin’ up… at some point :), so for today let me just say that indirect questions are boxes.  What does that mean, boxes? I’ll add a link to the article on boxes below but for now let’s just say that boxes are the different elements in a sentence and each box answers  one question, like who, what, where or when.
“Wait, so if indirect questions are boxes, and boxes answer questions, then indirect questions answer… questions?”
Yeah, I know it sounds odd, but it makes sense once you see an example.

  • “What’d she say?”
    What I needed to hear.”
    “Wow, that’s awesome.”

This (the second sentence) is an indirect question and it is also perfectly valid answer.
So… indirect questions are boxes, answering to one question. Examples:

  • I asked her [what she wanted to eat].

Here, the indirect question is a what-box. I could replace it with [something], or [her name] and still have a correct sentence.

  • “Maria lives [where she always wanted to live].”
    “So she finally moved to a farm.”

Here, the indirect question is a where-box. It answers the question “Where does Maria live?”. Of course, it’s not helpful if you don’t know anything about Maria’s dreams, but hey, if you don’t know what Paris is, that would be just as meaningless.
So, indirect questions are boxes and that is of course also true for indirect wo-word-questions.

  • [Wonach Meditierende suchen],    ist Schnellerleuchtung.
  • [What people who power-meditate are looking for]   is instant-enlightenment.
  •  [What I was most happy about]    was the poem.
  • [Worüber ich mich am meisten gefreut habe],    war das Gedicht.
  • Ich versuche mich daran zu erinnern,  [ womit meine Omi immer die Möhrensuppe gewürzt hat.]
  • I’m trying to remember    [ what my granny used to season her carrot soup with.]

All right.
Now let’s do something really crazy… the indirect question that is in the box, is kind of like one unit. How about we slap an articleonto it…. we do that in English sometimes, too.

  • All her do-the-dishes and clean-the-bathrooms  get on my nerves.

Do the dishes was a sentence. Do the dishes! And then we just nounified it. Because we can. So let’s do that with one of our indirect question boxes.

  • [Woraufich mich am meisten freue] ist die kühle Bergluft.
  • [what I’m looking forward to most] is the crisp air in the mountains.

That’s the original.

  • Das Worauf-ich-mich-am-meisten-freue
  • The what-I-am-looking-forward-to-most

That’s our new kick ass noun. And now let’s plug this into our example.

  • [Das, worauf ich mich am meisten freue], ist die kühle Bergluft.

Tadah… we’ve just created an example for a wo-word used as a relative pronoun.

Wo-words as relative pronouns

Relative pronouns are words that mark or set up relative clauses. And relative clauses are clauses that refer to something or someone that has been said before.

  • The man, who eats pizza, is pretty.

The English relative pronouns are who (whom, whose), which, that and … well… nothing. Like here:

  • The man (____)  I meant ate pizza

The rules for when to use which one and when to skip them are not exactly super easy to digest, but it is little more than an upset belly.
German relative pronouns are salmonella.
They all get “numbered”, “gendered” and “cased”. And by all I mean all. Even the ones that aren’t there in English, because…  well…

“Hey German, .. that one word there, we don’t really need it.
What about we just skip it.”
“Skipping? Hmmm… really.. hmm… I don’t know… can we do that, I mean,
is that safe?  …I…. uh….  I think I’ll keep it, if that’s okay.”

That’s especially annoying for English native speakers because they have to first realize that there is actually something being skipped.
Then, there is a difference being made between definite and indefinite and, last but not least, there are the wo-words. Those might come into play when the relative pronoun refers to a thing AND is combined with a preposition.

  • The beer of which I have dreamed all my life has finally been brewed – Bud Light.
    (Dear Mr. August Busch IV, please send the check within a week)

So, this would be a case for a wo-word, right? Well… not really. Wo-word MIGHT be needed if there is a relative pronoun and a preposition. That doesn’t mean that they always will be.
So… when do we need them? Well, that  isn’t really a question of right or wrong. It is more of a continuum… one the one end, there are situation where we MUST use them, then there is a huge blurry area where we can use them and then there aree phrasings where they would be wrong… or alter the meaning. DUNN DUNNNN DUNNNNNNNNNNNNNN.
Now, because there is no right or wrong, we need to get a “feel” for the wo-words. And the whole question-background actually helps a great deal.
You see, technically ,many of the examples for indirect question we had earlier are considered relative clauses already.

  • I like [what I see].

In standard grammar the what-part would be called a free relative clause ( free because it doesn’t refer to anything from the main sentence) I don’t know… this doesn’t really make much sense to me, or better… I can’t really see a clear difference between these free relative clauses and indirect questions then. It’s kind of the same stuff. Maybe that’s actually the reason why relative pronouns and question words are often twins.. like who, which and where in English or quien, cual and que in Spanish.
But anyways… it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the wo-words are first and foremost question words. Questions refer to stuff that is vague, open, undefined, unclear. And that’s exactly what wo-words are good for… to refer to vague, empty things. And this brings us back to the example that we all have forgotten by now :)

  • Das, worauf ich mich am meisten freue, ist die kühle Bergluft.

Remember… we just kind of added an article to the indirect question.
From a relative pronoun point of view, the worauf refers to das, but what is das? It means nothing. Could be a singular or a plural, could be masculine or feminine, could be anything. It is completely vague and generic. English would even put in a generic thing 

  • The thing I am looking forward to most….

German doesn’t need that. It just leaves the das there dangling in all its vagueness, and the wo-word refers to it. Because that’s what they do, that’s what all question words do… refer to completely unknown stuff.
So this is kind of the one end of the continuum, the pole where we really NEED the wo-words.  And the generic das  is not the only possible “vague phrase”. We could for instance add an adjective.

  • Das einzige, woran ich mich erinnern kann, ist, dass ich zu einer Betriebsfeier gefahren bin.
  • The only thing (that) I can remember is that I went to a company party.

Das einzige is completely vague by itself. The only WHAT?? And that’s why  woran with all its questiony-ness works much better than an das would… although people do say that in spoken.
These phrasings with just das and an adjective followed by a wo-word sentence are super common in German so I’m sure you will see them.
And there are a few others that work the same … let me call them amount-words…  viel, wenig, alles, nichts

  • Alles, worum ich dich bitte, ist, den Klodeckel runterzuklappen.
  • All (that) I ask you for is to close the toilet lid.
  • Es gibt viel, womit ich nicht zufrieden bin.
  • There’s a lot (that) I’m not satisfied with.
  • Der leichte Gewinnrückgang ist nichts, worüber man sich Sorgen machen müsste.
  • The slight drop in profits is nothing, about which one would have to worry.
  • The slight drop in profits is nothing to worry about.

Now, when we were talking about questions we learned that the need for wo-words isn’t super strict. Is that the same here? Like… could we NOT use wo-words with this generic das and just say

  • Das, auf das ich mich am meisten freue…

The answer is: not really. It’s understandable but it sounds pretty bad…. because, the lonely das isn’t anything … just an article of sorts. And if there is nothing, we cannot use a pointer like das.
Things would be different, if we put in a generic noun.

  • Diese  App ist (das), woran Thomas die letzten 10 Monate gearbeitet hat.
  • This app is what Thomas had been working on for the last 10 months
  • Diese App ist die Sache, an der Thomas…
  • This app is the thing (that ) Thomas has been working on

IN the first example we have the completely empty das… which isn’t even needed and could be skipped for good style. In the second example, we have die Sache, which is pretty generic too… but only content-wise. From a grammar point of view, it is a well established entity… die Sache, noun, singular, feminine. Sure we could use some more information ABOUT Sache but we don’t need the information that it is a Sache to begin with.
This last example brings us right into the very HUGE gray area of phrasings where people use either version… the wo-word-version or the non-vo-vord-wers… gee, that’s hard to pronounce :)

  • Gibt es eine App, womit/mit der man ausrechnen kann, wann man das nächste mal pinkeln gehen muss?
  • Is there an app (lit.: with which) that calculates the time until we have to go pee again.
  • Viele Leute haben ein Einkommen, von dem/wovon man nicht leben kann.
  • Too many people have an income (lit.: of which) that is not enough . (how could I say that more elegantly?)
  • Epiliergeräte sind ein Thema, worüber/über das man mit Männern nicht reden kann.
  • Epilators are something (that)  you cannot talk about with men.

There are MANY examples like this, where people use either, depending on region, education, personal preference or success at the morning constitutional… it’s really a continuum. The more common choice in all these examples are the non-wo-word-versions, but the wo-version is not rare either… here’s result from a Google search.

  • “ein Thema über das man”  – 222.000
  • “ein Thema worüber man” – 92.300

For the neuter nouns, it seems to make less of a difference than for masculine and feminine ones. For those, the wo-version really sounds odd to me and  Google supports that.

  • “eine App, mit der man” – 1.2 million (I much prefer this one, btw)
  • “eine App, womit man” – 77.000

So when should we use the wo-words?
In my opinion it would be best to only use them if we really have to… that is, if we have the generic das or  one of these phrasings.  Whenever we have  an article followed by an actual NOUN… like

  • a/the [noun]

then, the real relative pronoun will probably be the better choice. And the harder one… because relative pronouns really do suck in German and I am glad I don’t have to learn this crap.
All right, now there is one more use for the wo-words. Not a useful use for daily conversation but one, where not using a wo-word would actually alter the meaning… you know how it goes… dun dun dun.

One more use for wo-words

Let’s start with an example.

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto, worauf ich mich sehr freue.
  • I’ll go with the car,  which I am really looking forward to. (lit)
    (is that remotely possible in English?)
  • I’ll be taking the car. I’m looking forward to that.

Grammatically, the worauf-part is a relative sentence. And it refers to, not a thing or a person but the  full fact that is communicated in the container-sentence.
These kinds of sentences are ALWAYS done with wo-words. Auf das would not work here at all.
And it makes sense.

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto, auf das ich mich sehr freue.

The das refers to car. It cannot refer to the “fact” because das  needs a well established, verbalized anchor … not unframed meta-stuff like “the fact”.  So this sentence means that I’ll go by “the car I am looking forward to”. For example the new German is Easy company Porsche we’ll get next week. On an unrelated note… I will add a donation button below.
But anyways…. so  auf das clearly refers to the car. Technically, worauf could refer to the car as well. But it won’t be understood that way, usually. Why not? Because the car is too defined. Remember… wo-words are question words. They frame vagueness. Not to well-established, verbalized things.
The whole worauf-part in the example is just a slapped on tag for the sentence. We could see it as a shortened version of this:

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto. Das (refers to the fact) ist, worauf ich mich sehr freue.
  • I’ll be taking the car. That is what I’m looking forward to.

Let’s do some more examples.

  • In dem Restaurant braucht man unbedingt eine Reservierung, worüber der Manager nicht informiert war.
  • You need a reservation for that restaurant, something (which ) the manager didn’t know about.
  • Die lokale Regierung zog die Abbaukonzession zurück, wozu sie durch den öffentlichen Druck gezwungen war.
  • The parliament withdrew the building permit, a measure (that) it was forced to by public pressure.

The German versions don’t need to verbalize what the wo-part is referring to,because German simply has more relative pronouns to chose from. But that’s not for today … we’ve definitely done enough. Man, this was quite a bit of theorizitationing. But I hope you could get some grasp of the wo-words.

Super quick recap… wo-words are the basically a combination of a preposition and wo and they are used instead of a combination of a preposition and what?

  • auf was = worauf
  • an was = woran
  • mit was = womit

The most important use is as a question word, both for direct and indirect questions. You don’t have to use them but you will hear them, so if you hear an initial wo in a question that is clearly not about place… it’s probably a wo-word.
Wo-words are also used as relative pronouns, and we’ve seen that it is kind of hard to tell where a question-word ends and the pronoun starts… but it doesn’t matter anyway. The point of the  wo-words is that they refer to vagueness, and the main use apart the question is to “fill” a generic das

  • Das, woran ich mich erinnern muss, ist…
  • What I have to remember is … .

If you have any questions about the wo-words or if you feel like you didn’t quite understand something from today…I mean… it was quite a bit of theory after all… so, if you have doubt, please please go ahead and ask. And of course if you want to try some examples or if you just want to troll you’re welcome too :)
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


Further reading:

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