When English speakers want to say “when” in German, it’s hard to know which word to choose. In this week’s Wort der Woche post on the word als, I touched upon the distinction between the words als, wenn, wann. I’d like to explore the issue further and give a simple Q & A procedure for learners to follow to figure out which word to choose.
(1) Are you asking a question? Then use wann.
Wann bist du heute morgen aufgestanden?
When did you get up this morning?
Wann möchtet ihr uns besuchen?
When would you like to visit us?
(2) Does your statement contain an indirect question? These also require wann.
The important thing to note here is that wann means at what time, at what point in time. The word is a placeholder. The speaker doesn’t know at what time or at what point in time.
Sag mir, wann du heute morgen aufgestanden bist.
Tell me when (at what time) you got up this morning.
Wisst ihr, wann ihr uns besuchen möchtet?
Do you know when (at what time / at what point in time) you would like to visit us?
Wann er kommen will, hat er mir nicht gesagt.
When (at what time / at what point in time) he plans to come, he did not say (to me).
(3) Are you talking about a time in the present or future? If so, then use wenn.
Wenn der Film zu Ende ist, machen wir das Licht wieder an.
When the movie is over we will turn the light back on.
Die Kinder spielen draußen, wenn der Regen aufhört.
The children will play outside when the rain stops.
(4) Are you stating a condition (when … then)? This could be in any verb tense. If so, use wenn.
Wenn wir genug Geld gespart haben, fahren wir in Urlaub.
When we have saved enough money, we will go on vacation.
(5) Are you talking about the past AND can you use the English whenever in place of when? If yes, use wenn.
These sentences frequently contain the word immer somewhere to emphasize the repetitive or habitual nature of the activity described. Whenever suggests that every time a condition was met, a particular result or event followed.
Wenn er Hunger hatte, ist er immer in den Imbiss an der Ecke gegangen.
When(ever) he was hungry, he always went to the fast food place on the corner.
Immer wenn ich meine Oma besuchte, haben wir zusammen Kekse gebacken.
When(ever) I visited my grandma, we always baked cookies together.
(6) Having come this far, chances are you are talking about a single incident or one-time continuous state in the past. In this case use als.
Als er Hunger hatte, ist er in den Imbiss an der Ecke gegangen.
When he was hungry (that one time), he went to the fast food place on the corner.
Als ich meine Oma besuchte, haben wir Kekse gebacken.
When I visited my grandma (that one time), we baked cookies together.
Ich habe meinen Führerschein bekommen, als ich 18 Jahre alt war. [a person is 18 only one time]
When I was 18, I got my driver’s license.
Als wir abends ankamen, waren alle Zimmer schon besetzt.
When we arrived in the evening all of the rooms were already occupied.
Or take the quiz to check your understanding.
Alles klar? Do you know when to use als, wenn, or wann? Complete each sentence with the correct conjunction.
Here are two English sentences:
If I finish high school, my father will buy me a bike.
When I finish high school, my father will buy me a bike.
The speaker in the second sentence is simply saying what will happen in the future, while in the first sentence, there is a condition, which may not be met.
How can these be translated in German? How can I use “wenn” to tell the sentences apart in German, for I cannot use “wann” in the second sentence.
Great question! You are right that using the word wenn in this case leads to the kind of ambiguity your two sentences propose. The action in the wenn-clause is something that lies in the future and therefore there IS a possibility that it will not happen. However, you can imply more certainty — as in your 2nd example sentence — by not using wenn at all, but instead the conjunction nachdem (after) or sobald (as soon as). Or you could drop the subordinate clause altogether and say something like “Zum Schulabschluss kauft mir mein Vater ein Fahrrad.”
I would suggest to use “falls” for your first sentence. That focuses more on the condition, that I have to finish school in order to get a bike. “Falls ich die Schule beende, wird mir mein Vater ein Fahrrad kaufen.” Using “wenn” seems more likely.
Wenn ich die Hochschule abgeschlossen habe, wird mein Vater mir ein Buch kaufen.
Deutschsprache ist schwer und hat viel gramatik. Aber wenn die studente fleißen,wird die besser
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This is good. But you can have someone reading those german questions in English in the back ground and also English translation written underneath. Otherwise, it’s really good.
Thank you so much for this! This post was really helpful!
(I just spotted two tiny mistakes: (5) Wenn er Hunger hatte, ist ER immer ZUM Imbiss an der Ecke gegangen.)
Can we use ‘wann’ in cases rather than the direct/indirect question?
Technically, it can also begin a relative clause where the wann-clause more clearly defines a temporal reference. This usage looks similar to the indirect question:
In these examples, you can see that wann retains the meaning at what time, rather than meaning when in the sense of if, whenever.
Does that make sense?
Great! Thank you :)!
“als” can also occur in the present tense, as long as simultaneous events are occurring in a narrative setting: “Als der Zug ankommt, sieht Heidi schon ihren Vater.”
what to use here—-
_______ ich klein war,sang ich viel.
here we are in the past but the event is not one time due to the word “viel”.so what will be there?
To determine which conjunction to use, you need to look at whether the event in the “when”-clause (and not any event named in the rest of the sentence) is a one-time event. Since a person is only small for a single, continuous time, the clause “____ ich klein war” refers to a single occurence.
Thank you very much.
Such a clear explanation! A big thank you.