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Every so often, I see someone use "denn" in a question, but I do not know why.

Some examples:

Was hörst du denn für Musik?

Was machst du denn?

What is the point of this, and what does it mean? (I know denn means because).

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I have done an in depths article on denn on my blog: yourdailygerman.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/denn-meaning –  Emanuel Jul 26 '13 at 22:25
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In these examples, denn is an adverb (also most often called a modal particle) and is similar in meaning to the English then.

It can then be translated like this:

Then what music do you listen to? (denn =then)

Then what do you do? (denn = then)

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+1 since it actually is quite similar to the English then. But "Was machst du denn?" will very often have the meaning of "Whatever you do, it is completely nonsensical, cut it out." and this is more like "What the hell are you doing?" But this depends on context, of course. –  bouscher Jul 26 '13 at 8:36
    
@bouscher Of course. But the asker primarily wanted to know what denn means. So I thought I could say exactly that, as found in any dictionary. As to the semantic nuances to which you've referred, I think they're impenetrable until the very first meaning of a word / expression is thoroughly mastered. –  indoxica Jul 26 '13 at 8:40
    
I think that is exactly, why it is a good question, because every learner will sooner or later stumble upon unexpected meanings of "denn", which no dictionary accounts for. But then again, every language has these kind of words. –  bouscher Jul 26 '13 at 8:43
    
@bouscher Then what do you mean when you say no dictionary accounts for it? The English Wiktionary lists this, and there's an article on Wikipedia on German modal particles (though they don't list denn in particular). And you gave a link yourself in your answer. –  Em1 Jul 26 '13 at 11:03
    
@Em1 I didn't say, there are no dictionaries, which give a meaning or explanation for it, I said, sooner or later one will stumble upon an occurence of denn with some sort of meaning, that no dictionary accounts for. Dictionaries can only do ever so much in trying to help to understand. –  bouscher Jul 26 '13 at 11:12
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Very good question. Since I didn't have a good explanation myself apart from Füllwort- expletive I found this: http://canoo.net/services/OnlineGrammar/Wort/Adverb/Partikel/Modalpartikel.html

So denn is a homonym which on the one hand can be a conjunction with a meaning of because, as you said.

On the other hand it is an adverbial modal particle, in German it has a special name Abtönungspartikel. This serves, I translate, to subtextually convey certain expectations or opinions of the speaker. It can give a statement or question a certain tinge.

A very common situation would be:

"Ich höre Jazz."

"Was? Echt?"

"Wieso, was hörst du denn für Musik?"

In this case the last question has the subtext of: Whatever you now say, your kind of musical taste is inferior.

But the Was hörst du denn für Musik? can also be neutral or inviting in a different context.

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