Compound sentences in German: when are the conjunctions wenn, als and the question word  wann used ? What is the word order in these sentences? How are they translated into German? We analyze the topic of complex sentences and practice with examples.

We begin to consider complex sentences. Today we will talk about unions that help us express a temporary relationship, namely, we will understand the difference between the unions wenn, als, wann and try to build such sentences.

Als

Als means “when” (if the action happened only once in the past), for example:

  • Als ich kam, war er schon da. – When I arrived, he was already here.

In this case, “when I arrived” means that it was once (I came and saw that he was there). That is, an action in the past tense that occurs once. Pay attention to the word order : in the second sentence, the verb comes first, because “als ich kam ” is a subordinate clause that comes at the beginning of the sentence, and, accordingly, changes the word order. We have collected more information about subordinate clauses in German in a separate article.

Be careful: you can only combine als with the past tense – i.e. with Perfekt Präteritum oder Plusquamperfekt .

  • Als Lina letztes Jahr Mario kennengelernt hat, hat sie sich sofort in ihn verliebt. – When Lina met Mario last year, she immediately fell in love with him.
  • Als sie im Frühling drei Wochen zusammen im Urlaub waren, haben sie entschieden, zusammenzuziehen. – When they spent a three-week vacation together in the spring, they decided to move in together.
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Wenn

Wenn is also “when “, but if the action happened many times, it does not matter if it is in the present, past tense or in the future.

ALS is used only for a single action in the past. For the future and present, as well as for multiple actions in the past, we choose the union WENN . 

  • (Immer) Wenn er nach Hause kam, war das Essen schon fertig. – (Always) When he came home, the food was ready (the action did not happen once, this is a repeatedly repeated action).

    Wenn du groß wirst, (dann) verstehst du mich. – When you grow up, (then) you will understand me.

The last example shows a one-time action (you will grow up once), but it is directed to the future tense (wirst – you will become), so wenn is used. And pay attention to the word order: the same rule applies, in the main clause “war das Essen schon fertig“, or “verstehst du mich” the verb comes first, that is, after the subordinate clause there is a comma and immediately the verb.

The last example shows a one-time action (you will grow up once), but it is directed to the future tense (wirst – you will become), so wenn is used. And pay attention to the word order: the same rule applies, in the main clause “war das Essen schon fertig“, or “verstehst du mich” the verb comes first, that is, after the subordinate clause there is a comma and immediately the verb.

Signal words for wenn are oft, immer, jedes Mal.

Wenn can be in a conditional clause . Then it is a synonym for the conjunction falls  – “if“:

  • Wenn es morgen wieder schneit, werde ich einen langen Spaziergang machen. – If it snows again tomorrow, I will take a long walk.

Let’s summarize a little:

TenseWenn oder als
Zukunftnur wenn
Gegenwartnur wenn
Vergangenheithappens once – als
happens often – wenn
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Wann

Surely you are familiar with another word with the meaning “when“, and this is the interrogative word wann , which, as you might guess, is used for interrogative sentences :

  • Wann findest du eine neue Wohnung? When will you find a new apartment?

That is, this is a regular question with the interrogative word wann. With the help of this interrogative word, you can build an indirect question. In this case, the verb in the subordinate clause will be in last place:

  • Sag mir, wann du eine neue Wohnung findest? – Tell me, when will you find a new apartment?

It is also used in subordinate clauses , in which there is an answer to a question with wann. Usually such a sentence comes after the expressions “ich weiß nicht (genau)” – I don’t know (exactly), “ich bin nicht sicher” – I’m not sure, “es ist noch unklar” – not yet clear.

  • Ich weiß nicht, wann ich eine neue Wohnung finde. I don’t know when I will find a new apartment.

 To distinguish between wenn and wann in subordinate clauses, remember the helper words: wenn – in the case when (if); wann – exactly when (time).

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