Because there are three words for expressing because in German (denn, weil, da)

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Because there are three words for expressing because in German (denn, weil, da)

Early on in anyone’s German career they will encounter coordinating conjunctions — that is simple joining words that link together two independent clauses. Brilliant! Almost no grammar needed here. Get rid of the full stop and put in your conjunction to link two sentences. The only thing you need to remember is the logic of the sentences that you’re combining. Are the ideas related enough to justify linking them with und (and) or is the second clause really an alternative to the first and therefore needs to use aber (but). And then comes denn (because).

The thing that confuses many German learners is that they are taught denn early on but they mostly hear and read this other word — weil — for because. Two words with the same logical linking task and with the same English meaning. “Why?” you ask yourself are there two words and how are they different? Before we get stated I’m just going to throw one more word into the mix, because it can also mean because — da. There we have it, three words for because. Before you bang your head on your desk or laptop keyboard with frustration read on and discover how to use these conjunctions correctly.

We use denn as a way of providing a reason for the action or claim of the first clause. Let’s look at how we put this together.

Ex.

Es geht ihm schlecht, denn er hat gestern Abend zu viel getrunken.

Phil geht es schlecht. Er hat gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken.

  • Phil isn’t doing too well. He drank too much beer last night.

Phil geht es schlecht, denn er hat gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken.

  • Phil isn’t doing too well, because he drank too much beer last night.

Warum geht es Phil schlecht? — Denn er hat gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken.

  • Why isn’t Phil doing too well? — Because he drank too much beer last night.

All that is happening here is that two independent clauses are being brought together and written as one. There is absolutely no need to change the word order in the clauses. We should also note at this point that conjunctions do not count as grammatical places. You can reverse test your use of a coordinating conjunction by replacing it with a full stop (period). Do the two sentences make sentence? Are they two independent clauses — two complete ideas? If yes, then you’ve used the coordinating conjunction correctly.

So why is it that there are two other words for because in German? The subordinating conjunctions weil and da allow us to do something called inversion. But let’s take a look at how we can use weil and da.

Ex.

Es geht Alan schlecht, weil er gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken hat.

Alan geht es schlecht. Er hat gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken.

  • Alan isn’t doing too well. He drank too much beer last night.

Alan geht es schlecht, weil er gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken hat.

  • Alan isn’t doing too well, because he drank too much beer last night.

Weil Alan gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken hat, geht es ihm schlecht.

  • Because Alan drank too much beer last night, he isn’t doing too well.

Alan geht es schlecht, da er gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken hat.

  • Alan isn’t doing too well, because he drank too much beer last night.

Da Alan gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken hat, geht es ihm schlecht.

  • Because Alan drank too much beer last night, he isn’t doing too well.
A quick note on weil and da. Da is less formal than weil and used more in spoken than in writing. However, both are correct.

A subordinating clause cannot stand on its own. It is not a complete idea (weil er gestern Abend zu viel Bier getrunken hat). It leaves the reader or listening asking the question “And… What’s your point?” In German the conjugated verb comes at the end of the subordinating clause. Because of this we can move the subordinating clause to the start of a sentence. When we do this, the entire subordinate clause is considered to be the grammatical position 1. This means that after the comma (,) we need to start the next clause with the conjugated verb.

Standard sentence structure

Inversion

Da and weil are used in the same way in German, though most dictionaries will provide the following meanings:

weil – because
da – since (not as a time reference)
denn – for / because

However, in German usage we do not differentiate any special meaning. What is important is the positioning of the verbs. Also we cannot invert denn sentences. Denn can be used at the start of a sentence when it is an answer to a question started with warum, wieso, or weshalb.

Now some of you are probably very keen listeners when people are speaking to you in German. You pay attention to sentence structure and verb placement and you know without a doubt that you have heard German native speakers using weil like denn.

Ex.

Ich bin heute spät, weil ich habe meinen Zug verpasst.

Wir können am Freitag nicht mit ins Kino, weil wir haben schon Pläne.

Alarm bells should be ringing. Yes, these sentences are grammatically wrong. However, as it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to keep track of what they are thinking and what they want to be saying it has become common for even native speakers to make this mistake.

An argument can be made for its correctness in a case where there is a long pause after weil. The pause after the weil supposedly means “Folgendes der Fall ist:” (the following is the case:).

Ex.

Wir kamen erst um zehn Uhr, weil – der Zug hatte Verspätung.

Wir kamen erst um zehn Uhr, weil Folgendes der Fall ist: Der Zug hatte Verspätung.

Though we can argue for weil being followed by an independent clause, it is easier to learn how to use denn and weil correctly and avoid Grammar arguments.

Exercises:

Combine these two clauses into one. Pay attention to reasoning and causality for potential inversion. Keep the clause order the same.

1. Sie sieht nicht gut aus. Sie ist ganz bleich im Gesicht.

________________________________________________________________________________

2. Der Zug kommt circa 10 Minuten spät an. Es gab einen Unfall.

________________________________________________________________________________

3. Du hast immer Kopfschmerzen. Du sollst zum Arzt gehen.

________________________________________________________________________________

4. Der VW kostet 30’000 Franken. Er ist voll ausgestattet.

________________________________________________________________________________

5. Es regnet heute. Wir bleiben zu Hause.

________________________________________________________________________________

6. Wir müssen früh losfahren. Am Gotthard gibt es viel Stau.

________________________________________________________________________________

7. Alex hat viel gelernt und trainiert. Er spricht heute sehr gutes Deutsch.

________________________________________________________________________________

Answers:

1. Sie sieht nicht gut aus, denn sie ist ganz bleich im Gesicht. / Sie sieht nicht gut aus, weil/da sie ganz bleich im Gesicht ist.

2. Der Zug kommt circa 10 Minuten spät an, denn es gab einen Unfall. / Der Zug kommt circa 10 Minuten spät an, weil/da es einen Unfall gab.

3. Weil/Da du immer Kopfschmerzen hast, sollst du zum Arzt gehen.

4. Der VW kostest 30’000 Franken, denn er ist voll ausgestattet. / Der VW kostest 30’000 Franken, weil/da er voll ausgestattet ist.

5. Weil/Da es heute regnet, bleiben wir zu Hause.

6. Wir müssen früh losfahren, denn am Gotthard gibt es viel Stau. / Wir müssen früh losfahren, weil/da am Gotthard es viel Stau gibt.

7. Weil/Da Alex viel gelernt und trainert hat, spricht er heute sehr gutes Deutsch.

  1. mdmd12-23-2012

    Fantastic explanaion– many thanks.

  2. Tom WhittingTom Whitting02-07-2013

    thank you for the VERY CLEAR explanation of the denn, wiel and da business. your examples are super.

  3. dandan03-14-2013

    Thank you for the article. It does clarify this for me a little.
    I have some remarks if you don’t mind.
    You say: “The subordinating conjunctions weil and da allow us to do something called inversion” This is funny for me, because I would pay hard cash in order not to have to do these inversions… so “allowing” an inversion is really ironic. for me, placing the verb at the end is the biggest hurdle in learning german. I feel like Yoda doing it.
    However, as I read on I think that the reason we have both “denn” and “weil” is actually to allow a distinction between independent and dependent clauses, correct? Then, you have the following consequences:
    – if you use weil you MUST place the auxiliary verb at the end in conjugated form and the main verb right before the auxiliary, in infinitive (correct?)
    – if you use denn, you MUST NOT invert verbs.
    – weil allows also the placement of the secondary clause at the beginning of the sentence. Is this done a lot in spoken language? to me this makes things even more complex and difficult to learn.

    Also the exercises are confusing. You say “keep the clause order the same”, but the answers for 3, 5 and 7 are reversing the clause order, why is that?
    Thank you,
    dan

    • Hi Dan, thanks for your feedback. I’m still working my head around your explanations. If it works for you, stick with it though. Regarding the exercises, I meant not to switch the order in which the information is provided, in which case 3, 5, and 7 are all examples of inversion, but the clauses come in the same order as they are given in the exercise.

      • dandan03-26-2013

        I’m not sure if they work, that’s why I asked…

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