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I'm learning German using Duolingo and I've been taught that when you ask for a name in formal context ("Excuse me, what is your name?") you use:

Entschuldigung, wo/wie heißen sie?

however, while doing some practice, I've been given exactly the same sentence ("Excuse me, what is your name?"), however, the correct translation was

Entschuldigung, wie ist Ihr Name?

My question is:
How are these sentences different, and when to use them? How can I recognize, when I should use the first, or the second one? Also, when should I use wo or wie in the sentence

Entschuldigung, wo/wie heißen sie?

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    Duolingo often has a very narrow idea of how a given sentence has to be translated. That doesn't mean other translations are incorrect. Feb 6 at 18:16

1 Answer 1

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First of all: The german word "wo" means "where" (at which place?, at which location?) and is inappropriate to ask for a name. It is like:

Excuse me, where is your name?

And this doesn't make much sense.

So the decision between "wo" and "wie" (later is "how" in English) is very easy: It is never "wo" and always "wie":

falsch: Entschuldigen Sie, wo ist Ihr Name?
wrong: Excuse me, where is your name?

richtig: Entschuldigen Sie, wie ist Ihr Name?
wrong: Excuse me, how is your name?


Now about the German verb "heißen":

There is no direct English translation for this German word. This means, that it is impossible to create an English sentence using the pattern

<pronoun> <verb> <name>.

Which is the pattern of the sentence

Ich heiße Hubert.

English has no verb that would make such a pattern possible. But to use the same pattern in another language is not really necessary. You never translate words. You always translate meanings, and the meaning of this sentence is, that my name is Hubert, and that other people call me Hubert. And you can express this meaning very fine in English sentences which use patterns, that you also can use in German:

My name is Hubert.
Mein Name ist Hubert.

I am called Hubert.
Ich werde Hubert genannt.

You just have one more option to express the same meaning in German (which btw is the most frequently used and therefore preferred option in German), but this option is not available in English:

Ich heiße Hubert.

There is no perfect English translation for this German sentence, so in English you have to use one of the other options.


So, when you ask for the best translation of your question into German, and when you remember, that you never translate words, but always translate meanings, then this is the best translation:

Excuse me, what is your name?
Entschuldigung, wie heißen Sie?

And if you want to be a little bit more polite, you can use this translation:

Entschuldigung, können Sie mir sagen, wie Sie heißen?
Excuse me, can you tell me what's your name?

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  • Wow, Ok, thanks for perfect explanation! To be honest I'm kinda confused sometimes while learning with Duolingo, they usually just throw some concepts at you and don't explain them that much.
    – TDiblik
    Feb 6 at 14:45
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    @TDiblik: Duo's format takes some getting used to. Especially with new vocabulary, they give you a question and you only learn the correct answer after getting it wrong. It's not like taking a test to get a grade after studying the material, more like repeatedly taking tests until you learn the material by trial and error. It's possible that you remember better that way. Two survival tricks: Read carefully and keep reviewing the explanations they do give you, and read the discussion forums for the questions since there's often a lot of explanation given there.
    – RDBury
    Feb 6 at 15:07

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