The meaning and use of “was für”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
And today, it’s double trouble time, because we’ll look at the meaning of the combination:

was für

A quite useful combination, especially in spoken German. And don’t worry… it’s not all that much trouble actually.
Today, we’ll find out what it means and how to use it, including a really weird, dangerous looking stunt that spoken German makes. A crazy split, to be precise. Like it’s some ballerina or something.
Anyway, let’s jump right it.

So, taken literally, was für means what for and the core idea of it is asking for options. So it’s a translation for what/which kind  or simply what/which.
Here’s an example straight from the bar I used to work at.

Oh man, this conversation… it’s actually often tourists who order “A tea”. Please don’t do it. In Germany, there is no default tea, and most if not all places have multiple options. At least black tea, green tea some kind of herbal tea and probably also some Indian spice tea. At least in Berlin, if you just order “A tea”, the wait staff will probably get annoyed and they will show it.
Instead, you could ask what kind of tea they have, by using was für.

They will still get annoyed, of course, because you didn’t check the menu. And if you do know which tea to order, they’ll get annoyed because you order a tea. In fact, they get annoyed if you just walk in the door.
I… I’m kidding of course. It’s not THAT bad.

Anyway, let’s look at some more examples:

As you can see in the last example, was für actually doesn’t ALWAYS involve actual options. But it’s the same in English, so it’s all pretty straight forward.
There’s one little difference when you use it as a stand-alone, though. In English, you can just ask “What kind?”.
“was für” can’t stand alone like that. You then have to add the word ein – with the appropriate ending, of course. Because: fun!

  • “Ich kauf’ mir morgen ein Fahrrad.”
    “Cool. Was (denn) für eins?”
  • “I am going to buy a bike tomorrow.”
    “Cool, what kind?”

  • “Ich glaube ich trinke Wein.”
    Was für einen?”
  • “I think I’ll drink wine.”
    What kind?”

On and of course that also works for plural. There is no indefinite artilce in plural, but there IS an indefinite pronoun:  welche.

  • In diesem Wald gibt es viele Pilze. Aber was für welche.
  • There are many mushrooms in this forest, but what kind…

Now many of you are probably like “Wait a minute. Doesn’t welche also mean which?”
And you’re completely right. Welche(…)  is the direct brother of  which.
Which of course raises the question what the difference is between was für and welche?
Well, just like what kind, the German was für does NOT work as soon as there’s a specified pool of choices. Then, you HAVE to use welche(…).
Here are two examples.

Was für would sound very wrong in the first one, because there, we are searching for one specific item out of a fixed pool. Welche, on the other hand, could be used in the second example, but was für sounds much better there.
All right.
So now that we know what was für means, it’s time to talk about its acrobatic skills… the split.

was – ballet split – für

Splitting up stuff is something Germans like. We do with bills, we did it with the Christian religion, heck … we even did it with our country. And of course we’re doing it with our verbs. And that’s not the only example in the German language. Some of you might have read my article on the da-words splitting up. If not, I’ll put a link below because it’s kind of a similar thing.
But anyway, in German there’s a trend to actually split up was für. Here’s an example.

I actually use that quite a lot these days in quarantine, when I’m making a tea and I ask my girlfriend if she wants one as well.
#perfectboyfriend #simp.
And it feels MUCH more “fluid” to me than asking “Was für’n Tee willst du?”.
You see, in German sentence structure, there is this gradual divide between a setup and a payoff.
And it’s kind of the same dynamic here. The question is set up, then the action is setup, then the question is brought to a conclusion (with “für“) and then the action is brought to a conclusion (with tea).
German speakers are used to these arcs, it feels “nice” to us. And so that might be why we do it with was für. It is spoken German, yes. But it’s by no means low brow or slang.
Anyway, here are some more examples.

The last sentence is a good example for how tricky was fürcan be. They’re so far apart and the für is so easy to miss.
But yeah… go ahead and try it out if you want to sound really like a native speaker. Just make sure not to actually forget the für.

That sounds really really wrong and honestly… I am not sure if I would even understand what you are asking.
Cool.
Now, there’s one instance when we CAN’T split up was für and that’s if it is part of a phrase with a preposition.

The reason is that here, was für is a part of the box/unit [ ] that comes after the preposition and taking a part out of that would be wrong.

All right.
Now, there’s one more use of was für that we need to talk about before we call it a day.

was für – what a

It’s not actually that different from what we’ve already seen, but I didn’t want it to go unmentioned.
I am talking about was für used in a sense of expressing surprise or astonishment.
Here are a few examples:

And contrary to what I initially wrote in this article, this is not limited to singular (thanks Joe for pointing that out in the comments).

This exclamatory was für can actually also come after the noun; you just need to add ein/e/en/er/s like we already saw earlier.

 

So this is was für as a sort of exclamation. Technically, you can also do that with welch ein(…), but that’s more for books, I’d say.
And now that I think of it welch ein sounds a bit positive while was für is kind of neutral…

And I think that’s it for today. Hooray :).
This was our look at the meaning and use of  was für – a true colloquial German powerhouse, you should start using.
If you want to check if you remember all the important bits and pieces, you can take the little quiz we have prepared for you.
And as usual, if you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Oh, if you’d like to practice using “was für” a bit and see more examples… Jenny from German with Jenny has you covered here :)

further reading:

da-words undone – On the split of the da-words

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