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 :)

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