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Asking Questions in German

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When asking questions in German you can ask direct questions that elicit yes/no answers with the verb at the head. However, in this article, we will focus on the other way of questioning, that is the well-known five Ws (and one H) of questioning that are useful in gathering factual information.
The five Ws (and one H) in English are: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? These are translated into the following 6 Ws in German: Wer? Was? Wo? Wann? Warum? Wie? They usually stand at the head of the sentence followed by the verb in second position:

Wann kommt er zurück? (When is he coming back?)

Let's examine each one in more detail:

Wer:

This is one of the two W-words (Fragewörter) that are declinable.
  • Nominative: Wer? Who? Wer hat meinen Keks gegessen? (Who ate my cookie?)

  • Genitive: Wessen? Whose? Wessen Buch ist das? (Whose book is this?)

  • The genitive form wessen is not used very much anymore. Instead it has been replaced by the more popular dative -> Wem gehört dieses Buch?

  • Accusative: Wen? Who/Whom? Wen will er heiraten? (Who does he want to marry?)

  • Dative: Wem? Who/ To whom? Wem hast du ein Geschenk gegeben? (Whom did you give a present to?)

Was:

Is almost identical with wer' s declination
  • Nominative: Was?
    Was hat die Frau gesagt? (What did the woman say?)

  • Genitive: Wessen?
    Wessen wird sie angeklagt? (What is she accused of?)

  • Accusative: Was?
    Was will er trinken? (What does he want to drink?)

  • Dative: None
In the German language, instead of declining was in the dative, the prepositional adverb wo(r) will be used, along with a preposition. For example:

Woran denkt er? (What is he thinking of?)
Womit wirst du das bezahlen? (With what ->How are you paying for that?)

You will often hear another version of saying such sentences, such as Mit was wirst du das bezahlen? Von was denkst du?, but it is incorrect.


Wo:

"Where" should actually be translated into two words - Wo and Wohin. Unlike English which uses "where" for both location and the direction somebody/something is going to, German does make that distinction. You use wo when asking where the location of something is, you use wohin when asking the direction someone/something is going to. Wohin is separable. For example:

Wo ist mein Handy? (Where is my cellphone?)
Wo geht sie denn hin? (Where is she going (to)?)

Another variation of wo is woher. This signifies "from where" and should be used rather than the often incorrect way of saying Von wo in the sentence "Von wo kommst du? Instead say: Woher kommst du? (Where do you come from?).

  • Tip: Wer and wo are false cognates. Just think of them as opposites from the English equivalent and you'll always get it right.

    Wo = Where
    Who = Wer


Wann:

Is also not declinable, but just as in English, it will often be used with other conjunctions to specify its meaning:
Seit wann
Seit wann schläft er? (Since when is he sleeping?)
Bis wann
Bis wann bleibt deine Mutter hier? (Till when is your mother staying here?)

Warum:

For "why" both the term warum and wieso can be used interchangeably. Weshalb is also used, but not as much as the first two adverbs.

Wie

Wie is very straightforward. It is not declinable, doesn't have synonyms and means only one thing - how. For example:

Wie lange spielst du schon Klavier? (How long have you been playing the piano?)
Wie lange -> How long
Wie oft spielst du Klavier? (How often do you play the piano?)
Wie oft -> How often
Wie weit ist es bis zur Musikschule? (How far is it to the music school?)
Wie weit -> How far
Wie viel kostet diese Handtasche? (How much does this handbag cost?
Wie viel -> How much
Wie viele Punkte hat dieser Marienkäfer? (How many dots does this ladybug have?)
Wie viele -> How many

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