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Both mean because.

I know that denn does not change the sentence structure of the subordinate clause, but weil does, i.e. pushing the verb to the end.

Other than that, is there a difference between the two? Are there situations where weil is preferred to denn and vice-versa?

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I think the main difference is, that denn isn't used to give an answer. –  Em1 Dec 7 '12 at 8:08
    
See also atlas-alltagssprache.de/runde-3/f12a-b –  Speravir Dec 7 '12 at 23:11
    
Similar question: german.stackexchange.com/questions/5494/… –  splattne Dec 8 '12 at 10:48
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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The differences between "denn" and "weil" are syntactic only.

  • "Denn" introduces a main clause, which is why, as you say, it "doesn't change the sentence structure". The finite verb remains in second position.
  • "Weil" introduces a subordinate clause, so the finite verb is moved to the end of the clause.

Another notable syntactic difference is that you cannot begin a sentence with a main clause introduced by "denn", while the equivalent with "weil" is well possible. Compare:

Er nahm einen Schirm mit, weil es stark regnete.

Weil es stark regnete, nahm er einen Schirm mit.

Both these sentences are grammatical. However:

Er nahm einen Schirm mit, denn es regnete stark.

*Denn es regnete stark, nahm er einen Schirm mit.

Here, the first sentence is fine, but the second is not.


Semantically, there is no difference between "denn" and "weil". You will find that "weil" is much more commonly used in spoken German.

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At least in and around Berlin you will hear very often “weil” in cases, where in standard German “denn” would be used – in other words, “weil” starts a main clause! –  Speravir Dec 7 '12 at 23:19
    
I agree... this will increase... I can think of situations in which I would actually prefer the weil-main-clause version over the "correct" one... in spoken German that is, it is a question of rhythm and focus to me –  Emanuel Dec 8 '12 at 20:13
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@Speravir: To make it clearer: The problem arising currently is that weil and denn are being used synonymously when they are grammatically not. For example, some people say Er nahm einen Schirm mit, weil es regnete stark, which is not correct, as denn must be used if the second sentence could stand alone as a main clause. denn starts a main clause, weil does not. –  Thorsten Dittmar Dec 10 '12 at 8:51
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@ThorstenDittmar: As already outlined elsewhere: After a long fight against the construct "weil + main clause" I was defeated by Duden itself - for informal speech, this is no longer considered wrong. –  mthomas Dec 17 '12 at 10:46
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“I do think it is a huge problem, because German will change” -- it's a pity we don't speak Althochdeutsch any more ;) –  cgnieder Dec 21 '12 at 11:38
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I disagree that they are 100% synonymous.

I my experience, denn is more common when the causality is less necessary, and the point of the clause is to introduce helpful, but possibly more parenthetical information.

Weil, by contrast, tends to imply a more strictly necessary condition.

For example, I might say:

Ich habe auf ihn geschossen, weil es der Oberst mir befohlen hatte.

but it sounds less exculpatory to say:

Ich habe auf ihn geschossen, denn der Oberst hatte es mir befohlen.

Also, weil allows you to add qualifiers, like nur. I'm not sure you can say nur denn, and if you can, it sounds weird.

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I think you're right. Denn as conjunction can't take nur, or such. Regarding the weighting of the causality, I guess that most people aren't aware but will subconsciously behave appropriately. Thus +1. –  Em1 Dec 8 '12 at 13:08
    
I second @em: if we have answers, which propose that two different expressions "are equal" and others, which try to work out the difference, then I like more the second. Why? The first type of answers reduce the expressivity of language down to a language taken automatically from a dictionary, while the second type tries to make aware, that there is a lot of things we want to express in an individual way - and historically we have a richness of expressivity because of the need of many speakers, writers, poets to make fine distinguishions and tones. –  Gottfried Helms Dec 9 '12 at 0:49
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Die Webseite deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache hat eine sehr schöne Erklärung dafür:

Beispielsatz:

"Ich werde diese Schallplatte nicht kaufen, weil sie zerkratzt ist."

Die Regel:

Der Beispielsatz ist richtig. Weil steht immer mit Verb-Letztstellung. Entscheidet man sich für einen Nebensatz mit weil, muss das Verb am Ende des Nebensatzes stehen (Verb-Letztstellung).

Beispielsatz:

"Ich werde diese Schallplatte nicht kaufen, denn sie ist zerkratzt."

Denn steht hingegen mit Verb-Zweitstellung. Dabei steht das Verb an zweiter Stelle des Nebensatzes, wie in einem Hauptsatz.

Von der Bedeutung her sind "weil" und "denn" gleich und werden mit "because" ins Englische übersetzt. Im Deutschen muss der Satzbau angepaßt werden.

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Diese ANtwort ist eine Paraphrase der Frage. Nur der erste Halbsatz des letzte Satzes sind neu. –  Emanuel Dec 7 '12 at 22:38
    
Zu „"weil" und "denn" [..] werden mit "because" ins Englische übersetzt“: die richtige Übersetzung lautet natürlich: I will not buy this record, it is scratched. –  cgnieder Dec 21 '12 at 11:42
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I've been asked that before by exchange students. I couldn't come up with any examples where the meaning would be different; checking several on-line resources didn't give any results either.

A noteworthy side note might be that it becomes more and more common for native speakers to use the denn grammar for the weil sentence while adding a short pause after the weil, which sounds just horrible sometimes.

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Es hört sich auch für mich schrecklich an! Dabei bin ich kein Muttersprachler, sondern ein Dilettant. –  user2271 Dec 11 '12 at 17:37
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Not an answer, but just a remark: It is no longer mandatory that WEIL pushes the verb to the end. Like with any other reform, some Germans find this disgusting and there is some controversy, for example, this text is funny:

http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/zwiebelfisch/zwiebelfisch-weil-das-ist-ein-nebensatz-a-350013.html

Another, not completely off-topic, remark: when speaking German with natives (or at least when trying...) I have understood why there must be inversion for some particles and why not for others. It helps the listener distinguish the particle itself (and so the meaning of the whole sentence).

For instance, you may easily confuse denn and wenn when hearing a person's voice in the middle of the street. But the inversion helps distinguish between them:

Anne geht nicht spazieren, denn sie ist krank.

Anne geht nicht spazieren, wenn sie krank ist.

If "wenn sie ist krank" were right, you would easily confuse both sentences. (It is an off-topic remark, but I think it is interesting and, up to some degree, related)

I don't know why they did that reform for the use of weil. For me, it sounds horrible without inversion...

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I'm sorry, but I think you're wrong. Perhaps it might be more difficult to a non-native to understand everything correctly but nobody invented the inversion just because there could be some misunderstandings. If so, we had a lot of changes to introduce in our language and movie maker will experience a huge crisis since puns are not possible any more. –  Em1 Dec 11 '12 at 15:16
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@Em1: Man, of course nobody invented the inversion! Nobody inventes a language, it justs develops itself generation after generation, through processes that may or may not have something to do with logic or rules... What I think is that one of the reasons why inversion is useful and survives in the language (rather than becoming obsolete or simply redundant and then disappearing) is because it helps avoiding misunderstandings in the spoken language... –  user2271 Dec 11 '12 at 16:04
    
I disagree and I think your assumption is SOLELY based on wenn and weil. Name one more example like that where the inversion helps avoid confusion... I doubt you can. "Ich wusste nicht, was sie kann." "Ich wusste nicht, dass sie kann." According to your logic there should be one version without inversion there... people can distinguish d and w just fine. Some linguists (I don't have a source, sorry) say that the final position is actually the default position in German. It doesn't have to survive. It is NOT challenged by a more superior second position. It is the very core of German. –  Emanuel Dec 14 '12 at 17:36
    
@Emanuel, hier ist dein Beispiel: "Ich komme. Dann kommt sie." / "Ich komme, wann sie kommt". Und ich habe nicht gesagt, dass das ein von mir endecktes Logik wäre (das wäre lacherlich) oder so etwas ähnliches... Es ist nur eine Anmerkung. Manchmal hilft die Inversion, die Bedeutung des Satzes zu erklären, wenn man sich z.B. auf der Straße bei hohem Verkehrslärm findet. Aber das ist natürlich kein allgemeines Regel, es wäre doch absurd! –  user2271 Dec 14 '12 at 22:17
    
Das Beispiel ist falsch... es sollte sein: Ich komme, wenn sie kommt. –  Emanuel Dec 15 '12 at 17:00
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