Are there any fixed rules of when to use 'wie' and 'was' as 'what'?

I've just done an exercise and there is a sentence, which sounds:

"Wie sind die Bedingungen?"

But binweg said that either wie or was works too.

I'm confused of how to use wie or was.

Vielen Dank

May 9, 2017

  • 119

Wie (as an interrogative pronoun) generally means one of the following things:

  1. how? In what fashion? (Wie bist du hierher gekommen?)
  2. how? to what degree? (Wie groß bist du?)
  3. In combination with sein: what is/are … like?
  4. In combination with verbs like lauten (to be worded), heißen, but in colloquial speech occasionally also sein it asks for the wording/content of something (because phrase “what is x called” as “in what way is x called”)

So: “Wie sind die Bedingungen?” = What are the conditions like? (sense 3) or What are the conditions? (sense 4)

In this particular sentence, there is a second problem, namely that Bedingung also have different meanings, too, although all of them happen to be shared by the English condition:

  1. the state of being of something: His working conditions are terrible.
  2. a requirement/prerequisite/terms for something else: You can do that, but only on one condition.

“Was sind die Bedingungen” is unambiguous; it means “What are the conditions”, i.e. asks for the terms/prerequisites for something. “Wie sind die Bedingungen” on the other hand can mean either the same thing (with wie asking for the wording) or “What are the conditions like” (i.e. conditions in the first sense). Without a context I would tend to the second interpretation, simply because I would have expected the speaker to use a less ambiguous phrasing if they were asking for the terms of something (for example “Was sind die Bedingungen” or “Wie lauten die Bedingungen”).

I hope that makes things a little clearer.

May 9, 2017

To be honest: I can't explain why, but I would say, that "Was sind die Bedingungen?" is incorrect, but you may hear it in Germany. I would say "Wie lauten die Bedingungen?" is correct, "Wie sind die Bedingungen" may also be ok, although it does not sound very clean for me, but "Was sind die Bedingungen?" sounds weird in my ears.

I am not sure, but the reason, why you should use "Wie" here lies in the german grammar. The problem is, that we have a huge influence from the English language and more and more Germans forget the correct versions and use the English version instead, i. E:

What´s your name? should be correctly translated into "Wie lautet dein Name?" but in colloquial language many Germans ask nowadays "Was ist dein Name?", which is wrong, but actually in use by more and more Germans.

I believe, in your example it may be similar (?)

May 9, 2017
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