What the heck do wo-words mean?

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another part of our German is Easy Learn German Online online German-Learning Course for German online learning learners.
And after we’ve done some easy-peasy lemon-squeezy  words the last few times, I think it’s time to do some grammar.
Now that would be your turn to say “Yeay” or “Swell!”… come on… no cheer? We’ll do GRAMMAR!… nothing?
Hmmm okay, I guess you’re exited internally. And you should be because today, we’ll take an intense look at the


Or how a reader recently called them… the woe-words.
Woran, wonach, wobei, wogegen, wovon, vomit. Those ones. Today, we’ll learn what they mean and when and how to use them.
And just to get it out of the way… of course English has wo-words to… the where-words. Whereby, wherein, whereon and so on. But the use is so different that we’ll kind of just ignore them here.
That said, are you ready to expose another elusive  and intriguing bit of the German language for the boring complicated structure crap it actually is?
Cool :).

Wo-words are the counterpart of the infamous da-words. They’re like Yin and Yang. They do totally different things and you can NEVER interchange them, but still they are deeply connected to each other and they both come from the same background… the German fetish for location. German LOOOOVES to talk about location and it is very precise about it… just think of the whole hin and her insanity, or the bazillion prepositions or … the word da. Da means there and both are a the most  basicest answer to the question where.

  • Where? There.
  • Wo? Da.

One asks, the other answers. Don’t know if that’s really Yin and Yang but da and wo are definitely connected.
Now, Germans love this baby-word da so much, they even use it if they could just use a pronoun like normal languages do. Instead of saying über das (about that/it) people say darüber (lit. thereover) and so on.
All right. If we want to know what that is, we can ask for it. In English we’d it like this:

  • “What are you happy about?
    About that.” (pointing to pony)

About what? About that. One asks, the other answers. Looking at darüber we can see that da does the answering.
Guess who asks…

Wo-words as question words

Just like the da replaces the that, the wo replaces the what.

  • What are you happy about?
  • Worüber freust du dich?

Beginners often get tripped up by the wo. But it has NOTHING to do with location.

  • Worum geht es in dem Buch?

Questions starting with wo can be what-questions. As long as you keep that in mind, it doesn’t even matter that much if you don’t understand the preposition exactly. It probably doesn’t make sense and is a different one than in English anyway :)

  • What is the book about?
  • Wonach sehnst du dich?
  • What are you yearning for?

These wo-questions are really common,and  I would say that they are used more broadly and with more prepositions than the English what-questions.

  • Wobei hast du dich verletzt?
  • Where did you get the injury from?
    What did you injure yourself by? (lit)
  • Hmmm… wonach riecht das denn hier?
  • What’s that smell?
    What does it smell after? (lit)

Now, this whole core idea isn’t all that difficult but of course it takes a while to get used to it. Just remember… if you hear a question that starts with wo but makes absolutely no sense as a question about location… it was probably a wo-word. And often you can guess what is being asked for from context.
And as far as using them yourself goes, I have good news. The need for wo-words is not as strict as it is for the da-words. That means that you can actually use the “normal” way without it sounding totally wrong…  mit was, von was, auf was. People do say that a lot and for some phrasings the wo-word even starts to sound a little tiny bit stiff… in spoken language that is.

  • Auf was/worauf hast du Appetit?
  • What would you like to eat?
    (Lit.) On what are you having an appetite?

Both are possible and I think I’d actually use auf was. Or at least 50-50. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn them.  I just wanted to mention that so you don’t feel fooled… like … you’re going the extra mile to get the wo-words right only to find all the natives merrily going like “nach was, bei was, durch was” :).
Knowing the wo-words and having a feel for them IS helpful, and, as we’ll see, there are even situation where not using them could change the meaning… dun dun dunnnnn
(Ha…that old “changes the meaning”-scare just never gets old)
But before we get to that, let’s dwell on the questions for a little bit.

So far, all the questions were direct. But just like all other question-words, wo-words can be used for indirect questions.

  • What did Thomas open his beer with?”…  direct question
  • I’d be great if you could tell me what Thomas opened his beer with?…
    indirect question used to ask something.
  • Maria asked what Thomas opened his beer with. …
    indirect question fused for reported speech

Indirect questions often look a bit different than their direct counterparts. No matter what language, we might have to adjust some pronouns… like, changing “you” to “me” or something. In English we also might have to remove a do or did and change the other verb a bit, and in German the most crucial change is something all too familiar… we have to move the verb to the end. Very creative, German. So… indirect questions are side-sentences… just like sentences with dass or weil.

  • Womit hat Thomas sein Bier aufgemacht?”… that is direct.
  • Ich habe Maria gefragt, womit Thomas sein Bier aufgemacht hat.

Now, indirect questions are actually not limited to stuff like the example… asking without asking or reporting what someone asked. We’ll get into more detail when we talk about indirect questions (comin’ up… at some point :), so for today let me just say that indirect questions are … boxes.  What does that mean, boxes? I’ll add a link to the article on boxes below but for now let’s just say that boxes answer to one one question. Wait …. so indirect question answers to a question??
I know it sounds odd, but it’s not.

  • “What’d she say?”
    What I needed to hear.”
    “Wow, that’s awesome.”

This is an indirect question and it is perfectly valid answer.
So… indirect questions are boxes, answering to one question. Examples:

  • I asked her [what she wanted to eat].

Here, the indirect question is a what-box. I could replace it with [something], or [her name] and still have a correct sentence.

  • “Maria lives [where she always wanted to live].”
    “So she finally moved to a farm.”

Here, the indirect question is a where-box. It answers the question “Where does Maria live?”. Of course, it’s not helpful if you don’t know anything about Maria’s dreams, but hey, if you don’t know what Paris is, that would be just as meaningless.
So, indirect questions are boxes and that is of course also true for indirect wo-word-questions.

  • [Wonach Meditierende suchen],    ist Schnellerleuchtung.
  • [What people who power-meditate are looking for]   is instant-enlightenment.
  •  [What I was most happy about]    was the poem.
  • [Worüber ich mich am meisten gefreut habe],    war das Gedicht.
  • Ich versuche mich daran zu erinnern,  [ womit meine Omi immer die Möhrensuppe gewürzt hat.]
  • I’m trying to remember    [ what my granny used to season her carrot soup with.]

All right.
Now let’s do something really crazy… the indirect question that is in the box, is kind of like one unit. How about we slap an article to it…. we do that in English sometimes, too.

  • All her do-the-dishes and clean-the-bathrooms  get on my nerves.

Do the dishes was a sentence. Do the dishes! And then we just nounified it. Because we can. So let’s do that with one of our indirect question boxes.

  • [Worauf ich mich am meisten freue] ist die kühle Bergluft.
  • [what I’m looking forward to most] is the crisp air in the mountains.

That’s the original.

  • Das Worauf-ich-mich-am-meisten-freue
  • The what-I-am-lookig-forward-to-most

That’s our new kick ass noun. And now let’s plug this into our example.

  • [Das, worauf ich mich am meisten freue], ist die kühle Bergluft.

Tadah… we’ve just created an example for a wo-word used as a relative pronoun.

Wo-words as relative pronouns

Relative pronouns are words that mark or set up relative clauses. And relative clauses are clauses that refer to something or someone that has been said before.

  • The man, who eats pizza, is pretty.

The English relative pronouns are who (whom, whose), which, that and … well… nothing. Like here:

  • The man (____)  I meant ate pizza

The rules for when to use which one and when to skip them are not exactly super easy to digest, but it is little more than an upset belly.
German relative pronouns are salmonella.
They all get “numbered”, “gendered” and “cased”. And by all I mean all. Even the ones that aren’t there in English, because…  well…

“Hey German, .. that one word there, we don’t really need it.
What about we just skip it.”
“Skipping? Hmmm… really.. hmm… I don’t know… can we do that, I mean,
is that safe?  …I…. uh….  I think I’ll keep it, if that’s okay.”

That’s especially annoying for English native speakers because they have to first realize that there is actually something being skipped.
Then, there is a difference being made between definite and indefinite and, last but not least, there are the wo-words. Those might come into play when the relative pronoun refers to a thing AND is combined with a preposition.

  • The beer of which I have dreamed all my life has finally been brewed – Bud Light.
    (Dear Mr. August Busch IV, please send the check within a week)

So, this would be a case for a wo-word, right? Well… not really. Wo-word MIGHT be needed if there is a relative pronoun and a preposition. That doesn’t mean that they always will be.
So… when do we need them? Well, that  isn’t really a question of right or wrong. It is more of a continuum… one the one end, there are situation where we MUST use them, then there is a huge blurry area where we can use them and then there aree phrasings where they would be wrong… or alter the meaning. DUNN DUNNNN DUNNNNNNNNNNNNNN.
Now, because there is no right or wrong, we need to get a “feel” for the wo-words. And the whole question-background actually helps a great deal.
You see, technically ,many of the example for indirect question we had earlier are considered relative clauses already.

  • I like [what I see].

In standard grammar the what-part would be called a free relative clause ( free because it doesn’t refer to anything from the main sentence) I don’t know… this doesn’t really make much sense to me, or better… I can’t really see a clear difference between these free relative clauses and indirect questions then. It’s kind of the same stuff. Maybe that’s actually the reason why often relative pronouns and question words are twins.. like who, which and where in English or quien, cual and que in Spanish.
But anyways… it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the wo-words are first and foremost question words. Questions refer to stuff that is vague, open, undefined, unclear. And that’s exactly what wo-words are good for… to refer to vague, empty things. And this brings us back to the example that we all have forgotten by now :)

  • Das, worauf ich mich am meisten freue, ist die kühle Bergluft.

Remember… we just kind of added an article to the indirect question.
From a relative pronoun point of view, the worauf refers to das, but what is das? It means nothing. Could be a singular or a plural, could be masculine or feminine, could be anything. It is completely vague and generic. English would even put in a generic thing 

  • The thing I am looking forward to most….

German doesn’t need that. It just leaves the das there dangling in all its vagueness, and the wo-word refers to it. Because that’s what they do, that’s what all question words do… refer to completely unknown stuff.
So this is kind of the one end of the continuum, the pole where we really NEED the wo-words.  And the generic das  is not the only possible “vague phrase”. We could for instance add an adjective.

  • Das einzige, woran ich mich erinnern kann, ist, dass ich zu einer Betriebsfeier gefahren bin.
  • The only thing (that) I can remember is that I went to a company party.

Das einzige is completely vague by itself. The only WHAT?? And that’s why  woran with all its questiony-ness works much better than an das would… although people do say that in spoken.
These phrasings with just das and an adjective followed by a wo-word sentence are super common in German so I’m sure you will see them.
And there are a few others that work the same … let me call them amount-words…  viel, wenig, alles, nichts

  • Alles, worum ich dich bitte, ist, den Klodeckel runterzuklappen.
  • All (that) I ask you for is to close the toilet lid.
  • Es gibt viel, womit ich nicht zufrieden bin.
  • There’s a lot (that) I’m not satisfied with.
  • Der leichte Gewinnrückgang ist nichts, worüber man sich Sorgen machen müsste.
  • The slight drop in profits is nothing, about which one would have to worry.
  • The slight drop in profits is nothing to worry about.

Now, when we were talking about questions we learned that the need for wo-words isn’t super strict. Is that the same here? Like… could we NOT use wo-words with this generic das and just say

  • Das, auf das ich mich am meisten freue…

The answer is: not really. It’s understandable but it sounds pretty bad…. because, the lonely das isn’t anything … just an article of sorts. And if there is nothing, we cannot use a pointer like das.
Things would be different, if we put in a generic noun.

  • Diese  App ist (das), woran Thomas die letzten 10 Monate gearbeitet hat.
  • This app is what Thomas had been working on for the last 10 months
  • Diese App ist die Sache, an der Thomas…
  • This app is the thing (that ) Thomas has been working on

IN the first example we have the completely empty das… which isn’t even needed and could be skipped for good style. In the second example, we have die Sache, which is pretty generic too… but only content-wise. From a grammar point of view, it is a well established entity… die Sache, noun, singular, feminine. Sure we could use some more information ABOUT Sache but we don’t need the information that it is a Sache to begin with.
This last example brings us right into the very HUGE gray area of phrasings where people use either version… the wo-word-version or the non-vo-vord-wers… gee, that’s hard to pronounce :)

  • Gibt es eine App, womit/mit der man ausrechnen kann, wann man das nächste mal pinkeln gehen muss?
  • Is there an app (lit.: with which) that calculates the time until we have to go pee again.
  • Viele Leute haben ein Einkommen, von dem/wovon man nicht leben kann.
  • Too many people have an income (lit.: of which) that is not enough . (how could I say that more elegantly?)
  • Epiliergeräte sind ein Thema, worüber/über das man mit Männern nicht reden kann.
  • Epilators are something (that)  you cannot talk about with men.

There are MANY examples like this, where people use either, depending on region, education, personal preference or success at the morning constitutional… it’s really a continuum. The more common choice in all these examples are the non-wo-word-versions, but the wo-version is not rare either… here’s result from a Google search.

  • “ein Thema über das man”  – 222.000
  • “ein Thema worüber man” – 92.300

For the neuter nouns, it seems to make less of a difference than for masculine and feminine ones. For those, the wo-version really sounds odd to me and  Google supports that.

  • “eine App, mit der man” – 1.2 million (I much prefer this one, btw)
  • “eine App, womit man” – 77.000

So when should we use the wo-words?
In my opinion it would be best to only use them if we really have to… that is, if we have the generic das or  one of these phrasing.  Whenever we have  an article followed by an actual NOUN… like

  • a/the [noun]

then, the real relative pronoun will probably be the better choice. And the harder one… because relative pronouns really do suck in German and I am glad I don’t have to learn this crap.
All right, now there is one more use for the wo-words. Not a useful use for daily conversation but one, where not using a wo-word would actually alter the meaning… you know how it goes… dun dun dun.

One more use for wo-words

Let’s start with an example.

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto, worauf ich mich sehr freue.
  • I’ll go with the car,  which I am really looking forward to. (lit)
    (is that remotely possible in English?)
  • I’ll be taking the car. I’m looking forward to that.

Grammatically, the worauf-part is a relative sentence. And it refers to, not a thing or a person but the  full fact that is communicated in the container-sentence.
These kinds of sentences are ALWAYS done with wo-words. Auf das would not work here at all.
And it makes sense.

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto, auf das ich mich sehr freue.

The das refers to car. It cannot refer to the “fact” because das  needs a well established, verbalized anchor … not unframed meta-stuff like “the fact”.  So this sentence means that I’ll go by “the car I am looking forward to”. For example the new German is Easy company Porsche we’ll get next week. On an unrelated note… I will add a donation button below.
But anyways…. so  auf das clearly refers to the car. Technically, worauf could refer to the car as well. But it won’t be understood that way, usually. Why not? Because the car is too defined. Remember… wo-word are question words. They frame vagueness. Not to well established, verbalized things.
The whole worauf-part in the example is just a slapped on tag for the sentence. We could see it as a shortened version of this:

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto. Das (refers to the fact) ist, worauf ich mich sehr freue.
  • I’ll be taking the car. That is what I’m looking forward to.

Let’s do some more example.

  • In dem Restaurant braucht man unbedingt eine Reservierung, worüber der Manager nicht informiert war.
  • You need a reservation for that restaurant, something (which ) the manager didn’t know about.
  • Die lokale Regierung zog die Abbaukonzession zurück, wozu es durch den öffentlich Druck gezwungen war.
  • The parliament withdrew the building permit, a measure (that) it was forced to by public pressure.

The German versions don’t need to verbalize what the wo-part is referring to,because German simply has more relative pronouns to chose from. But that’s not for today … we’ve definitely done enough. Man, this was quite a bit of theorizitationing. But I hop you could get some grasp of the wo-words.

Super quick recap… wo-words are the basically a combination of a preposition and wo and they are used instead of a combination of a preposition and what?

  • auf was = worauf
  • an was = woran
  • mit was = womit

The most important use is that as a question word, both for direct and indirect questions. You don’t have to use them but you will hear them, so if you hear an initial wo in a question that is clearly not about place… it’s probably a wo-word.
Wo-words are also used as relative pronouns, and we’ve seen that it is kind of hard to tell where a question-word ends and the pronouns starts… but it doesn’t matter anyway. The point of the  wo-words is that they refer to vagueness, and the main use apart the question is to “fill” a generic das

  • Das, woran ich mich erinnern muss, ist…
  • What I have to remember is … .

If you have any questions about the wo-words or if you feel like you didn’t quite understand something of today…I mean… it was quite a bit of theory after all… so, if you have doubt, please please go ahead and ask. And of course if you want to try some examples or if you just want to troll you’re welcome too :)
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


Further reading:

4.4 7 votes
Article Rating

Newsletter for free?!

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Your Thoughts and Questions

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 months ago

“f you hear a question that starts with wo but makes absolutely no sense as a question about location… it was probably a wo-word”

O_o.. I don’t understand, why are you saying the wo word is a wo-word again? Isn’t it what it is?

4 months ago

Die lokale Regierung zog die Abbaukonzession zurück, wozu es durch den öffentlich Druck gezwungen war.

Hello, Emanuel, I don’t really understand this sentence. What is this “es”? Because we had two female nouns before the comma. Shouldn’t it be “sie”, referring to die Abbkaukonzession, while the “wozu” refers to die Regierung?

1 year ago

Emanuel shiny good morning to you! I know you are tired enough and Ich hoffe, es geht dir gut, vor allem in Bezug auf das Problem mit deinem Rücken. Emanuel, I have some questions about da-words (wo-words were ok, I will complete the lesson today), BUT Emanuel if you do not have enough time or you are too tired und du brauchst etwas Ruhe..I’ll take notes und wir reden an einem anderen Tag. Ich vermisse mit dir zu reden, auch wenn es Fragen über die Übung sind in der Seite. Unfortunately I can’t hear you live, I wish I could, but only read you. However always ich genieße deine Ratschläge und die Art wie du sich ausdrücken, aber ich höre dich generell gerne beim Reden zu, das ist eine Fähigkeit, die nur sehr wenige Menschen haben!! :-) Anyway, rede ich schon zu viel auf der Seite..Get your rest and answer when you have time or be able to. Beides, you are the one consult me, not to have stress, right? So, schlägt eine Fee einem Einhorn vor, sei nicht so müde…Ich weiß, du hast viel mehr Ausdauer und Kraft hast, ich habe deine muskuläre und körperliche Stärke gesehen…aber warum gehst du nicht auf deinen Regenbogen und ruhst dich ein wenig aus? Du hast es verdient Emanuel…!!! :•)

1 year ago

c cccc c

2 years ago

Instead of saying ich fahre mit dem Auto, worauf ich mich sehr freue, can you not say ich fahre mit dem Auto, was ich mich sehr freue.?

2 years ago

So, when you use wo-compounds to refer for vagueness, can you use them for statements you say or are they for indirect questions?

3 years ago

I feel like the box as indirect question needs more detailing, I felt out of context during the explanation of it.

3 years ago

Too many people have an income (lit.: of which) that is not enough . (how could I say that more elegantly?)

Too many people have an income that is not enough to live on… with which you couldn’t live… that one cannot live with… and many permutations of those are acceptable.

I’ll go with the car, which I am really looking forward to. (lit)
(is that remotely possible in English?)

Yes, it works, but to an English reader it sounds like the sentence isn’t complete, like the ‘which’ clause is leading into a reason, but there’s none there and then our minds are confused by the lack of completion for a thought that we assumed would be expressed. We like assuming. We’re constantly assuming what you’re going to say before you say it, and the which clause sounds like an incomplete thought because there’s probably a reason for why you’re looking forward to it, which is what we really want to know. Like ‘… which I am really looking forward to, because [something]’. The actual comma and pause before which makes me feel that the which was interjected into the sentence, just for some insight to be shared later, and when it ends with just a which clause, I’m confused and have to reread the sentence to get the meaning, or in speaking, I would immediately ask ‘why?’ because that’s actually what I care about immediately. I’d probably express the clause with ‘and I’m really looking forward to it’ if that was my only point to make, and no reason was needed.

The empty Editor's office
The empty Editor's office
3 years ago

Just some criticism, take or leave it as you please.

You should take some time to proof read your English texts, remove the cruft and stabilise the progression of thoughts. Although well meaning this has been written like a transcribed conversation rather than English intended to be read. The rapid jumps to and from ideas are distracting and rely on the reader to keep track of your multiple lines of thinking. (I.E Waffling.)

When giving examples, don’t make the reader search for the equivalent example in German. Similarly don’t add humorous interludes. It distracts the reader from what they were following.

When providing the English, don’t over translate. For example “Bergluft” translates in the perfectly useful “mountain air”, it does not need to be elaborated into “the crisp air in the mountains.” Such over translating is not just confusing, but incorrect. Translating for meaning is only needed in the special cases of there being no natural translation, such as with idioms.

1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I love your jokes! And I think that it’s just not that big of a deal when you have typos in English. I understand what you’re saying and your English is 1000x better than my German. I think it makes it feel like a person who really understands the feel for their own language is making a good faith effort to explain it in a way people would actually *use*. So much of what I learned of German in college (I took 4 years btw!) never included colloquialisms of mal/hin/her/wo/da, which made trying to become fluent impossible because I was always searching for prefix verbs that didn’t exist or directly translating in a way that makes no sense.

Thank youuuuuu

1 year ago

I just…. could not disagree more

5 years ago

“the woe-words.
Woran, wonach, wobei, wogegen, wovon, vomit. ”

6 years ago

Thank you so much! I did get it reversed. I guess we have different versions of the terms in mind haha

My version is:
– Free relative: the main clause is complete, regardless of the presence or non-presence of the relative clause.
– Bound relative: the main clause is not complete, it has to be joined by this bound relative clause to be complete.

Your version is:
– Free relative: the relative clause can stand alone.
– Bound relative: the relative clause can’t stand alone, it must attach to the main clause to make sense.

I think your definitions of the terms are linguistically correct. I always get confused by these terms.

6 years ago

So what I understand is:
Definite articles like der/die/das and da-words are used in free relative clauses, and wo-words are used in bound relative clauses or relative clauses that comments on a whole sentence. Is that correct?

6 years ago

I came across this article after a long time struggling with wo/da in sentences that aren’t indirect questions (mit dem/womit, etc). Every other site or article I’d seen about wo and da compounds seemed to completely overlook this aspect. This article has really helped me to understand the use of ‘wo’ in these situations. Thanks a lot!

7 years ago

Numerous efforts are made to learn the vocabulary words, but all the efforts goes in vain when they learnt words are not retained in the memory for ever. So for retaining the words for a longer duration of time visit http://www.vocabmonk.com and unlock all the amazing features.

7 years ago

Wow great post! I’ve just started learning German, and your blog looks like it will be a great reference tool. I’m blogging about my experience at http://cathleenblogs.wordpress.com

8 years ago

You asked if it was possible to say this sentence “I’ll go with the car, which I am really looking forward to.” I’d say it works if you say “forward to doing” to bring in the emphasis on the action rather than one noun. It’s not the sort of thing I’d use in non-casual writing, but I’m sure it gets said in conversation. To be really nit-picky, though, (and partially contradict my first suggestion), I’d say “I’m going with the car…looking forward to.” The use of present continuous here suggests that this is a plan, not just a sudden idea, and so it sounds more natural to use with “looking forward to.” And then it’s your choice if you want to keep “doing” at the end of the sentence.

8 years ago

Wow, this was really informative, and after reading this a couple times, I realize I was even further off base than I’d thought. I’m glad you made a point of explaining why the “Wo-word” are very different grammatically, really, from the “Da-words”. In fact, a lot more different than I initially would have thought. Seeing “wo” connected to so many of the same other words as “da” had me thinking there was a closer association between the two in practice, but I usually couldn’t make them work, and now it is clear why that is. So thanks for that. Secondly, I’m also glad you went to pains to explain that the “wo” in these constructions doesn’t really have any connection to “where.” That also seemed apparent from the context where I’d see the words used, but I’m relieved to see you actually state plainly that we shouldn’t be looking for some connection to “where” because my brain had still continued to try to do that when I come across these words! I’m sure others have the same experience. I’ve read over this blog entry twice now, and I’m sure I’ll be doing it even more times — there is a lot of very good information here to absorb and get a feel for — plus, your injecting humor all over the place makes it fun to do it anyway. You clearly put a lot of time, thought, and effort into this lesson and I’m grateful for it. Like your other essay on the “Da-words”, I have the feeling that thanks to Google, you’ll see the hits and comments continue to increase for a long time to come. I’d done other searches on this subject in the past and NONE of them came anywhere close to getting deep into the nuts and bolts of how these words are, you know, actually used correctly in German. Most of them do state that it is essential to understand how and when to use them, and then they just sort of skim over the important details and understandable, clear explanations that had us searching for those answers in the first place! So, well done and a sincere thank you once again! ;-)

8 years ago

I think I can explain the free relative thing, at least with respect to English. We (and by “we”, I mean “English”) have three kinds of things that can begin with a wh-word. One is the standard relative clause. In most dialects, these can start with “who”, “which”, or “where” (or “that” or nothing), but not with “what”: (1) The man [who I met yesterday] turned out to be really famous. The other two, indirect questions and free relative clauses, can both start with a greater variety of wh-words, but not with “that”. Like you said, they look pretty much the same. But what’s interesting are the differences. (Look, I just used a free relative!) The things we usually call indirect questions take the place of full clauses. Often, these are places where the meaning really does correspond to a question: (2) Sophie asked me [who I met yesterday]. (= Sophie asked me, “Who did you meet yesterday?”) (3) I wonder [who Sophie ate lunch with yesterday]. (= I wonder: Who did Sophie eat lunch with yesterday?) Other times, this is less clear. (4) is an indirect question. (4) I know [who Sophie ate lunch with yesterday]. (= I know that Sophie ate lunch with somebody yesterday, and I know the answer to the question “Who did Sophie eat lunch with yesterday”?) Okay, but that looks a lot like a free relative. And indeed, we can put a relative clause in the same position: (5) I know the man [who Sophie ate lunch with yesterday]. But! (4) and (5) mean totally different things. I can say (4) if I know that Sophie had lunch with someone named Henry, but I have no idea who in the hell Henry could be. On the other hand, for (5) to be true, I have to be acquainted with Sophie’s lunch companion. In this case, the actual free relative sounds kind of weird — I need to use “whoever” here instead of “who”, but the meaning corresponds to (5), not to the indirect question in (4): (6) I know [whoever Sophie ate lunch with yesterday]. (= I know Henry, Tom, Joanne, and anyone else Sophie could have eaten with.) The point is: Indirect questions always correspond to whole clauses. Free relatives correspond to nouns. Maybe this is easier to see when we have a free relative in a place where we would never find an indirect question. (You can’t say, for example, “Sophie told whether she witnessed the murder to the investigators”) (7) Sophie told [what she knew] to the investigators. The meaning of (7) is something like “Sophie told the facts [that she knew] to the investigators” or “Sophie told something to the investigators”. The free relative here takes the place of a noun, and can always be paraphrased by a regular relative clause like “the facts that she knew”. The reason they’re called “free” relatives is that they’re missing their “head” — the noun that they attach to. Regular relative: [The place… Read more »

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

“In the first sentence, the adjective refers to the whole fact. In the second it refers to the person specified. So maybe we could say that we’re looking at a free relative if whatever is referred to in the clause itself is ALSO referred to in the main sentence, while in an indirect question, the thing referred to in the clause has no role outside of it, but instead the fact itself.”

I think this is exactly right. And in the last case, it can be both because “tell” can be followed either by a noun (tell me a story) or by a whole sentence (tell me [that] you love me).

8 years ago

Hei Emmanuel,
Noch ein toller Artikel !
Meine versuche:
1)Als direktes fragewort : Woran denkst du ? Ich denke an ihr.
2) Als relativpronomen und indirectes fragewort: Der messer, womit ich das brot geschnitten habe , ist schwarz .
Bis bald Ahmad

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader
8 years ago
Reply to  Anonymous

“an ihr” geht nicht, da “an” in dem Fall den Akkusativ erfordert.

Das Messer, mit dem…

8 years ago

Vielen dank .

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel


8 years ago

Great article as always!

So if i want to say, “Vienna is the city where I come from” (yes, a bit contrived I know), I would say:

Wien ist die Stadt, woraus ich komme.

Wäre das richtig?

8 years ago
Reply to  ads

In this case I think “die Stadt, aus der ich komme” is better.