While working as an online German teacher, it caught my attention that many students get confused when it comes to the usage of “als”, “wenn” and “wann”. After reading this article, you will be a pro and know when you should use each of them.
The reason why many students get confused with these three words is most likely, that in English and many other languages they are used differently and sometimes even represent a synonym. To bring some light into the darkness, we will discuss the meaning and usage in the following.
1. What is the meaning of “als”?
We can use the German word “als” in several ways:
“als” in the sense of “as”
The German “als” as is doing the same job the English “as” does. With its help, it is possible to express sentences like:
I work as … – Ich arbeite als …
I start a job as … – Ich beginne eine Stelle als …
“als” in the sense of “than”
Another possibility to meet the word “als” is in a German comparison. To be precise, we use it in “Komperativ” which – as you might already be able to guess – is when we compare two things with each other:
Ich bin größer als sie. – I am taller than her.
Dieses Auto ist billiger als das blaue Auto. – This car is cheaper than the blue car.
“als” as a conjunction
We also use the German word “als” as conjunction. This means its job is to connect two sentences. One of these sentences is the main clause, and the sentence that we introduce with “als” is always a subordinate clause. In German grammar, this typically means that something happens with the position of the verb in the sentence. In the case of “als”, we need to move the verb to the end of the sentence.
The meaning of “als” in German as a conjunction is very similar to the English “when”. The main difference is that we can only use it in the past tense (Präteritum, Perfekt, and Plusquamperfekt) but NOT in the present or any of the two German future tenses. In a sense, as a “conjunction” it describes a particular moment in the past. Most likely, it is the easiest way to remember it by keeping in mind the sentence beginning “Als ich ein Kind war …” (When I was a child…). So whenever you talk in the past tense about a specific moment, you can use “als”.
2. What is the meaning of “wenn”?
With the help of the German word “wenn” we can express a condition in a sentence. Also, “wenn” is a conjunction, and therefore it connects to sentences with each other. In the case of “wenn” the verb also goes to the end, the same way, as we have discussed it for “als” in the previous paragraph. The reason why people confuse “wenn” and “als” is that both of them can have the meaning of “when” in English. Besides, “wenn” functions as the equivalent for the English “if”. Therefore, it might not surprise you to hear that we usually use “wenn” when we want to express a condition. Consequently, the main clause and the subordinate clause need to have a relation in the sense of “If A then B”. In contrast to “als” we can use “wenn” in all German times.
Examples for “wenn”:
Immer wenn ich nach Hause komme, mache ich mir einen Tee. (Whenever I come home, I make myself a tea.)
Wenn ich nach Berlin fahren werde, will ich das Brandenburger Tor ansehen. (When I go to Berlin, I want to see the Brandenburg Gate.)
3. What is the meaning of “wann”?
If you need to decide between “wenn” or “wann” the problem is that the English translation for both is “when”. Also, in some other languages, “wann” is used as a synonym in a sentence that expresses conditions. As I already explained, in German, only “wenn” can do so.
“Wann” as a question word
Actually, in German, we use the word “wann” as a question word when we would like to ask when something happens. For instance:
Wann gehen wir ins Theater? – When do we go to the theatre?
Wann hast du Geburtstag? – When is your birthday?
“Wann” as conjugation
It is also possible to use “wann” as a conjugation. By doing so, the verb of the sentence introduce by “wann” needs to be at the end. When you consider using “wann” to connect to sentences, you should always ask yourself if the sentence which you introduce with “wann” can be easily transformed into a question. For instance:
Ich weiß nicht, wann das Treffen ist. – Question: Wann ist das Treffen? (I do not know when the meeting is. – When is the meeting?)
Ich habe vergessen, wann dein Geburtstag ist. – Question: Wann ist dein Geburtstag? (I forgot when your birthday is. – Question: When is your birthday?)
Conclusion: “Als”, “Wenn” or “Wann”
Long story short, you should remember the following:
- Does your sentence express a condition? – If so, use “wenn”.
- Does your sentence happen in the past and focus on a specific moment? – If so, use “als”.
- Does your sentence contain a question? – If so, use “wann”.
Now, after reading this article, you should be confident in when to use which of them. If you have any suggestions for topics that you would like me to cover, feel warmly invited to comment or drop me a message.
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