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Don’t Let It Confuse You! – Wenn Posted by on Feb 6, 2020 in Grammar, Language

In previous posts in this series, we’ve looked at words that exist in English, yet really mean something else in German. Today, we’ll take a look at a word that sounds pretty much the same as the English word, and mostly means the same, but it can get pretty confusing: the word wenn. Doesn’t it just mean “when”? Well, kind of. Let’s clear it up.

For previous posts in this series, click here.

Expectation: Wenn just means “when”!

Wenn du um vier Uhr kommen kannst, können wir uns treffen. (If you can make it at four, we can meet up.) (Image by Malvestida Magazine at Unsplash.com)

Perhaps, when hearing wenn, you would expect it to simply mean the same as in English: “when”. In English, where you use “when”, you refer to a future situation or condition that you are certain of. Where this situation or condition is only possible, or perhaps even unreal, you would use “if”.1Kudos to the Cambridge Dictionary for the simple explanation!

But how is that in German? If wenn just means “when”, how do Germans say “if”? Well, guess what…

Reality: Wenn means BOTH “if” and “when”!

Wenn du dein Eis fallen lässt, kannst du es nicht mehr essen! (If you drop your ice cream, you can no longer eat it!) (Image by Sarah Kilian at Unsplash.com)

Wenn means both “if” and “when”! Not having to wonder about whether your sentence is exuding certainty or not, you can simply use the same word. Could this be the only time German is actually easier and more straightforward than English? No, actually.

In English, you immediately know that “if” prefaces an uncertain situation. “When” gives whatever the sentence says certainty – it’ll be something that is going to happen. Wenn simply does not give that certainty.

What also makes it a bit more complicated is that wenn can be used both as a konditionale Satzverbindung (conditional clause linkage) and a temporale Satzverbindung (temporal clause linkage). Where in English, “if” is always conditional, “when” is always temporal. This is where it can get confusing for English speakers.

Examples of the use of wenn

Examples where wenn is used as konditionale Satzverbindung:

Wenn ich mich gut benehme, darf ich ein Eis. (If I behave well, I can have an ice cream cone.)

Wenn das Licht aus geht, ist die Glühbirne kaputt. (If the light goes out, the light bulb is broken.)

Examples where wenn is used as a temporale Satzverbindung:

Wenn sie Zuhause ist, mache ich Abendbrot. (When she’s home, I’ll make evening bread.)

Lege dich hin, wenn du dich schlecht fühlst. (lie down if/when you don’t feel good.)

If the conditional or temporal meaning of wenn is not clear (like in the last example), there are different ways to make the “if” more distinct:

Lege dich hin, falls du dich schlecht fühlst. (lie down in case you don’t feel good.)

Ich sage dir bescheid, ob er vorbei kommt. (I will let you know if he comes by.)

But in German, we do have a word that can make this distinction – falls. Falls is basically a shorthand for für den Fall/im Fall (in case of). So you could use Falls to make it very clear that you’re making a conditional sentence:

Wenn der Ofen aus ist, wird er nicht warm. (When the oven is off, it does not heat up.)

Falls der Ofen aus ist, mach’ ihn bitte an. (If the oven is off, please turn it on.)

What about wann?

If you’ve heard of wenn, you’ve probably also heard of wann. While it looks and sounds similar, and also translates to “when”, wann is a bit different. Wann is the adverb usually used in questions to ask for a Zeitpunkt (point in time)Wenn is never used as a question word for a Zeitpunkt. Here are some examples:

Wann kommst du nach Hause? (When are you coming home?)

Ich frage mich, wann er nach Hause kommt. (I am wondering when he’s coming home.)

Weißt du, wann der Laden schließt? (Do you know when the store closes?)

If you would want to make these wann conditional, you would NOT use wenn, but ob:

Ich frage mich, ob er nach Hause kommt. (I am wondering if he’s coming home.)

Weißt du, ob der Laden schließt? (Do you know if the store closes?)

These are the basics of using wann. If you want a more in-depth explanation of wann and where to use it, this website explains it in more detail.

The main takeaway is: When and wenn are not the same, and wenn is a lot more versatile! Have you been confused by these before? Is there another word that confused you? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, and I am half Dutch and half German. I was on exchange in the United States, and I really enjoyed that year! So in that sense, I kind of have three nationalities... I love all of them!


Comments:

  1. mjk63:

    As a native English speaker, the phrase “If the light turns off” sounds awkward, it seems someone has turned the switch off. “If the light goes out” sounds like the bulb burned out on its own, which, strangely, is a literal rendering of the German “aus geht”.

    • Sten:

      @mjk63 Good point, that makes more sense. I changed it!


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