When should "falls" be preferred to "wenn" in expressing conditional sentences?
Also, are the cases in which the use of "falls" (or of "wenn") to translate "if" is unidiomatic or a mistake?
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The usage of falls is exclusive to the conditional 1 but wenn isn't. For this reason falls is always translated to if. Well, of course you can use synonyms like in case of as well.
Wenn, however, can be translated to if only in conditional sentences. In case of being used as temporal conjunction you should go with when.
Sag bitte Bescheid, wenn du fertig bist! - Le me know, when you're done.
In case of conditional 1 I can't think of any sentences in which it isn't appropriate to interchange falls and when. If you're unsure whether or not wenn is conditional you can try to replace it with falls. If falls fits wenn is conditional and you translate it with if. This works only for conditional 1 as Emanuel pointed out in his comment. Conditional 2 is only build with wenn.
Last but not least, wenn has a lot of different meanings. You can translate, for example, wenn auch with although, even though. Looking at the numerous definitions of if I'd say that there certainly are some cases in which if is translated to wenn although not being conditional. But this is not part of this question I guess.
The translations of
falls would be: in case, if
wenn would be: if, when
Die Konjunktionen wenn und falls unterscheiden sich insofern, als wenn auch immer eine temporale Bedeutung hat. Falls/sofern haben ausschließlich konditionale Bedeutung.
Wenn Eltern sehr beschäftigt sind, verbringen Kinder oft unbeaufsichtigt Zeit vor dem Fernseher. Falls/sofern/im Falle, dass sich das Fernsehverhalten ändert, kann sich auch das Lernverhalten ändern. Als PP: Im Falle einer Änderung des Fernsehverhaltens kann sich auch das Lernverhalten ändern.
Falls and wenn are interchangeable whenever you're expressing a conditional. Falls also has the connotation of stressing that you're talking about a conditional. Therefore, I think, falls is never unidiomatic.
falls (für den Fall, dass/im Falle/sofern) = if, in the case of
wenn = synonymous for falls
wenn (sobald) = when, as soon as
Even both would be understood, in talks I think it is often used like that:
wenn = cases with only one consequence (example: Wenn 2 Menschen sich küssen, dann lieben sie sich.)
falls = cases with one or more possible consequences OR expecting some answer / reaction from the other person (example: Falls wir morgen kein Geld haben, dann bleiben wir zuhause oder gehen spazieren.... OR ....Falls wir morgen kein Geld haben, was sollen wir tun?)
The answer of Bummi is the closest correct answer to me.