The meaning and use of “ob”

Ariel wonders ob he loves herHello everyone,

and welcome you to our Word of the Day.
This time, we will take a closer look at the meaning of



A lot German learners think of ob as if.
And that’s not wrong, but it’s also not the best translation.
Why not?
Because if actually has three possible translations in German:

wenn, falls and ob.

And while wenn and falls have a lot of common ground, ob is totally different.
Now you might be like “But people will still be able to understand me, when I make a mistake there, right?”
But the answer to that is: no.

If you say ob instead of wenn, you are saying something entirely different and it might sound really, really strange.
Like… this strange:

“I’d be really happy whether you come to my party.”

Feels quite bad right?
And this example doesn’t only show us how strange it is to mix up wenn and ob, it also shows us the key.

The proper translation for ob is whether.

It’s that simple.
Oh, and if your mother tongue is NOT English and you’re not sure about the difference between if and whether, you can try this “hack” instead:

Add “or not” to your sentence.
If it makes sense, it is ob, if not, it’s not.

Let’s try it.
Here are some pro-ob examples.

  • I don’t know, if/whether I have time (or not).
  • Ich weiß nicht, ob ich Zeit habe.
  • Thomas is not quite sure if/whether he should drink any more beer (or not).
  • Thomas ist sich echt nicht sicher, ob er wirklich noch Bier trinken sollte.

And here, to cross check, are some no-ob examples.

  •  I’ll call you  if I have time.
  • Ich rufe dich an, wenn/falls ich Zeit habe.
  • If it’s raining, I will stay at home.
  • Falls/wenn es regnet, bleibe ich zuhause.

Here, you cannot replace if with whether and you cannot add “or not”.
I mean… you can, of course. It’s a free country!!!
But it wouldn’t make sense and no one would understand you.

The reason why mixing up ob and wenn is such a disaster even though the have the same translation in English is “function”.  You see-  ob and whether are basically yes or no questions phrased in an indirect way.

  • Do I have time, yes or no?”
    I don’t know, if/whether I have time.

If does have that function, which is why it sometimes translates to ob. But if ALSO can express the idea of in case or as soon as, and ob absolutely does not cover these. Its ONLY function are these indirect yes or no questions.

Cool, so if is only translated to ob if it can be replaced by whether. That’s the rule.
And now ladies and gentlemen, give it up for our next guest:

the exceptioooooooooon

Because of course there is one.
The is one use of if that DOES ranslates to ob despite not being replaceable by whether. And this use is:
 as if.

  • You look as if you could use some sleep.
  • Du siehst aus als ob du etwas Schlaf gebrauchen könntest.
  • “Christine said, that SHE is going to be prom queen.”
    “Hah, as if… that stupid horse face”
  • “Christine hat gesagt, dass SIE Ballkönigin wird.”
    “Hah, als ob… das dumme Pferdegesicht.”

But that’s pretty much it for exceptions.
So now you know when to use ob – either try whether or try adding “or not” at the end.
But of course, like everyone should have in 2020 capitalism, ob does have a side hustle. A few actually.
So before we wrap up, let’s go over other uses of ob real quick.

other uses of ob

The first one isn’t really different in meaning, it’s just a phrasing that wouldn’t work in English.

  • Ob er mich liebt?”

This is proper German, it even sounds a bit poetic and means something like “I wonder whether he loves me.”. Generally, the ob-sentence can stand by itself, which is different in English, I believe.

  • “Was hast du gefragt?”
    Ob du kommst.”
  • “What were you asking?”
    Whether you are coming or not.”

I feel like you have to have this or not in the English sentence, otherwise it would sound odd. But the German version is fine like that.

Anyway, the first real “side-job” of ob is something you probably won’t ever need actively. You might see it in a newspaper or a novel, though, and if you don’t know about it, you’re bound to spend a days trying to figure out what the hell that sentence means.

  • Ob des starken Regens wurde das Fußballspiel abgesagt.

This ob here is not whether, although there is some weather in the sentence. haha… get it? Because they sound the sa… anyway, so the ob in this example actually means  due to or because of.

  • Due to strong rain the soccer match was canceled.

If you want to actively use this ob, you need to have your Genitive case down because here you need it… it is des Regens and not dem Regen or den Regen.
If you don’t feel secure about your Genitive, then stick with wegen because you can use Dative. Yup, I just said that, dear textbooks :).
Wegen can be used with either case, at least in spoken language. The soccer-example would be:

  • Wegen dem starken Regen wurde das Fussballspiel abgesagt.

Now, the other usage of ob isn’t really a meaning in itself. It is a fixed expression that doesn’t really tie in with what we’ve learned about ob

  • Und ob.

Technically, this means the same as of course but depending on the situation and the intonation it can mean anything from “Hell yeah, you bet.” to “But you did, stop bs-ing.'”.

  • ” Kann ich zu deiner Geburtstagsparty kommen?”
    Und ob!”
  • “Can I come to your birthday party?”
    Of course!”
  • “Ich habe dein letztes Bier nicht getrunken.”
    Und ob du das hast. Ich habe Beweise.”
  • “I did not drink your last  beer.”
    “Oh, You so did! I have evidence.”

And that’s it. This was our look at the meaning and usage of ob.
And if (no-ob) someone asks you now if (pro-ob) you can explain the meaning of ob, you proudly answer.

Und ob! :)

If you want to check if you understood everything about ob, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course, if you have any questions about any of this, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

By the way, this is a general problem with the possible translations of the words when and if – German offers you wenn, falls, ob, als and wann and you really need to understand what they all mean that’s why there’s an article for each of them. And after reading all the articles, you will be really really tired. Awesome, right?

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