**warning: this article is a bit old, and it’s one of the best examples of how to NOT get to the point :).
It might be a fun read, but if you need a quick fix for wenn vs wann, check my article on that and don’t waste your time here **
and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will look at the meaning of:
Wenn is one of the most confusing words for a lot of people who are learning German and even people who are almost perfectly fluent confuse wenn and als or wenn and wann,because they don’t know the difference. These problems are part of a broader issue. The English words if and when have 5 possible German translations: wann, wenn, falls, ob and als and I will write in article explaining the differences between all of those. But I don’t want it to be pages and pages and pages so we will look at every word in detail first and then put that together…
So for today our focus is wenn and because the issue is so important to a lot of people, I have decided to get some help for this. So I have invited one of the most renowned philosophers of our time: Steven B. Smith… welcome Steve…
Hey Emanuel, thank you for having me.
German is easy (GIE):
Thanks for being here. Steve, many people have only a shadowy picture of what philosophers do…
Niiiice one … (laughs)
Glad you got that… so tell us a little bit about your current projects.
Well you know… so of course I am teaching at different universities but my main focus during the last year has been on a project I am realizing with some colleagues … I don’t want give too much away now as we have an article in Philosophers Digest comin’ out in a few weeks but this much I can say: you will be able to play both on Facebook and on any smart phone, you can play against OR with your friends and it will have something to do with gardening…
Oh… See I had no idea that philosophers are actually involved in these kind of projects…
Oh most of us are, I mean… we have to eat, right? (laughs)
Well, I guess so… anyway. So you’re here today to help me explaining the German word wenn.
Yes… from a philosophers point of view it is a really fantastic word… or should I say wenn-tastic… (laughs)
Oh no, don’t bother about wordplays and stuff. The audience here doesn’t really find those funny…
Yeah, all pretty stiff, serious and focused folk….
Oh ok, I’ll turn off my funny then… So let’s make a little detour and have a quick look at English first.
In English you have the words if and when with if indicating a possibility and when indicating a time be it past present or future.
- When I come home, I will watch TV.
Oh … sorry but could you possibly say all whens, ifs and wenns in italic and bold… just for clarity…
Oh sure no problem. So:
- When I come home I will eat something.
- When I was a kid had a cat.
These are examples for time.
- If I don’t get my train, I will be late for the meeting.
- If I told you the truth you wouldn’t eat that ever again.
So we have the poles possibility – time here.
Now ask yourself this… how certain can you be that you WILL be doing something until you’re actually doing it?
Hmmm… I don’t know… depends I guess…
Exactly… maybe you can be 99,99% sure that you will be at home if you are right in front of your house, but still you do not know whether you will have a heart attack right the next second. So you cannot be absolutely sure about events in the future. There is alway a degree of uncertainty to it. Something can be very likely or very unlikely to happen but you do never know for sure. Thus we have a smooth transition from if to when and the 2 are interchangeable at times.
Do you maybe have an example for this transition?
Oh of course. So here is something rather unrealistic.
- If I saw a billion dollars lying on the street I would just leave it there..
This is not very probable to happen and this is expressed by using if and the conditional forms of the verb. Now let’s look at this one.
- If I see/saw a penny on the street I will/would just leave it there.
So is that a statement of time or a statement of possibility? The answer is up to the beholder to decide and it doesn’t matter after all in that case.
And for something rather realistic.
- When/if I see dog shit in the street I will just leave it there.
If you live in Pleasant-ville you might prefer if, but in a large city it is not a question of if but when you will see the next pile.
Ok … now is there absolute certainty at all?
Yes. Whenever something has happened this is 100% certain. Take the sentence “I ate a pizza”. There is no question that you did eat the pizza. So here when is the only appropriate choice.
- When I came home, I ate a pizza.
So English has the 2 poles when (time) – if (possibility) and the space between is a continuum. Now how does that relate to German and to wenn.
German has different poles. The 2 choices are certainty – possibility. And there is no transition here, so either something is 100% certain or not. If it is 100% certain the German word is als and as 100% certainty is only possible in the past, als is THE ONLY proper translation for when in the past.
- Als der Film zuende war , musste ich weinen.
- When the movie was over, I had to cry.
As soon as there is the slightest doubt, you HAVE to use wenn, regardless of whether it was if or when in English. Als does totally fail there, and it’s might not even be understandable. So whenever you talk in future or conditional the proper German word is wenn. Let’s look at them back to back.
- When I am 40, I want to have a cat.
- When I was 10, I had a cat.
The when of the first sentence is in the future, hence it is wenn, the when in the second sentence is in past hence it is als.
- Wenn ich 40 bin, will ich eine Katze haben.
- Als ich 10 war, hatte ich eine Katze.
Let’s do one more example.
- I will call you when/if I find my phone.
- Ich rufe dich an wenn ich mein Handy finde.
- I called you when I came home.
- Ich habe dich angerufen, als ich nach Hause gekommen bin.
So basically when I talk about past I use als and when it is not past it will be wenn, is that correct?
So what about possibilities in the past, like “If you had invited me, I would have come to your party.” I mean, it is 100% certain that I was NOT invited, so what do I do here?
Good question, so the statement is that you would have come to the party, had only you know, but you actually can’t know that for sure because it never happened. Maybe you wouldn’t have come because you would have met the love of your life on the way to the party and you 2 went home for sexual intercourse. You cannot know for sure what WOULD have happened, because it DIDN’T happen…. so these ifs will also be wenn in German.
- Wenn du mich eingeladen hättest, wäre ich zu deiner Party gekommen.
So the difference between wenn and als is that als is used for the past and wenn is used for future and fantasy land, to not use the term conditional again.
Yap. And future and fantasy land are sort of the same thing, at least from a German language point of view, and that is reflected by wenn being if and when.
Well Steve, I have to say, that was really awesome. Thanks you so so much for this. Are you going to join us for the rest of the show?
Oh of course…
Cool. So guys… I hope that things are a little more clear now. If you are wondering about the difference between wenn and falls, I will talk about that more in the post about falls, but don’t worry too much there, this is not a critical distinction.
There are some little things I want to say before we finish. First of, wenn – also als – is one of these words that don’t get along with the verb very well, so sentences with wenn are always side sentences with all the verbs hangin’ out at the end.
- Wenn ich den Zug, der um 10:30 am Hauptbahnhof losgefahren ist, nicht gekriegt hätte, wäre ich zu spät zu meinem Termin gekommen.
- If I hadn’t caught the train, that was leaving from Hauptbahnhof at 10:30, I would have been late for my appointment.
And then there are some fixed expressions with wenn that don’t really fit the explanations above. The first one is the best as it brings together what mustn’t be mixed up :) … als wenn. This means pretty much the same as als ob so it is as if.
- Es riecht als wenn es brennt.
- It smells as if it was burning.
Then there is wenn auch. This is somewhere in the vicinity of although. In a sentence wenn auch is usually followed by so doch…
- Wenn ich auch müde war, so habe ich doch Hausaufgaben gemacht.
- Obwohl ich müde war, habe ich Hausaufgaben gemacht.
- Although I was tired I did homework.
In this case wenn is used although it is in the past and 100% certain that I was tired.
And now to wrap this up… Steve, do you know any idioms with wenn by any chance?
Yeah.. I think one is “Wenn schon denn schon!” but I don’t really know what it means.
Yeah think of that as a very very short form of something like “So when this condition does apply, and it apparently does, then let’s at least do something this way.”
Oh that is really abstract.
Yeah true, mostly we use it to say “Ok, If we are going to do it then let’s do it to the max”. So imagine you clean your flat, and you go all out on it. Your girlfriend comes home and she is amazed by how aseptic the place is… then is the right moment for “Wenn schon, denn schon.”
Or if you go from long hair to bald or from drinking nothing for weeks to totally trash yourself in one night…
I think I get it… that’s a nice one.
And then there is the one that perfectly captures the idea of uncertainty:
- Wenn das Wörtchen wenn nicht wär’, wär’ ich längst schon Millionär.
- If the word if didn’t exist, I would be a millionaire by now.
(laughs)… hah I hear THAT for sure…
So… I think we’re done. So wenn is correct for future and fantasy land, als is correct for past and DO NOT MIX THEM UP. Steve, thank you so much for the philosophical insights…
… and good luck with that browser game.
And for the rest of you, thanks for joining. I hope this helped and as usual if you have any questions or suggestions just drop me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.
!!! EDIT !!!
I forgot an important aspect about wenn and als. If you’re talking about
a repeated action in the past, like a habit or something, then you’d also
use wenn and not als.
I’ll work that into the article but for now you should check out the comments for details. Sorry ;:)
Hi dear Emanuel, what does it mean when the wenn itself makes an statement for example: wenn das ihre einzige Sorge ist!
Does it mean: it seems to be her sole worry?
Or as if it’s her sole worry?
It’s the second :)
Hi Emanuel. A tiny question: is it possible to drop wenn an start the sentence with the verb? For example: schlägst du andere Themen an, merkst du sofort, wie wenig Niveau er hat! Thank you verrry muuch..
Yes, but that sounds quite high register.
In daily life, it’s only common for short irreal conditional phrasings like
Hi Emanuel – I may have had the same question as Patty – what is the difference between using Jedes mal wenn or immer wenn vs wenn as a stand-alone ?
Thx so much!
“jedes mal wenn” and “immer wenn” are pretty much identical in meaning, but “immer wenn” lends itself better to descriptions of routines or natural things while “jedes mal wenn” sounds a bit deliberate.
“wenn” can carry the general sense of “whenever” as well, but usually people go for one of the other two, just to be precise.
Thanks for the article! I see occasionally jedes mal wenn or immer wenn. Do they change the meaning or do they just provide emphasis?
Do you mean compared to each other or compared to “wenn” alone?
i think that it would be better if u could have avoided the conversation and instead of that you could have tried to explain all of that at one go
I really need to rework this one, I know. I enjoyed doing it at the time (6 years ago, or so) but it doesn’t fit the format any more.
It seems that “als” means something like “At the time when”. Correct?
Not sure this doesn’t make much of a difference. “at the time when” can also work for the future, right? “als” can’t so we’d still have to add this info
Thanks for your excellent blog. It’s really helping to fill in gaps of understanding. Just wanted to add that that “WENN” might be omitted from a sentence. Then in that case the sentence begins with the verb instead. Is this common in written work ?
You mean stuff like this:
– Hätte ich das gewusst, wäre ich gekommen.
– Had I known that I would have come.
The question of how common this type of phrasing is comes down to the verb. Hätte and wäre are commonly moved to the beginning, also the modals but this for instance:
– Gäbe es dort Kuchen, würde ich öfter hingehen.
sounds a bit high brow. That’s something you’d see in writing more often.
– Kostete das Kleid weniger, kaufte ich es.
– If the dress would cost less, I would buy it.
this sounds like from a theatre stage :)
I am still getting really confused between Wenn and Als when it is these *past* events i.e. happening once vs recurring events…. looks like everyone studies the same thing on Deutschkurs and Grandma visiting is common….
Anyway, the example that’s particularly annoying me is:
*Meine Nachbarin hat jedes mal die Pakete angenommen. Ich war im Urlaub.*
I can’t work out if it should be:
1. Als ich im Urlaub war, hat meine Nachbarin . . .
in the sense of, once when I was on holiday, my neighbour accepted my packages (for someone who likes internet shopping)
2. Wenn ich im Urlaub war, hat meine Nachbarin…
in the sense of, every time I go on holiday, my neighbour accepts my packages…. and if this is the correct one, I don’t get why it would be “ich war” not “ich bin”….. perhaps I am getting confused in trying to translate “ich war” to “I was”
My boyfriend is German and he can’t work it out *face palm*
Könnten Sie mir bbiiiitttteeeeee helfen?!
Nice one :). And well done analyzing and seeing that there are two readings possible.
(one vacation, multiple packages – multiple vacations with packages)
The “correct” choice is number 2. That’s what a German would immediately think and they wouldn’t even realize that the other reading is possible, too. The reason for that is “jedes Mal”. Because that often comes in combination with “wenn”. Or at least an implied “when”. “jedes Mal” referring to “accepting the packaged during one vacation” is super odd and I think it’s the same in English.
– While I was on vacation, she accepted my packages every time.
At least to me, it feels like there’s something missing. Like “accpeted the packages everytime what happened??” . And the only sensible answer is “every time there was a package delivered”. And that is redundant. You’d just say “all my packages” .
So yeah… there’s no grammatical reason for why your second version is the correct answer. It’s more about Sprachgefühl.
Now, why use “Ich war” and not “ich bin”? Well, you’re talking about the past. You were on vacation multiple time and your neighbor always accepted your packages.
I believe you’d use past in English, too, in that constellation.
– Whenever I was on vacation, my neighbor would accept my packages.
Hope that helps :)
Aaaaaaaah yes. Alles klar!! Thank you that is really helpful :) …. these textbook sentences though… duh…
Die Sache mit “einmal” oder “häufig” und “wenn” ist sehr wichtig, nach meiner Meinung nach, also was Sie über “wenn” geschrieben habe, scheint mir so gesehen, ein bisschen bruchstückhaft. Doch Sie sind ein angeborener Lehrer und ich habe sehr gelernt. Selbst verständlich Sie sind nicht ein Mann wer seine Arbeit neu schreiben will. Vielleicht Sie können die Leser ermahnen die Responses zu lesen um “wenn” besser zu verstehen. Und ja, bitte machen Sie mein Deutsch besser. Herr Lehrer, wie alle guten Studenten, Ich liebe Korrekturen.
Ja, du hast vollkommen recht. Das ist wichtig und ich hätte es ergänzen sollen. Ich habe es jetzt erstmal unter den Post geschrieben und auf die Kommentare hingewiesen. Wenn ich ein bisschen Ruhe habe, werde ich den ganzen Artikel überarbeiten. Danke für den Hinweis !!
Hier ein paar Korrekturen:
– … wichtig, nach meiner Meinung nach… (das erste “nach” ist zu viel)
– … geschrieben habe… (bei “habe” fehlt ein “n”)
– … ein angeborener Lehrer… (nur “geborener” ohne “an”, Eigenschaften sind “angeboren” aber nicht man selber)
– … ich habe sehr gelernt … (lieber “viel gelernt”)
– Selbstverständlich (ein Wort) sind Sie (nicht “sie sind”) nicht ein Mann, der (nicht “wer”)
– Vielleicht können Sie (nicht “Sie können”) den Lesern sagen (“ermahnen” ist SEHR ernst und ist wie eine zweite Warnung)
– … wie alle guten Studenten, liebe Ich (nicht “ich liebe”)…
Hoffe, das hilft :). Danke für das tolle Feedback.
I offer the following translation of “Wenn schon, denn schon” – “In for a penny, in for a pound” (I’m a Brit).
I’m tempted to make a very obvious Euro/Soccer joke but it’s probably been done a bazillion times already :).
The translation is perfect! Danke
In the section near the end that explains how to use the expression “Wenn schon, denn schon,” it says “Or if you go from long hair to bold…”
That last word should be “bald,” not “bold”.
Oh, thanks. One of my favorite spelling mistakes mistakes.
Meine Mutter “Wenn ween nicht war war Kuh Scheisse Butter”
Great post as always but I have a question… why are you saying wenn shouldn’t be used in the past if sentences like ” Wenn sie Zeit hatte, ging sie immer ins Kino.” or “Sie kamen nach hause,wenn sie kein Geld mehr hatten.” are correct. ?
the way I learned is that we use als with single events in the past and wenn with things that happenned in the past on a regular basis. (in this case both meaning when, not if.)
Or would you say those 2 examples above are kinda conditional.. cause we dont know if they’ll happen again…
btw, viele dank! :)
You’re totally correct. For reoccurring events in the past, you’d use “wenn” too. The article is quite old already and back when I wrote it I simply overlooked that important bit. I really should add that. Thanks for the heads up :) !!
wenn: something uncertain in the future,certain (theoritically) in these present
Als: the same in past
Is that correct?
Hmm… not really. “Als” is never uncertain. “Als” is what happened. It’s the real world. You’d use “wenn” even in past for conditional things (because they are not the real world)
– Wenn ich das gewusst hätte…
– Als ich das gewusst hätte… makes no sense.
Hope that helps
Wenn is still a little slippery for me. How would you translate “it is not a question of if it happens, but when it happens” (wenn/wann?)
Also, what would a German immediately think when hearing “ich fahre in Urlaub, wenn das Wetter gut ist” . Is it I go on vacation ONLY if the weather is good (but not necessarily), or I go on vacations ON those days with good weather (necessarily so). The first seems more than IF and the second WHEN. I heard it translated as when, but noticed the two possibilities. Is it possible to tell? Thanks!
So about the first question, that would be
– Es ist keine Frage von wann sondern ob es passiert.
The “if” in this case is a whether-if, which is not ever gonna be “wenn”.
As for the vacation example…. I don’t really know. I’d say it’s more like the second translation. If I wanted to emphasize that I only do it then, I would put a “nur” in there. But depending on context it can be a general statement as well as one expressing a condition
– I go on vacation whenever the weather is good.
– I’ll go on vacation if the weather is good. If not, then I won’t.
how would you use ‘wenn’ with a seperable verbs.
e.g wenn ich um 7 uhr stehe auf.
would that be correct? thanx
It would be
– Wenn ich um 7 aufstehe,…
There’s a simple logic behind it. Here’s a normal sentence.
– Ich stehe um 7 auf.
We have verb at position 2 and the prefix at the end. What happens if you make that a side sentence by using “dass” or “wenn” or “ob” or etc is that the verb from position 2 moves all the way to the end. Here, it is “stehe”.
So we have
– Wenn ich ____ (verb used to be here) um 7 auf stehe.
The “gravity” between a verb and its prefix just makes it one again… so “aufstehe”.
The example above: “Ich rufe dich an wenn ich mein Handy finde.” is translated to “I will call you when/if I find my phone.”
In this case, how would you say, “I will call you if and when I find my phone.”?
Hmm… I guess that would be
– Ich rufe dich an wenn ich mein Handy finde, falls ich’s finde (after thought)
– Ich rufe dich, falls ich mein Handy finde, wenn/sobald ich’s finde, an.
I put the “an” final here to sort of frame two clauses (“wenn” and falls”). If they were just in a row at the end, the sentence would sound disjointed and odd.
thank you very much , your site is really awesome
speaking of ” when ” could you please help me translating this one ? :
—i am looking forward for the days when every thing will get better
i have tried and came up with :
—ich freue mich auf die tage wenn alles besser sein wird
ist das richtig ??
danke im voraus :)
Ja, ist richtig. I would probably skip the future tense and say
– Ich freu mich auf die Tage, wenn alles wieder besser ist.
“sein wird” sounds a little technical and stiff. But the “wenn” is totally fine.
Gestern habe ich was in meinem Deutschbuch gefunden. Es sagte, dass die Wörter “wenn” und “dass” die Zeitform des Konjunktivs benutzen (zum Bespiel, der letzte Satz hätte es benutzt). Ich habe das nie zuvor gesehen und es macht mich sehr verwirrt. Kannst du bitte mir das erklären? Ist es nur den alten Stil und keiner benutzt es noch heute? Ich hoffe, ich muss keine ganze neue Zeitform lernen… Deutsch ist schwierig…
Also da sage ich mal… nein nein nein :)… das ist nicht nur alt sondern falsch. Zumindest wenn man es so pauschal sagt.
Und der Konjunktiv … ich mach da bald mal einen Artikel zu. Einen Teil musst du lernen, aber den Konjunktiv 1 nicht, es sei denn, du willst Journalist werden :)
Ich habe meinen Lehrer darüber gefragt und er hat die gleiche Sache gesagt.
Ich habe keine Sorge, einen Journalist zu werden, also ich werde vielleicht nur gerade jetzt diesen Teil überspringen, weil es mich nur verwirrt macht.