Weil vs Denn: When is only one correct?

Out of curiosity after 3.5 years of never using denn, I asked my German teacher if there was any difference at all, or if they were 100% interchangeable, and he told me that they are generally interchangeable but there are some cases where one just won't work. He said it is one of the hardest things for him to explain, but he just knows when weil won't work or when denn won't work.

*Is there a rule as to when weil or denn cannot be used?* I've never used denn much, only weil, but when I learned Dutch I basically straight up rejected omdat (weil) and I only use want (denn) for whatever reason. Definitely strange because when speaking German I use the subordinating version and when speaking Dutch I use the coordinating version lol.

PS: I know well what the words mean and how to use them, I just want to know if there are rules as to the special cases when denn must be used over weil or vice versa. If you can give me a couple examples I'll give you a couple lingots! :)

January 30, 2015


I can't really think of a situation where you can only weil and not denn or the other way around - what you must keep in mind, though, is that they affect word order (verb placement):

"denn" starts a main clause, which means that the verb comes second:

Ich kann nicht arbeiten, denn ich bin krank.

Ich gehe nicht spazieren, denn es regnet draußen.

"weil" starts a subordinate clause, which means that the verb comes last:

Ich kann nicht arbeiten, weil ich krank bin.

Ich gehe nicht spazieren, weil es draußen regnet.

While you sometimes hear even native German speakers say "...weil ich bin krank", it's not actually correct.


EDIT: Oh, I can think of at least one difference - you can't start a sentence with "denn", only "weil". So:

Weil ich krank bin, kann ich nicht arbeiten.

Weil es draußen regnet, gehe ich nicht spazieren.

is correct, but you can't start sentences this way with "denn".

(You could use "da" instead, however:

Da ich krank bin, kann ich nicht arbeiten.

Da es draußen regnet, gehe ich nicht spazieren.)

January 30, 2015

I don't know if this would qualify as a sentence, but I saw: "Denn du bist, was du isst."

January 30, 2015

Yes, it is a sentence for itself. But this sentence has a background! So it is not a start from nowhere. "Man ist, was man ist." =(one is, what one is.) --> "Man ist, was man isst" (=one is, what one eats.) --> "Man isst, was man isst." (=one eats, what one eats.) --> and again the first one. I don't know, what exactly was the first one, but this is the source and the reason why 'denn' is allowed to stay at the begin. ;)

January 30, 2015

I see, thanks.

January 30, 2015


December 27, 2017

There goes a lingot for you.

August 9, 2018

I know that already, but when would "abc, denn xyz" work and "abc, weil xyz" not work? I know how to use both properly, I'm just asking about the rare situations where one cannot work in place of the other.

January 30, 2015

Like I said above, the only situation I can think of where only one would be appropriate and not the other would be if you wanted to start the sentence with the clause giving the reason for something, in which case you can use weil, but not denn.

January 30, 2015


November 1, 2018

Can I just congratulate all contributors to this discussion. Wonderful stuff. I'm sure this is what the originators of DL were hoping for when they opened discussion pages. Complimenti! 30 Jan 2015.

January 30, 2015

Here is a short academic paper on the topic (analyzing the scope of denn):

The author argues that they are "by no means interchangeable."

Instead of "never using" denn, take it out for a spin. Since you are already experienced with weil, have some fun with it - it's suppposed to be "easier". ;)

January 30, 2015

Thanks, I read through some of that and it seems a bit complex. In Dutch I remember learning that omdat (weil) is only used to give the reason for the information in the first clause. So maybe there's a subtle difference like that? Maybe not exactly that, but I was hoping there'd be a little tiny rule like that that would separate their meanings.

January 30, 2015

Ya, I've read it a few times now and it's not easy. I was tempted to break out my computer so I could print it out and parse it a bit and "translate" it into regular speech so we could have an easy version of her findings. But I think it boils down to scope. Weil seems to be stronger in some sense, a direct reason. Denn also gives a reason, but seems to be more about adding parenthetical information. :)


Well, here is what I do have:

  1. Denn can be used to express a wider range of causal relations than weil.

  2. Denn has more restrictions on it because it is a coordinating conjunction.

  3. Denn cannot be used as a direct answer to a why question, or if the content of the "because clause" is evident or has been previously mentioned.

  4. Denn can only conjoin main clauses (unlike other coordinating conjunctions like und or oder.)

  5. Peculiarities of denn are semantic, not syntactic.

  6. Denn must combine clauses thematically.

  7. Denn is parenthetical and stands outside the conditional.

  8. Weil can be imbedded in a conditional.

This is definitely higher level stuff. It's funny, the basic instructions are usually that weil and denn are basically interchangeable, but denn is a little different. Perhaps it boils down a bit to "Sprachgefühl." :)

January 30, 2015

But I think it boils down to scope. Weil seems to be stronger in some sense, a direct reason.

This answer on StackExchange supports that distinction.

January 30, 2015

Thanks! When I was taught this it was all in German so some of the finer details undoubtedly slipped past me at the time. :) Well, all I could remember was that there was a slight difference, so perhaps I wasn't too far off. ;) Vielen dank!

January 30, 2015

So does this mean that denn is used for clauses that have the same theme to them and weil is used for giving a direct reason for the first clause?

I mean like, I've been using just weil for 3.5 years and have never run into any issues at all. I know how to use both, I know little rules like not using denn to start a sentence... I guess my question is really hard to ask & the answer is hard to explain. :(

January 30, 2015

To be sure, I am no expert, just a regular reader of these academic texts. With any luck one of the German instructors on here will pop by and weigh in. But, from what I gather, this is an extremely fine point of linguistic study. In fact, I think this author has made a big part of her career out of focusing on this special question.

I uprooted another article like the previous one by her, with similar examples, but it is slightly easier to read. Here it is if you wanna see it:

Basically, I think "denn" has a parenthetical function that you can't quite pull off with "weil" since "weil" is so strong. Denn seems to have a built in relationship with what it is added to. It has an implication of "must" or "by the way" if I understand her argument correctly. (Check out that example of how it is used when you see a wet street and therefore deduce it has rained, although you didn't see it rain. Ya know?)

However, all that said, I think the average user, who doesn't want to study linguistics and just wants to jump into using the language, can just think of "weil" and "denn" as basically interchangeable. (Although, as you know, there are some additional ways to use denn.) The differences may really only be "academic."

Her scholarly findings do not seem to have dripped down into the way that language teachers approach explaining this to students. My guess is because her findings are fairly recent, and likely not widely known, they haven't shown up in the way German is being taught to English speakers. I don't know how this may or may not have filtered its way into the way native German teachers teach the subject. I know at the point in B1 where these conjunctions first popped up in ernst it was just enough to learn that there were different sets of conjunctions to memorize that triggered different rules for word order. But you already know that! Good luck! :)

Oh, and maybe it would be good to write a few sentences where you might prefer "denn" to "weil" and then maybe the German folks around here could take a look and see if it makes a difference or not. But from the other comments, it mostly doesn't seem to. :) EDIT: As usual Abendbrot has some good examples! Thanks man!

And lastly, I remember when "denn" showed up in German class we all suddenly wanted to use it as our "because" just because we hadn't yet mastered tossing the verb to the end of the sentence. And it was fine. It worked. :)

January 30, 2015

Mostly the two words are interchangeable.

Die fleißigen Zwerge sind fleißig, denn sie arbeiten jeden Tag von früh bis spät in die Nacht. ~denn is better than weil in my opinion.

Hmmm, you would like to hear a reason why. Maybe because the working time does not say if they gnoms work hard. They could also work hardly all the day and therefore they have to work so long. If you only have an indication, but you are not sure about you indication, we use 'denn'.

Interchangeable, same content:

  • Die Polizisten verhaften ihn, denn Zeugen sagten aus, sie hätten ihn möglicherweise gesehen. = Die Polizisten verhafteten ihn, weil Zeugen aussagten, sie hätten ihn möglicherweise gesehen. For sure the witnesses are not sure, if they are right; but the police can be sure, they had witnesses, who gave an indication.

It is very hard to find examples, because the most indications seems to be right.

not interchangeable: Sind deine Tiere krank? Sie fressen nichts mehr.

  • Deine Tiere sind krank, denn sie fressen nichts mehr. ='sie fressen nichts mehr' is an indication for an illness. The reason for the illness is something else.;
  • Deine Tiere sind krank, weil sie nichts mehr fressen. = Your animals are ill, because they don't eat anything. Here the reason for the illness is that the animals don't eat.
January 30, 2015

Thanks. That is very helpful mi amigo! :)

January 30, 2015

Es ist beruhigend zu sehen, dass ich trotz abflauenden Lingot-Einnahmen aus dem Ampelmännchen (Immersion) immer noch einen stetigen Lingoteingang verzeichnen kann.

January 30, 2015

Ah, so denn is saying that it is an unrelated reason & weil is a direct reason? The animals might not be eating because they are ill, or they might be ill because they aren't eating.

January 30, 2015

Right. In the horse-sentence, it is exactly like you say it.

'weil' is always a direct reason, but 'denn' can be an unrelated reason as well as a related reason. 'denn' will never be a such strong connected reason like 'weil'.

There was an example in one of the links. Er erschoss ihn, weil der Offizier dies befahl. -Der Offizier befahl das Erschießen. Er erschoss ihn, denn der Offizier befahl dies. -Der Offizier befahl das 'aus den Augen schaffen.' Der Mann, der schloss, deutete den Befehl des Offiziers als Erschießen. Es ist auch möglich, dass der Offizier den Todesschuss direkt befahl.

I hope you can translate for you these sentences otherwise you can ask again.

January 30, 2015

'denn' is used for assumptions, about which the speaker is not sure, if it is right or about which he/she will not say that this is the only possibility.

January 30, 2015

If you had to boil this all down into an easy to remember rule, what might that rule be? :)

January 30, 2015

Vielen dank ! Was ist mehr haufig - denn oder weil ?

January 30, 2015

Was ist häufiger -'denn' oder 'weil'?

I don't know. It is like comparing 'because' and 'if'.

Ich weiß es nicht. Ich kann es nicht sagen. Es ist, als würde man 'weil' mit 'wenn' vergleichen.

In wissenschaftlichen Schriften wirst du definitiv häufiger 'weil' oder 'aufgrund/ auf Grund' finden.

January 30, 2015
  • weil, da
  • (darum, deshalb, deswegen)
  • auf Grund

these are my favourit ones.

January 30, 2015

I think you can use both nearly in every case, but you have to change the word order if you change the word you use. And how Majka.leta said, you can't start a sentence with "denn". Never.


January 30, 2015

I didn't add this before because I figured you know this quirky blog already, but just incase here it is: It is all about denn.

And in those articles, the term CP means "complementizer phrase" which is basically the way modern linguists describe conjunctions and relative pronouns apparently.

Hope it helps! :)

January 30, 2015
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