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In English, there are sometimes exchanges like the following:

  1. Person A: If Bob finishes his thesis, ...
  2. Person B: When Bob finishes his thesis ...

The effect of B's response to A, and their use of the word when, indicates that Bob will finish their thesis and that this is not in question.

Similarly, in the other direction, we get exchanges like the following:

  1. Person A: When Bob finishes their thesis, ...
  2. Person B: If Bob finishes their theses, ...

Here, B's use of if calls into question the idea that Bob will definitely finish their thesis.

I assume that it's possible to make the same kind of distinctions in German, but how do speakers do this? My school-learned German has the same word, wenn used for the English senses of both if and when.

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    German has all three possibilities. 'sobald' means something will definitely happen, 'falls' means that something will probably not happen, and 'wenn' can mean both. But since 'wenn' is by far the most common word, this particular conversational trope just isn't very common in German. May 24 at 6:46
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    Maybe this is just my local (swiss) impression, but if a friend says "Wenn Bob seine Arbeit abgibt" I will usually assume "when" is meant and I might interject "Wenn Bob seine Arbeit abgibt" with spoken emphasis on the "Wenn" to say "If he indeed does hand the thesis in".
    – lucidbrot
    May 24 at 14:24
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    I partly agree with @lucidbrot, that it depends on emphasis, and partly I think, that this goes way deeper. I tried to think of a few completions to "When Bob finishes his thesis", and everything I came up with (we'll party, his father will buy him a car, he will start a job at XYZ), is something I'd rather phrase as "Wenn Bob seine Arbeit abgegeben hat" instead of "abgibt". But I wonder if that's just me or anybody else, too?
    – Sabine
    May 24 at 20:58
  • @Sabine What you suggest is more usual imo too, but means something different. "Wenn Bob seine Arbeit abgegeben hat" means "after he handed it in" whereas "Wenn Bob seine Arbeit abgibt" means "when he hands it something happens at the same time"
    – lucidbrot
    May 24 at 21:35

3 Answers 3

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It's true that wenn has multiple meanings in German and can be ambiguous if there is not enough context. This is true of most common words. But it's also true that most common words have synonyms that make the meaning clear when in doubt. Of course synonyms can change the connotations of a sentence, but some slight differences in meaning are nearly always unavoidable when translating between languages.

In this case, you could use falls = "in case" or sofern = "provided (that)" for "if". And you could sobald = "as soon as" for "when". There are other options available as well, but I think these are the most common. A good thesaurus is helpful for this kind of thing; DWDS provides this kind of information but they link to OpenThesaurus for a source. DeepL can work as well since it provides alternate translations and usage examples when you highlight a word.

It might be worth mentioning Wenn man vom Teufel spricht. = "Speak of the devel." I'm not sure if "if" or "when" is meant in this case, but I have a feeling not many people really care.

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    'Wenn man vom Teufel spricht' is definitely 'when'. May 24 at 16:17
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    I think I have used the combinations OP is asking about in German using 'falls' for 'if' and 'wenn' for 'when'.
    – quarague
    May 24 at 17:07
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I would usually phrase this kind of reply by the similar construction of constrasting with ob:

A: Wenn Bob mit seiner Diplomarbeit fertig ist...

B: Die Frage ist aber nicht wann, sondern ob!

IMHO wann and wenn are related and perceived as closely enough for this to work (in my dialect, they even fall together). I'd even be tempted to say nicht wenn, sondern ob, but this has a weird feeling when thinking more about it.

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There is a word that strictly means "if" in this context: "falls". However, "wenn" indeed can mean both "if" and "when".

So, your first example wouldn't really occur in German because the ambiguous "wenn" would be more commonly used unless the first person really wants to emphasize "if".

Your second example could be "Wenn ... Falls ..." but is also not that common. If I was the second person there, I might say something like "Glaubst du wirklich, er wird jemals fertig?"

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  • "your first example wouldn't really occur in German" -- I was thinking about how exactly you'd translate the above exchanges into German. It seems like it would be tricky and a complete rephrase might be in order.
    – RDBury
    May 24 at 5:36
  • @RDBury If you need to translate, you'd use "Falls ... Sobald ..." or something like that. But this dialogue wouldn't occur naturally.
    – Roland
    May 24 at 5:41
  • For the second construction in OPs question I would use 'wenn' and 'falls' in German without fear of confusion. For the first one it is a little more tricky but in context wenn und falls would still convey the correct meaning.
    – quarague
    May 24 at 17:12

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