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During my German studies, I came across a short commentary about when to properly use the following words:

  • wieso - weil
  • warum - darum
  • weshalb - deshalb
  • weswegen - deswegen

Although I fail to remember whether there were more versions, I do remember that this commentary suggested that each version had its reasoning behind it. I remember it mentioned something about motive, cause, and use. Could you explain in detail the differences in logic among them and mention examples with their English translations? I know such words are casually used interchangeably, but I would like to know how to use them properly. Thanks in advance.

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    In German: german.stackexchange.com/questions/3230/…
    – Carsten S
    Jun 6, 2023 at 19:21
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    The major versions you've left out are "wofür - dafür" (see also "wherefore" in Shakespeare, and its still-used partner "therefore") and "wozu - dazu", literally "where to" but more effectively translated as "to what end".
    – S. G.
    Jun 7, 2023 at 15:29

5 Answers 5

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In written German

First off, note that in written German "warum" easily surpasses all of its alternatives, as Google Ngram (see other answer) and DWDS corpus search show. And because all of "warum", "wieso", "weshalb" and "weswegen" are widely regarded as synonyms writers will exchange those words for each other just for more variety.

To compare the words' frequencies in written German, it is important to know that "weshalb" and "weswegen" can also be used to mean "deshalb", "deswegen" ("because of this"). A big part of the matches in the DWDS corpus search use the words in this sense, e.g.

Seine Haut ist mit Knorpelkörnern durchsetzt und kohlenschwarz, weswegen man ihn auch den Schwarzen Wal nennt.

So "weshalb" and "weswegen" are actually even more rarely used than Ngram suggests.

In spoken German

Cooperative or not?

The important distinction would thus be between "warum" and "wieso". The difference in spoken German has recently studied by Egbert and Vöge (2008)(restricted access) and by Volodina (2021)(free, German). They found out that "warum" and "wieso" have fixed roles in conversation. They argue the following:

"Wieso" is an information request. Basically: Tell me more about it.

Inge: ich wollte ihm die uhr dranmachn aber das ging nich
Anna: wieso nich?
Inge: die is- die is das ding hier abgebrochn

(The above is written as spoken, so not confirming the spelling rules.) Inge was expecting the question and continues explaining.

"Warum" is used for "challenging". Basically: "Something does not make sense for me, please explain" or even "I disagree. Please explain."

Their examples are a bit too long. Something similar I made up:

Vater: Rennt nicht so. Vergesst nicht, dass wir auch wieder runtermüssen.
Kind: Warum? Berg runter ist doch nicht anstrengend.

They found that a warum question was often followed by an unnaturally long gap and often a third party intervening. (what makes their examples long)

Hierarchy

They also found out that while in the everyday conversation corpus, "wieso" dominated "warum"(40:30), in a corpus of business meetings, there was almost no "wieso" and all "warum"s were uttered against someone lower in hierarchy. Data from school lessons (Volodina) also showed that in a hierarchical setting, almost no "wieso" occurs. But the few occurrences of "wieso" were mostly from pupil to teacher, although most of the speech was from teacher to pupil.

Conclusion

As a learner, I would not care about the difference, as most Germans also don't. Intonation is much more important in determining if something is a challenge or genuine question. Replacing all "wieso" with "warum" would probably not make anything sound strange at all.

While not explicitly mentioned, I think that "weshalb" and "weswegen" are a bit more formal and do not occur in spoken German that often.

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    To me (originally a native German speaker but now very rusty), "Warum" corresponds to "Why?", and "Wieso" to "How come?". "Why" has more of a sense of "What was the purpose or intent?", while "How come?" more of a sense of "What was the sequence of events that led to this?" Jun 9, 2023 at 11:08
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Maybe you'll get other answers, but for me, I would straight up deny that there is any difference in meaning.

Sure, you can look at their literal meaning (wie-so, wes-wegen) or their etymology and probably come up with some construed difference, but in reality, there just isn't any imho.

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    The only difference is that the latter two feel more formal and are a little bit less common in colloquial everyday language, but yeah - if OP's teacher or textbook is implying there are clear differences that need to be studied, they are being pedantic.
    – xLeitix
    Jun 8, 2023 at 6:37
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I agree with the others that there is no discernible difference between wieso, warum, weshalb, weswegen.

However, weil is different from darum, deshalb, and deswegen. First, weil is a conjunction whereas the others are adverbs. Second, weil is used to introduce the subclause giving the cause, whereas the others are used in the clause describing the consequence. (In other words, weil = because, whereas darum = hence.)

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    Or darum = therefore. Jun 7, 2023 at 9:00
  • Yeah, sure, there are many English words for this as well. Thus, hence, therefore, ergo, … Jun 7, 2023 at 9:12
  • I meant because therefore is the only one that has a direct interrogative counterpart (albeit quite an old-fashioned one) in wherefore, parallel to how darum has an interrogative counterpart in warum. Jun 7, 2023 at 9:38
  • I would propose that "deshalb" is usually better than "darum" or "deswegen" in formal writing?
    – Jan
    Jun 7, 2023 at 11:54
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    Variety is the spice of life, even in (most) formal writing. I don’t feel like ‘deshalb’ is any more formal than ‘deswegen’. Maybe ‘darum’ is ever so slightly less formal, but if someone had written it, I wouldn’t suggest changing it. Jun 7, 2023 at 11:57
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HalvarF is absolutely right, there's virtually no difference between the words in terms of meaning.

I'd like to add though, supported by Google Ngram , that warum is most commonly used, and after being tied for nearly 60 years, wieso recently surpassed the usage of weshalb.

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Warum is also "famous" for being the favourite word of curious children, that ask you holes into the belly.

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    Note that the Ngram is based on a case-sensitive search, which means it is for usuage at the start of the sentence. If you switch to case-insensitive "[Ww]eshalb" is much more common and was overtaken by "[Ww]ieso>" only quite recently.
    – user6495
    Jun 7, 2023 at 5:33
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As a german native speaker I pondered about this very question for some time - without any definite answer. I experienced the answers given above as inspiring, but not fully satisfying.

I use these expressions mostly interchangeable since the days of my childhood. So this old TV series called Sesamstraße came to my mind whose intro you can be found on YouTube.

Its text is:

Der, die, das
Wer, wie, was
Wieso weshalb warum?
Wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm.
1000 Tolle Sachen, die gibt es überall zu sehen
Manchmal muss man fragen, um sie zu verstehen.

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