German/Grammar/Interrogatives

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Interrogatives[edit | edit source]

We've already talked about polar, or yes/no questions. But sometimes you need to ask for details rather than just whether something is true.

Terminology[edit | edit source]

A question which asks for specific detail rather than just whether something is true is called an open question. These are formed with question words or interrogatives, a word that specifies which detail the speaker is interested in. In English the interrogatives include the "five W's": "who", "what", "when", "where", "why", and a few others including "which" and "how". But it's important to distinguish these in terms of their role in a sentences. Some, such as "when", "where", "why" and "how", ask for the time, place, reason, or manor of the action, and so are demanding an adverb as an answer. Some, such as "who" and "what", demand a noun as an answer. On the other hand, "which" seems to demand some kind of description. These distinctions are needed because they tell us if, and how, the corresponding words in German are declined. Note that many of these words can be used in ways that don't form a questions at all, for example "That's who I saw," "That's how she looked." Be sure to understand the function of the word in the sentence before choosing how to translate it into German; German often does not use the same word for the different functions.

Forming open questions in German[edit | edit source]

While polar questions follow the V1 plan in German, open questions follow the V2 plan like ordinary statements. There is, as in English, a very strong tendency to place the question word before the verb, since it's normally the topic. With German's flexible word order, this is to be expected, while in English putting the question word first requires an exception to the normal word order.

German interrogative adverbs[edit | edit source]

Interrogative adverbs ask for an adverb as an answer, and there is (at least) one for each type of adverb required. You can can form a sentence with them as you would with any adverb, keeping in mind that they would normally come before the verb. Like other adverbs, they are not declined.

wann[edit | edit source]

This corresponds to "when" in English and asks for an adverb of time.

  • Wann arbeitest du? – "When are you working?"

You can replace wann with another adverb to get a perfectly grammatical sentence:

  • Jetzt arbeitest du.

But this does not work in English because of the somewhat complicated way that English requires additional verbs in this situation: "You are working now." rather than "Now are you working?"

Do not confuse wann with the similar sounding, but different meaning, wenn. Both can be translated as "when", but playing different roles in the sentence.

warum[edit | edit source]

This corresponds to "why" in English and asks for an adverb of cause, or rather a phrase describing the cause since there really aren't any single words that can be used this way.

  • Warum arbeitest du? – "Why are you working?"

The words wieso and weshalb are roughly synonymous. But warum tends to be used in situations where the speaker wants to know what incited the action, while wieso might be used when a physical cause needs to be understood, and weshalb is asking more for a purpose or goal for the action. It's more common to use wieso in spoken German.

wie[edit | edit source]

This corresponds to "how" in English and asks for an adverb of manner.

  • Wie arbeitest du? – "How are you working?"

Depending on the situation though, wie can take on the function of "what" in English:

  • Wie ist dein Name? – "What is your name?"

wo[edit | edit source]

This corresponds to "where" in English. There is a somewhat confusing "swap" going on here in that wo looks like "who" but actually means "where", and wer (see below) looks like "where" but actually means "who". To add to this confusion, wer can be declined as wen, which you should not mix up with "when".

  • Wo arbeitest du? – "Where are you working?"/"Where do you work?"

As we'll see when we cover prepositions, German is a bit more careful than English when it comes to distinguishing between location as the scene of the action, and location given as the direction of motion. As a result, there are two variations on wo, wohin and woher, to be used when there is motion involved. You'd use wohin for the direction to and woher for the direction from.

  • Wohin gehst du? – "Where are you going?"
  • Woher kommst du? – "Where are you coming from?"/"Where do you come from?"

In the first example, the English could be rephrased as "Where are you going to?" without changing the meaning. But in German the -hin after the wo is expected.

German interrogative pronouns[edit | edit source]

As in English, there are two interrogative pronouns in German, one for non-people, was, and one for people, wer. These are used as nouns in a sentence, and since they don't refer to anything specific they are called pronouns.

was[edit | edit source]

This corresponds to "what" in English, but, as noted above, sometimes wie may be used for "what" in certain situations.

  • Was liegt dort? – "What is lying there?"
  • Was interessiert dich? – "What interests you?"/"What are you interested in?"

Somewhat surprisingly, considering this is German, was is not declined. So the accusative form is the same as the nominative form:

  • Was siest du? – "What do you see?"
  • Was machst du? – "What are you doing?"
    • Note that machen – "to make" is preferable to tun in this case, even though tun sounds more similar to "do".

wer[edit | edit source]

This corresponds to "who" in English. It's declined according to case, so wer is only used in the nominative case and the form is wen in the accusative case. You may notice there is some similarity between the way wer and der are declined, but this only works for three of the four cases. You might notice that "who" is sometimes declined according to case in English as well, with "whom" the form used in the objective case. But "whom" seems to be dying out in English to be replaced by "who", though some still prefer to use whom, at least in some circumstances. We'll use "who" here, despite the fact that it may irk the grammar police.

  • Wer schläft? – "Who is sleeping?"
  • Wen siehst du? – "Who do you see?"

German interrogative determiners[edit | edit source]

It may seem silly to define this category since there is only one word in it, welcher – "which". But it is an interrogative and it is a determiner so it seems to be the only category that fits. Besides, the word count increases when you include declined forms.

welcher[edit | edit source]

As with other determiners in German, welcher is declined according to number, gender and case. The way it's declined is very similar to the way the definite article der is declined. In fact you can usually remove the ending from a definite article and combine it with the stem welch(e)- to get correct form of welcher in a given situation. This does require a certain amount of flexibility in what you you mean by the ending though. In the nominative case the full table is:

  • welcher – "which" (with masculine nouns)
  • welche – "which" (with feminine nouns)
  • welches – "which" (with neuter nouns)
  • welche - "which" (with plural nouns, of any gender)

As with articles, the only difference between the accusative case and the nominative case is for masculine nouns, in which case the -r is replaced by -n:

  • welchen – "which" (with masculine nouns)
  • welche – "which" (with feminine nouns)
  • welches – "which" (with neuter nouns)
  • welche - "which" (with plural nouns, of any gender)

Some examples:

  • Welcher Schlüssel öffnet die Tür? - "Which key opens the door?"
  • Welches Baby ist deines? - "Which baby is yours?"
    • The posessive pronoun deines is used as a predicate here.
  • Welche Pferde laufen schnell? - "Which horses run fast?"
  • Welchen Hund magst du? - "Which dog do you like?"
  • Welche Bananen kaufen wir? - "Which bananas are we buying?"

der words[edit | edit source]

We've seen "ein words" in a previous section, determiners which are declined like ein. Similarly, the determiners which decline like der are called der words. One example, other than der itself, is welcher, and there are several others. They are bit harder to pin down in terms of function though, so we'll postpone covering them until we do the corresponding grammar.


Grammar

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