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.

  • “Hi, weißt du schon?”
    “Ja, Ich nehm’ einen Tee.”
    “Ok. Was für Tee?”
    “Oh… äh.. was haben sie denn?”
  • “Hi, are you ready to order?”
    “Yeah, I’ll have a tea.”
    “Okay. What kind.”
    “Oh… uhm… what do you have.”

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.

  • Was für Tee haben Sie?

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:

  • Ich will Nudeln essen, aber ich weiß nicht mit was für einer Soße
  • I want to eat pasta but I don’t know with what sauce.
  • “Auf was für einen Film hättest du denn Bock? Eine Adam Sandler Komödie? Oder eher was lustiges?”
  • What/which kind of movie do you feel like watching? An Adam Sandler Comedy? Or rather something funny?”
  • Was für Bier habt ihr denn vom Fass?
  • What beers do you have on draft?
  • “Kennst du schon mein neues Kleid?”
    “Nee, was für ein Kleid?”
  • “Do you already know my new dress?”
    “No, what/which dress?”

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.

  • “Welches meiner Hemden magst du am liebsten?”
    “Das saubere… immer das saubere.”
  • “Which of my shirts do you like best.”
    “The clean one… always the clean one.”
  • Was für Hemden magst du am liebsten?”
    “Hmm…mal überlegen… ich glaub’ Baumwolle, weiß und mit V-Ausschnitt.”
  • What kind of shirts do you like best?”
    “Hmmm … let me think … I’d say cotton, white and with v-neck.”

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.

  • Was willst du für ‘n Tee?
  • What tea do you want?

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.

  • Was haben sie für Wein?
  • What wine do you have?
  • Was hast du dir für ein Buch gekauft?
  • What book have you bought?
  • Was hast du dir gestern mit deiner Freundin für einen Film angesehen?
  • What movie did you watch yesterday with your girlfriend?

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.

  • Was habt ihr hier Bier?… NOPE

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.

  • Mit [was für einem Auto] seid ihr gefahren?
  • With what kind of car did you drive?
  • Vor [was für Tieren] hast du Angst?
  • What kind of animals are you afraid of?

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:

  • Mein Gott, was für ein Scheißwetter.
  • My god, what a shitty weather.
  • Was für ein Idiot muss man sein, um das nicht zu sehen.
  • What an idiot do yo have to be to not see this.
  • Was für eine Verschwendung…
  • What a waste…

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).

  • Was für schöne Schuhe.
  • What beautiful shoes.

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.

  • Ich habe heute einen Hund gesehen, und was für einen
  • I’ve seen a dog today and what dog that was, (my god)

 

  • In diesem Wald gibt es viele Pilze, und was für welche
  • There are many mushrooms in this forest and they are some (big) mushrooms, I tell ya’

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…

  • Welch ein Film…
  • What a movie… probably a great one
  • Was für ein Film…
  • What a movie… maybe a bad one or a disturbing one or thought provoking one

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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Pinkmoosesoup
Pinkmoosesoup
28 days ago

Wow that was such a funny post! Thank you so much for taking the time to help those of us trying to learn Deutsch!

Anonymous
Anonymous
3 months ago

Vielen dank:)

TheBestLanguageEver
TheBestLanguageEver
6 months ago

Welch eine Lektion! Danke Emanuel! Richtig benutzt?

schwanzschwanz
schwanzschwanz
1 year ago

Gibt es eine gute Übersetzung für “some kind of”? z.B. “What is that brown water in that cup?” “I dunno, probably some kind of tea.”

Sharon
Sharon
2 years ago

Thank you so much for this helpful article! It definitely helps me a lot more than what I learnt in my German course. I have a question that i have been thinking and trying to research but found no answers to..

What is the difference when you use “was für” or “was für welche” when it comes to plural?

Sarahswids
Sarahswids
3 years ago

“Cool. Was (denn) für eins?”

In diesem Beispiel, wofür ist “eins” benutzt?

Shaun
4 years ago

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?!

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

*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!
:)

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Samantha
Samantha
6 years ago

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

ads
ads
6 years ago

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!

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

‘will have been going to have’

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

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

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
7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks for the swift reply. I really appreciate it.

Sarah
Sarah
7 years ago

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
7 years ago

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!

Mehmet
Mehmet
8 years ago

“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?

James
James
9 years ago

Was für ein hilfreicher Artikel, danke!

Joe
Joe
9 years ago

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.

Joe
Joe
9 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ha glad I’m keeping you on your toes! And thanks for the very clear reply. I don’t think I could ask for more detail than that. So it sounds like English and German are very similar here and I’m glad to hear that for once!

core
core
9 years ago

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

Ved
Ved
9 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Just the whole blog and the emails are a great way for me to stay connected to an otherwise seemingly distant language.

M_Hodzhova
M_Hodzhova
9 years ago

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

M_Hodzhova
M_Hodzhova
9 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It’s Bulgarian :) Which is similar to Russian. Thank you for your comment on my writing! I like your blog too. It seems very useful.