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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?

10 Answers 10

52

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.

  • 2
    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
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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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    @Emanuel: I know that Speravir knows that, and I do think it is a huge problem, because German will change there eventually. – Thorsten Dittmar Dec 16 '12 at 11:11
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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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    @mthomas: Sorry, that's not what I'm reading there. It clearly states that ... it can be heard ..., not that it is not considered wrong. And they even say: Standardsprachlich gelten diese Satzkonstruktionen allerdings als nicht korrekt. – Thorsten Dittmar Dec 17 '12 at 10:53
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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.

There are further differences between denn and weil, see for instance http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~tatjana/papers/scheffler-AC05.pdf

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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
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    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
12

Here is a helpful example of when you can use "denn" but "weil" doesn't really make sense:

Er muss müde sein, denn er trinkt viel Kaffee.

"He must be tired, because / seeing as he is drinking a lot of coffee."

versus

Er muss müde sein, weil er viel Kaffee trinkt.

"He must be tired, because / reason being he is drinking coffee."

"Weil" implies the coffee is causing him to be tired, as if it is the origin of his state of tiredness.

It is a rare situation to run into, but this example at least shines a little light on the difference between the two.

SOURCE: Handbuch zur Deutschen Grammatik Sixth Edition

  • 2
    Please read and correct your own posting after you did write it and before you click the Post-button. Don't let other people correct all of your mistakes. The first word of a sentence must start with an uppercase letter, and it must end with a full stop. Quotes must be marked by quotation marks. »Doesn't« contains an apostrophe. – Hubert Schölnast Aug 22 '16 at 5:20
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    @HubertSchölnast Hey sorry, it was just a quick answer, I looked over the small grammatical errors, thanks for cleaning up the post ... – gijugee Aug 22 '16 at 22:39
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    It doesn't matter how slow or quick your answer was. It has to be correct. This here is not Facebook. What you post here will be read also in 10 years and maybe even later. So please write it carefully for the next five decades, not for the next five minutes! – Hubert Schölnast Aug 23 '16 at 5:53
8

The same distinction exists between for/because in English.

"Denn" corresponds exactly in function and meaning to the archaic English conjunction "for", which was common in early modern English:

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

"Weil" is a subordinate conjunction equivalent to "because".

"I was absent because I was sick".

The semantic meaning is approximately the same, except that the latter more strongly specifies causation. The grammatical function is different. Weil/because introduce subordinate clauses, which is important to remember in German because they have a different word order.

  • This, in my opinion, is one of the correct answers! While both make a similar connection, the causality of weil*/*because is much stronger! – Ludi Sep 5 '16 at 19:30
2

Just learning German, but I stumbled upon this issue in my studying, and I am wondering if this little test of sorts is helpful:

If you are joining two statements A and B,

  • Use denn if it makes sense to say “I’m saying ‘A’, because B is true.”

  • Use weil if it makes sense to say “A is true because B is true.”

  • Thanks for the edit, wasn't sure how to format it properly. – eighsse Sep 24 '16 at 18:04
2

The difference is purely grammatical.

Denn is a coordinating conjunction and takes place 0 in German word order.

Weil is a subordinating conjunction and can start a sentence and is known as a "kicker" and therefore kicks the conjugated verb out of second position and to last.

Denn may not begin a sentence either, if starting the sentence with "because" in German always use weil.

0

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
0

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.

  • Es hört sich auch für mich schrecklich an! Dabei bin ich kein Muttersprachler, sondern ein Dilettant. – user2271 Dec 11 '12 at 17:37
-1

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...

  • 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
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    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
-2

I keep reading the difference is "denn" introduces a main clause. That is bad Grammar. Both words are subordinating conjunctions, which turn a clause into a subordinate clause. A clause can always stand alone as an independent sentence when not having a conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions are used to join two independent clause which involve no causality. Subordinating conjunctions create causality. If there is a definitive usage difference between "denn" and "weil" outside of the German language having multiple linguistical sources (various dialects being welded together), it has never been clearly defined, even in German Grammar. There is just "the one sounds right." The only correct issue I have read here is that one does not start sentences with "denn"- although, colloquially, I have heard that more and more.

  • Homework: […], denn ich gehe jeden Tag einkaufen. // […], weil ich jeden Tag einkaufen gehe. Locate the difference between these sentences and allocate the names Nebensatz and Hauptsatz to both. – Jan May 20 '15 at 12:32

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