The meaning and use of “was für”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. Knowing a word is helpful if you want to speak a language. More helpful than, say, knowing Einsteins Third Law of Successful Time travel (buy Einsteins fascinating book, that will have been going to have changed the whole world, on Amazon here). However, sometimes one words isn’t enough to get the job done. Sometimes you need 2 words, 2 dedicated, passionate words. 2 words that put their ass on the line to seal the deal for you. 2  words like the ones we will look at today:

was für

Was für is a quite useful combination. Maybe not as common as entweder oder  but useful, nonetheless.
We have the parts was (what) and für (for) and together they basically mean what kind or simply what.
Here’s an example straight from the bar I’m working at.

Oh boy, I’m working as a bartender and waiter and this question comes way too often. Please please, don’t just order “A tea” in a bar or restaurant. There is no such thing as a default tea in Germany and wait staff will be really annoyed. Instead, ask

More examples:

So this is pretty obvious. But was für is not really always asking for a kind. Sometimes it really just means what.

Now, there is another word in German that is pretty similar: welche/r/m/n/s and I can imagine that there are languages out there where there is just one translation for both words. So what is the difference between was für and welche?
Welche is asking for one or more specific items out of a pool of choices. Like the English which.

So, was für is the right question if you DON’T know what the options are or better, if the options aren’t obvious.
Now, does it work as a stand alone phrase? It does… kind of.

In German you need to have an article there … so either eine/r/n/m/s (depending on the case and the gender) or welche for plural… so there is a difference between welche and was für welche

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

So… all this is certainly nice to know but that alone wouldn’t really justify a Word of the Day… I mean we’ve discussed doch and schon here after all :).
But there is something about was für that makes it very confusing if you’re not used to it: it can split up. That’s right. Our Words aren’t actually really married… ohhhhh…  Here are some examples.

This is something I often ask my girlfriend when I am making a tea for myself and she wants one too. Now technically she does know which teas I have at home so based on what I have said earlier I should use which.
But for one, which always sounds a bit too official for those kinds of questions. I would really only use it if I had 3 different teas lined up on the table for her to see. And secondly, having the was and für separated does change the tone … it is more broad maybe.

Again we can see that the separate was für can be just a colloquial which and it is used as such quite a lot… at least in Northern Germany.

The last sentence is a good example for what can be tricky about was für even if you know it…. the 2 parts can be placed really far apart. Was starts the sentence and für comes right before the noun. Here is an example that has a nice flow in German :)

So go ahead and try it out if you want to sound really like a native speaker. But remember to say the für part… you cannot simply leave it out, no matter how long your sentence is. Every German will immediately notice that .

That sounds REALLY strange and wrong and honestly… I am not sure if I would even understand what you are asking. So maybe stick with the combined version :).
And then, there is one context where you can’t split it… whenever was für is part of a prepositional phrase… yeah… I know… jarrrrrrgon

This is what I mean. Was für is inside a box that starts with a preposition. But enough with the grammar. There is one more meaning of was für that we need to talk about before we wrap up.The translation is again … what… or rather what a.

Contrary to what I initially thought, this is not limited to singular (thanks Joe for pointing that out)

And this exclamatory was für can also come after the noun, then you need an article.

Now let’s reuse the mushroom example from earlier

Just by changing the way you say it the meaning changes from “I don’t know what kind” to “I am impressed by them”… you don’t even have to use und… you can leave aber, too.

So, in these kind of exclamations “Oh what a…”,  was für is the way to go. There is also welch ein, but this is more for books maybe. And now that I think of it welch ein sounds a bit positive while was für is kind of neutral…

But please please please… this is not to be taken as a rule. It is just a slight difference. That’s all. And speaking of that’s all… that’s actually all for today. Already.
This was our Words not (yet) married and in Love feel good  special for today with was für. What a long title.
And if you ask yourself now “But hey, can I change the order and say für was instead?” then I say, no. I mean you can but then you sound like you want to say wofür but still have to brush up on the whole wo-da-thing in German. But I can help. Here’s how it works. Instead of was in was für, we say wo, which looks like who but it means where, which looks like wer but it actually the translation of wo, except for if wo is part of wofür because then it means was which is what and wofür is… what for/for what?
Glad we got to talk about that :). But seriously.. that’s it for today. If you have questions (that do not concern the last part) 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 :)

Click here to download all audio files (zip-archive, mp3 files)

for members :)

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Anonymous
Anonymous

How do you know when to put an article with was fuer? Ex.1 – Was fuer ein schoener Schmetterling. Ex 2 – “Ok. Was für Tee?” And…I just feel like after fuer the masculine noun should take akkusative article ‘einen’. “Was fuer einEN schoenen Schmetterling. ??

John Hoering
John Hoering

Thanks for doing this. The ‘word of the day’ is a great learning tool.

John

andrewstahmer

Would you like to see the new Adam Sandler film? Or perhaps we could go and see something funny.

Sent from my HTC

M_Hodzhova
M_Hodzhova

That’s an amazing blog! I like it. You can also visit my blog for additional resources: http://www.leistungsklasse.wordpress.com :)

core
core

I’m starting to get a hang of this blog. Liking it for developing my German skills too!
Welch ein eselbruecke =)

Joe
Joe

Great article yet again. I had been wondering what the difference was between welch ein and was für.

The one thing I’m not completely clear on is the plural usage of was für to mean “what (a).” You mean it doesn’t work well with plural in English. It does work, its just you will almost never hear someone say it without an adjective. For example you translated your one example as “what a shitty weather” but we would actually just say “what shitty weather.” Weather is uncountable like Wasser. So you used this mushroom example and I’m thinking of something like where a woman says “I just bought new shoes” and someone were to respond “what beautiful shoes!” (this is what a meant by we used “what” with plural but almost always have a qualifying adjective). How would this be phrased using was für (welche)?

One last thing: for your mushroom example, using was für welche at the end of the sentence like that to imply a longer train of thought, this can work in English too. We would say something like: There are a lot of mushrooms in the forest, and what (beautiful, big, etc.) mushrooms they are! Again we normally have a qualifying adjective in there so the speaker’s opinion of the mushrooms is obvious when used for plural nouns.

James
James

Was für ein hilfreicher Artikel, danke!

Mehmet
Mehmet

“Ok. Was für Tee?”

“Was willst du für ‘n Tee?”

Hallo! Kann es sein, dass der extra Artikel (einen) im Satz #2 nur ein Tippfehler ist? Wenn nicht, was könnten die zwei Sätze für einen Bedeutungsunterschied haben?

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hi, i have a German grammar book (for Finns) that claims that ‘was für ein’ can not be used with abstract words nor with words of material…? and it’s driving me nuts. My German husband says it’s ok to say: Was für eine Vorstellung!( abstract when meaning imagination). Also, one could easily say: Was für ein Wasser. Or not? Any comments on this? Thanks!

Sarah
Sarah

I’ve been reading some of your entries here and there and must say, that I really find them helpful.
Was für ein wunderschönes Blog hast Du geschrieben!
(and must say, it was kinda disappointing to read, that you have a gf xD)

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hello, and thank you for the helpful article.
However, I have one question concerning the case of “einer” in “mit was für einer Soße.”
I have heard several German instructors said that whatever comes after “für” is always accusative, but you wrote it in the dative case (on account of “mit”, I presume). Could you please explain to me why?
Thank you.

Anonymous
Anonymous

‘will have been going to have’

Made me laugh. I really want that tense to have a legit name now.

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Lieber Emanuel,

alle Deutschlerner lernen, dass man “sich für etwas interessiert”. Aber ich habe vor kurzem den Satz gelesen:

“wir sind nicht mehr an ihrem Angebot interessiert”.

Wieso haben sie hier “an” verwendet?

(Ich weiß, dass diese Frage nichts mit “was für” zu tun hat, aber ich konnte keinen anderen passenden Teil in deinem Blog finden)

Danke schön!

Samantha
Samantha

Hi,
Is this a typo? “Was hat du dir gestern mit deiner Freundin für einen Film angesehen?”
Shouldn’t it be “Was *hast* du”?

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Anonymous
Anonymous

*Off topic* hey! Ur blogs are great! I just wanted to know the uses of “Ob” as a preposition because I’m greatly confused by this terminology of Germans!
:)

Shaun

So I am a bit confused as to why it’s not was für EINEN schönen Namen or was für EINEN schönen hund und so weiter weil für immer Akkusativ ist? Ich weiß schon das es was für ein schöner Name und was für ein schöner Hund ist aber ich Frage mich warum wenn es Akkusativ ist?!

Sarahswids
Sarahswids

“Cool. Was (denn) für eins?”

In diesem Beispiel, wofür ist “eins” benutzt?