What the heck do wo-words mean?

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another part of our German is Easy Learn German Online online German-Learning Course for German online learning learners.
And after we’ve done some easy-peasy lemon-squeezy  words the last few times, I think it’s time to do some grammar.
Now that would be your turn to say “Yeay” or “Swell!”… come on… no cheer? We’ll do GRAMMAR!… nothing?
Hmmm okay, I guess your exited internally. And you should be because today, we’ll take an intense look at the

wo-words.

Or how a reader recently called them… the woe-words.
Woran, wonach, wobei, wogegen, wovon, vomit. Those ones. Today, we’ll learn what they mean and when and how to use them.
And just to get it out of the way… of course English has wo-words to… the where-words. Whereby, wherein, whereon and so on. But the use is so different that we’ll kind of just ignore them here.
That said, are you ready to expose another elusive  and intriguing bit of the German language for the boring complicated structure crap it actually is?
Cool :).

Wo-words are the counterpart of the infamous da-words. They’re like Yin and Yang. They do totally different things and you can NEVER interchange them, but still they are deeply connected to each other and they both come from the same background… the German fetish for location. German LOOOOVES to talk about location and it is very precise about it… just think of the whole hin and her insanity, or the bazillion prepositions or … the word da. Da means there and both are a the most  basicest answer to the question where.

  • Where? There.
  • Wo? Da.

One asks, the other answers. Don’t know if that’s really Yin and Yang but da and wo are definitely connected.
Now, Germans love this baby-word da so much, they even use it if they could just use a pronoun like normal languages do. Instead of saying über das (about that/it) people say darüber (lit. thereover) and so on.
All right. If we want to know what that is, we can ask for it. In English we’d it like this:

  • “What are you happy about?
    About that.” (pointing to pony)

About what? About that. One asks, the other answers. Looking at darüber we can see that da does the answering.
Guess who asks…

Wo-words as question words

Just like the da replaces the that, the wo replaces the what.

  • What are you happy about?
  • Worüber freust du dich?

Beginners often get tripped up by the wo. But it has NOTHING to do with location.

  • Worum geht es in dem Buch?

Questions starting with wo can be what-questions. As long as you keep that in mind, it doesn’t even matter that much if you don’t understand the preposition exactly. It probably doesn’t make sense and is a different one than in English anyway :)

  • What is the book about?
  • Wonach sehnst du dich?
  • What are you yearning for?

These wo-questions are really common,and  I would say that they are used more broadly and with more prepositions than the English what-questions.

  • Wobei hast du dich verletzt?
  • What did you injure yourself by? (lit)
  • Where did you get the injury from?
  • Hmmm… wonach riecht das denn hier?
  • What does it smell after? (lit)
  • What’s that smell?

Now, this whole core idea isn’t all that difficult but of course it takes a while to get used to it. Just remember… if you hear a question that starts with wo but makes absolutely no sense as a question about location… it was probably a wo-word. And often you can guess what is being asked for from context.
And as far as using them yourself goes, I have good news. The need for wo-words is not as strict as it is for the da-words. That means that you can actually use the “normal” way without it sounding totally wrong…  mit was, von was, auf was. People do say that a lot and for some phrasings the wo-word even starts to sound a little tiny bit stiff… in spoken language that is.

  • Auf was/worauf hast du Appetit?
  • (Lit.) On what are you having an appetite?
  • What would you like to eat?

Both are possible and I think I’d actually use auf was. Or at least 50-50. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn them.  I just wanted to mention that so you don’t feel fooled… like … you’re going the extra mile to get the wo-words right only to find all the natives merrily going like “nach was, bei was, durch was” :).
Knowing the wo-words and having a feel for them IS helpful, and, as we’ll see, there are even situation where not using them could change the meaning… dun dun dunnnnn
(Ha…that old “changes the meaning”-scare just never gets old)
But before we get to that, let’s dwell on the questions for a little bit.

So far, all the questions were direct. But just like all other question-words, wo-words can be used for indirect questions.

  • What did Thomas open his beer with?”…  direct question
  • I’d be great if you could tell me what Thomas opened his beer with?…
    indirect question used to ask something.
  • Maria asked what Thomas opened his beer with. …
    indirect question fused for reported speech

Indirect questions often look a bit different than their direct counterparts. No matter what language, we might have to adjust some pronouns… like, changing “you” to “me” or something. In English we also might have to remove a do or did and change the other verb a bit, and in German the most crucial change is something all too familiar… we have to move the verb to the end. Very creative, German. So… indirect questions are side-sentences… just like sentences with dass or weil.

  • Womit hat Thomas sein Bier aufgemacht?”… that is direct.
  • Ich habe Maria gefragt, womit Thomas sein Bier aufgemacht hat.

Now, indirect questions are actually not limited to stuff like the example… asking without asking or reporting what someone asked. We’ll get into more detail when we talk about indirect questions (comin’ up… at some point :), so for today let me just say that indirect questions are … boxes.  What does that mean, boxes? I’ll add a link to the article on boxes below but for now let’s just say that boxes answer to one one question. Wait …. so indirect question answers to a question??
I know it sounds odd, but it’s not.

  • “What’d she say?”
    What I needed to hear.”
    “Wow, that’s awesome.”

This is an indirect question and it is perfectly valid answer.
So… indirect questions are boxes, answering to one question. Examples:

  • I asked her [what she wanted to eat].

Here, the indirect question is a what-box. I could replace it with [something], or [her name] and still have a correct sentence.

  • “Maria lives [where she always wanted to live].”
    “So she finally moved to a farm.”

Here, the indirect question is a where-box. It answers the question “Where does Maria live?”. Of course, it’s not helpful if you don’t know anything about Maria’s dreams, but hey, if you don’t know what Paris is, that would be just as meaningless.
So, indirect questions are boxes and that is of course also true for indirect wo-word-questions.

  • [Wonach Meditierende suchen],    ist Schnellerleuchtung.
  • [What people who power-meditate are looking for]   is instant-enlightenment.
  •  [What I was most happy about]    was the poem.
  • [Worüber ich mich am meisten gefreut habe],    war das Gedicht.
  • Ich versuche mich daran zu erinnern,  [ womit meine Omi immer die Möhrensuppe gewürzt hat.]
  • I’m trying to remember    [ what my granny used to season her carrot soup with.]

All right.
Now let’s do something really crazy… the indirect question that is in the box, is kind of like one unit. How about we slap an article to it…. we do that in English sometimes, too.

  • All her do-the-dishes and clean-the-bathrooms  get on my nerves.

Do the dishes was a sentence. Do the dishes! And then we just nounified it. Because we can. So let’s do that with one of our indirect question boxes.

  • [Worauf ich mich am meisten freue] ist die kühle Bergluft.
  • [what I’m looking forward to most] is the crisp air in the mountains.

That’s the original.

  • Das Worauf-ich-mich-am-meisten-freue
  • The what-I-am-lookig-forward-to-most

That’s our new kick ass noun. And now let’s plug this into our example.

  • [Das, worauf ich mich am meisten freue], ist die kühle Bergluft.

Tadah… we’ve just created an example for a wo-word used as a relative pronoun.

Wo-words as relative pronouns

Relative pronouns are words that mark or set up relative clauses. And relative clauses are clauses that refer to something or someone that has been said before.

  • The man, who eats pizza, is pretty.

The English relative pronouns are who (whom, whose), which, that and … well… nothing. Like here:

  • The man (____)  I meant ate pizza

The rules for when to use which one and when to skip them are not exactly super easy to digest, but it is little more than an upset belly.
German relative pronouns are salmonella.
They all get “numbered”, “gendered” and “cased”. And by all I mean all. Even the ones that aren’t there in English, because…  well…

“Hey German, .. that one word there, we don’t really need it.
What about we just skip it.”
“Skipping? Hmmm… really.. hmm… I don’t know… can we do that, I mean,
is that safe?  …I…. uh….  I think I’ll keep it, if that’s okay.”

That’s especially annoying for English native speakers because they have to first realize that there is actually something being skipped.
Then, there is a difference being made between definite and indefinite and, last but not least, there are the wo-words. Those might come into play when the relative pronoun refers to a thing AND is combined with a preposition.

  • The beer of which I have dreamed all my life has finally been brewed – Bud Light.
    (Dear Mr. August Busch IV, please send the check within a week)

So, this would be a case for a wo-word, right? Well… not really. Wo-word MIGHT be needed if there is a relative pronoun and a preposition. That doesn’t mean that they always will be.
So… when do we need them? Well, that  isn’t really a question of right or wrong. It is more of a continuum… one the one end, there are situation where we MUST use them, then there is a huge blurry area where we can use them and then there aree phrasings where they would be wrong… or alter the meaning. DUNN DUNNNN DUNNNNNNNNNNNNNN.
Now, because there is no right or wrong, we need to get a “feel” for the wo-words. And the whole question-background actually helps a great deal.
You see, technically ,many of the example for indirect question we had earlier are considered relative clauses already.

  • I like [what I see].

In standard grammar the what-part would be called a free relative clause ( free because it doesn’t refer to anything from the main sentence) I don’t know… this doesn’t really make much sense to me, or better… I can’t really see a clear difference between these free relative clauses and indirect questions then. It’s kind of the same stuff. Maybe that’s actually the reason why often relative pronouns and question words are twins.. like who, which and where in English or quien, cual and que in Spanish.
But anyways… it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the wo-words are first and foremost question words. Questions refer to stuff that is vague, open, undefined, unclear. And that’s exactly what wo-words are good for… to refer to vague, empty things. And this brings us back to the example that we all have forgotten by now :)

  • Das, worauf ich mich am meisten freue, ist die kühle Bergluft.

Remember… we just kind of added an article to the indirect question.
From a relative pronoun point of view, the worauf refers to das, but what is das? It means nothing. Could be a singular or a plural, could be masculine or feminine, could be anything. It is completely vague and generic. English would even put in a generic thing 

  • The thing I am looking forward to most….

German doesn’t need that. It just leaves the das there dangling in all its vagueness, and the wo-word refers to it. Because that’s what they do, that’s what all question words do… refer to completely unknown stuff.
So this is kind of the one end of the continuum, the pole where we really NEED the wo-words.  And the generic das  is not the only possible “vague phrase”. We could for instance add an adjective.

  • Das einzige, woran ich mich erinnern kann, ist, dass ich zu einer Betriebsfeier gefahren bin.
  • The only thing (that) I can remember is that I went to a company party.

Das einzige is completely vague by itself. The only WHAT?? And that’s why  woran with all its questiony-ness works much better than an das would… although people do say that in spoken.
These phrasings with just das and an adjective followed by a wo-word sentence are super common in German so I’m sure you will see them.
And there are a few others that work the same … let me call them amount-words…  viel, wenig, alles, nichts

  • Alles, worum ich dich bitte, ist, den Klodeckel runterzuklappen.
  • All (that) I ask you for is to close the toilet lid.
  • Es gibt viel, womit ich nicht zufrieden bin.
  • There’s a lot (that) I’m not satisfied with.
  • Der leichte Gewinnrückgang ist nichts, worüber man sich Sorgen machen müsste.
  • The slight drop in profits is nothing, about which one would have to worry.
  • The slight drop in profits is nothing to worry about.

Now, when we were talking about questions we learned that the need for wo-words isn’t super strict. Is that the same here? Like… could we NOT use wo-words with this generic das and just say

  • Das, auf das ich mich am meisten freue…

The answer is: not really. It’s understandable but it sounds pretty bad…. because, the lonely das isn’t anything … just an article of sorts. And if there is nothing, we cannot use a pointer like das.
Things would be different, if we put in a generic noun.

  • Diese  App ist (das), woran Thomas die letzten 10 Monate gearbeitet hat.
  • This app is what Thomas had been working on for the last 10 months
  • Diese App ist die Sache, an der Thomas…
  • This app is the thing (that ) Thomas has been working on

IN the first example we have the completely empty das… which isn’t even needed and could be skipped for good style. In the second example, we have die Sache, which is pretty generic too… but only content-wise. From a grammar point of view, it is a well established entity… die Sache, noun, singular, feminine. Sure we could use some more information ABOUT Sache but we don’t need the information that it is a Sache to begin with.
This last example brings us right into the very HUGE gray area of phrasings where people use either version… the wo-word-version or the non-vo-vord-wers… gee, that’s hard to pronounce :)

  • Gibt es eine App, womit/mit der man ausrechnen kann, wann man das nächste mal pinkeln gehen muss?
  • Is there an app (lit.: with which) that calculates the time until we have to go pee again.
  • Viele Leute haben ein Einkommen, von dem/wovon man nicht leben kann.
  • Too many people have an income (lit.: of which) that is not enough . (how could I say that more elegantly?)
  • Epiliergeräte sind ein Thema, worüber/über das man mit Männern nicht reden kann.
  • Epilators are something (that)  you cannot talk about with men.

There are MANY examples like this, where people use either, depending on region, education, personal preference or success at the morning constitutional… it’s really a continuum. The more common choice in all these examples are the non-wo-word-versions, but the wo-version is not rare either… here’s result from a Google search.

  • “ein Thema über das man”  - 222.000
  • “ein Thema worüber man” – 92.300

For the neuter nouns, it seems to make less of a difference than for masculine and feminine ones. For those, the wo-version really sounds odd to me and  Google supports that.

  • “eine App, mit der man” – 1.2 million (I much prefer this one, btw)
  • “eine App, womit man” – 77.000

So when should we use the wo-words?
In my opinion it would be best to only use them if we really have to… that is, if we have the generic das or  one of these phrasing.  Whenever we have  an article followed by an actual NOUN… like

  • a/the [noun]

then, the real relative pronoun will probably be the better choice. And the harder one… because relative pronouns really do suck in German and I am glad I don’t have to learn this crap.
All right, now there is one more use for the wo-words. Not a useful use for daily conversation but one, where not using a wo-word would actually alter the meaning… you know how it goes… dun dun dun.

One more use for wo-words

Let’s start with an example.

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto, worauf ich mich sehr freue.
  • I’ll go with the car,  which I am really looking forward to. (lit)
    (is that remotely possible in English?)
  • I’ll be taking the car. I’m looking forward to that.

Grammatically, the worauf-part is a relative sentence. And it refers to, not a thing or a person but the  full fact that is communicated in the container-sentence.
These kinds of sentences are ALWAYS done with wo-words. Auf das would not work here at all.
And it makes sense.

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto, auf das ich mich sehr freue.

The das refers to car. It cannot refer to the “fact” because das  needs a well established, verbalized anchor … not unframed meta-stuff like “the fact”.  So this sentence means that I’ll go by “the car I am looking forward to”. For example the new German is Easy company Porsche we’ll get next week. On an unrelated note… I will add a donation button below.
But anyways…. so  auf das clearly refers to the car. Technically, worauf could refer to the car as well. But it won’t be understood that way, usually. Why not? Because the car is too defined. Remember… wo-word are question words. They frame vagueness. Not to well established, verbalized things.
The whole worauf-part in the example is just a slapped on tag for the sentence. We could see it as a shortened version of this:

  • Ich fahre mit dem Auto. Das (refers to the fact) ist, worauf ich mich sehr freue.
  • I’ll be taking the car. That is what I’m looking forward to.

Let’s do some more example.

  • In dem Restaurant braucht man unbedingt eine Reservierung, worüber der Manager nicht informiert war.
  • You need a reservation for that restaurant, something (which ) the manager didn’t know about.
  • Die lokale Regierung zog die Abbaukonzession zurück, wozu es durch den öffentlich Druck gezwungen war.
  • The parliament withdrew the building permit, a measure (that) it was forced to by public pressure.

The German versions don’t need to verbalize what the wo-part is referring to,because German simply has more relative pronouns to chose from. But that’s not for today … we’ve definitely done enough. Man, this was quite a bit of theorizitationing. But I hop you could get some grasp of the wo-words.

Super quick recap… wo-words are the basically a combination of a preposition and wo and they are used instead of a combination of a preposition and what?

  • auf was = worauf
  • an was = woran
  • mit was = womit

The most important use is that as a question word, both for direct and indirect questions. You don’t have to use them but you will hear them, so if you hear an initial wo in a question that is clearly not about place… it’s probably a wo-word.
Wo-words are also used as relative pronouns, and we’ve seen that it is kind of hard to tell where a question-word ends and the pronouns starts… but it doesn’t matter anyway. The point of the  wo-words is that they refer to vagueness, and the main use apart the question is to “fill” a generic das

  • Das, woran ich mich erinnern muss, ist…
  • What I have to remember is … .

If you have any questions about the wo-words or if you feel like you didn’t quite understand something of today…I mean… it was quite a bit of theory after all… so, if you have doubt, please please go ahead and ask. And of course if you want to try some examples or if you just want to troll you’re welcome too :)
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

 

Further reading:

- German da-words explained
- German Word of the Day – “da”

44 responses to “What the heck do wo-words mean?

  1. michelle schmidt

    Test

    Date: Tue, 29 Jul 2014 16:04:30 +0000 To: (mail removed)

    Like

    • Have you written on the usage of double articles? I think seen it written occasionally to be used for “that which.” e.g. blah blah blah, die der ich habe gewünscht…. I still haven’t gotten a hang on the whole “that which/for/by etc etc” in german!

      Like

      • That would be part of of the post or I guess mini-series about relative pronouns and I’ve not started that yet. But at least in the case of a generic “that”, that doesn’t refer to anything, we can use the stuff from this post…

        - That which I’ve seen was amazing.

        We could replace “that which” by “what” and in these cases you’d just use the question word in German

        - Das, was ich gesehen habe, war großartig.

        Hope that helps a bit :)

        Like

      • Grateful Reader

        Brent, there are no double articles as such, the words that you mean are either pronouns, or articles that do follow each other but pertain to different nouns.

        1. Relative and demonstrative pronouns do look like articles most of the time, tho not always (e.g. not in plural). You can replace an already mentioned noun with them.

        Ich sehe eine Blume. Die (demonstrative) ist schön = Sie ist schön.
        Die Blume, die (relative) ich sehe, ist schön.
        Jemand hat jene Blumen. Peter ist der (demonstrative), der (relative) die (demonstrative) hat.

        2. Der Mann da drüben besitzt diese Bücher. Der die Bücher besitzende Mann.
        Der (pertains to Mann) die (pertains to Bücher) Bücher besitzende Mann.

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      • Grateful Reader

        Hausaufgabe: gegeben sei folgender Satz:

        Fremdsprachen sind höchst interessant; die, die die lernen, haben immer viel Spaß.

        Man zähle die verwendeten Artikel, Relativ- und Demonstrativpronomina auf. Was bezieht sich worauf?
        Zusätzlich schreibe man den Satz unter Verwendung (falls möglich) verschiedener Wörter so um, dass die grammatische Struktur des Satzes erhalten bleibt.

        Like

        • Vielen Dank für deine bemerkung . Ich habe oft das gleiche problem mit solcher pronomina wie Brent .
          1) Fremdsprachen sind höchst interessant , die( demontratif pronomen) , die ( plural subjet, dmontratifpronomen = Sie) die ( relativpronomen =Sprachen ) . Es is richtig ?
          2) Habe ich noch eine frage . Gibst es eine Betonnung auf DIE ( dritte pronomen ) ? Im Voraus danke .

          Like

          • Also hier mal die Lösung:

            - Fremdsprachen…. interessant. Die (Demonstrativpronomen plural, nominativ), die (Relativpronomen plural, Nominativ) die (Demonstrativpronomen Plural, Akkusativ) lernen…

            Du hattest es also fast richtig (Ich glaube du hast 2 und 3 vertauscht).
            Ich muss allerdings sagen, dass das so nicht idiomatisch ist.

            - Fremdsprachen… interessant. Die, die sie ….

            Man würde auf jeden Fall “sie” sagen. Es klingt besser, ist klarer und auch leichter zu verstehen. Demonstrativpronomen haben die Angewohnheit, immer auf etwas relativ nahes zu zeigen… das nächste, das passt. Da hilft auch Betonung nix.
            In folgendem Beispiel allerdings schon:

            - Die, die die, die die Äpfel genommen haben, kennen, sollen sich melden.

            Ist aber garnicht so schwer :)

            Like

          • Grateful Reader

            Das war ja ein zugegebenermaßen übertriebenes Beispiel nur zwecks Übung. Deswegen habe ich auch die zweite Aufgabe gestellt. Über was Emanuel schrieb hinaus würde ich bei solchen Konstruktionen empfehlen, “d–jenig-”-Wörter wenigstens ab und zu zu verwenden, die genau daher da sind, um Wiederholung zu vermeiden. In unserem Fall: “… diejenigen, die sie lernen”.

            Like

          • Oder in einem Fall wie diesem, wo es nicht darauf ankommt eine Gruppe einer anderen gegenüberzustellen, einfach:

            - Wer sie lernt…

            und da sind wir dann wieder bei indirekten Relativfragen, oder was auch immer das ist :)

            Like

  2. Actually (and someone correct me if I’m wrong), the wo-words are closely related to something that used to be said in English but isn’t to common anymore.

    “The thing *to which* I am looking forward the most is the crisp mountain air.”
    “Epilators are something *about which* you cannot talk to men.”
    “Is there an app *with which* someone can calculate the next time they’ll have to pee?”

    Maybe that’s just bad grammar but I’ve definitely heard that sort of phrasing before. Maybe it’s derivative of the wo-words in German?

    Like

    • Yeah, I put the preposition final because it seemed more idiomatic to me but I can’t really tell… your examples sound fine too.
      Anyway… I think the direct brother of “which” is the German “welche/r/s/n/m” and in older text you can find it used as a relative pronoun

      - Die Oper, auf welche ich mich sehr gefreut hatte, war langweilig.
      - The opera, to which I had been really looking forward, was boring.

      Today, this isn’t used much anymore and the common way would be “auf die”. However, students in high school, when they are trying to write fancy texts tend to overuse “welche” a lot. I don’t think there is a direct connection to the wo-words though, except of course the super ancient root that basically all our question words come from.

      Like

    • We still have many things, with which we can use such grammar structures.

      Like

  3. Hi, This is an off-topic question. I came across a sentence like this in a book.
    ‘Ein wunderbar witziges Buch. Wer noch keine italienischen Verwandten hat, wird nach der Lektüre unbedingt welche haben wollen’.
    I understand that this sentence means that ‘A wonderful and funny Book. Upon reading you would want to have an italian relative, if you dont have one’.
    I always thought ‘welche’ means ‘which’ or ‘what’. But here it seems to mean ‘one’. Am i misintrepreting something?.

    Like

    • No, you’re right… “welche” as a relative pronoun means “which” although it isn’t used that often, but “welche” is also the plural indefinite personal pronoun…

      - Hast du ein Fahrrad? Ja, ich habe eins.
      - Hast du eine Katze? Ja, ich habe eine.
      - Hast du Ideen (plural)? Ja, ich habe welche.

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  4. K. I get the question thing.

    but when it’s just used in relative clauses, I can’t tell the difference in all cases between, say, damit and womit:

    Diese App ist (das), woran Thomas die letzten 10 Monate gearbeitet hat. Why not with daran?

    Ich fahre mit dem Auto, worauf ich mich sehr freue.

    Why not: Ich freue mich sehr darauf, mit dem Auto zu fahren? Would this mean the same thing?

    Like

    • So… I’ll start with the second one. That is totally a valid rephrasing. It has the same message and you could say that as well… it’s just a completely different structure.
      As for the first one… that actually a good question.
      The “daran” would need something to point at. Something that is well established.
      The sentence (and I will use math now although usually HATE math equations in language) is at its core an assignment of TWO things

      A = B

      A is “the App” and B… well that is what we need. So we cannot use “daran” here because neither do we have a full established fact

      - A ist B. Daran (that fact I just said) gibt es keinen Zweifel.

      nor do we have an established B. It is confusing, I know, because it seems like we have established A already which is identical with B.But only after we’ve said it. Imagine I were to say:

      A = ?. Daran hat Thomas gearbeitet.

      That would be weird because we haven’t even been given a fact yet.

      A = B. Daran hat Thomas gearbeitet.

      Now, the “daran” could refer to B or the whole fact that A IS B… and I would understand it as the second version.
      Bottom line… we have no B yet, so “daran” can’t point to it. Only the vague wo-word can.
      Hope that helps :)

      Like

    • Just an afterthought… there’s a similar underlying structure in English

      - A is which Thomas has been working on…. is wrong, I think

      - A is B, what Thomas has been working on… is wrong too

      Like

    • And another afterthought :)… a pretty important one actually … “daran” and “woran” or da-words and wo-words have entirely different functions.
      Da-words are a box by themselves. They can answer a question alone. Wo-words are just intro-words that create a question or these relative clauses. But they cannot stand alone at all, except as a one word question.
      Just like “what” and “that”. “That” can be an answer by itself and it fills up one box.
      What just introduces a clause.

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      • Thanks, I think that helps.

        Let`s use another example that goes both ways (:DDDDD):

        Ich warte darauf, dass der Bus kommt.

        Der Bus, worauf ich warte, ist wirklich spät.

        Der Bus ist spät! Immer noch warte ich darauf! Ich muss halt das Auto nehmen…

        Like

        • In addition to this A=B thing though you said:

          Epiliergeräte sind ein Thema, worüber/über das man mit Männern nicht reden kann.

          A=B, worüber…

          Like

          • Indeed, that’s the blurry area where you need Sprachgefühl I guess… it might actually have something to do with the fact that “Thema” is “das”while “Bus” is “der”… wo-words work better with “das”. But then, Ahmed just gave an example with “das Messer, womit…” and there, I would prefer “mit dem”. So it might also have something to do with the fact that it is “ein Thema” and not “das Thema” … so it is more vague.
            I just checked Google

            - “ein Thema über das” – 86.500
            - “ein Thema worüber” – 23.100
            - “das Thema worüber” – 18. 600
            - “das Thema über das” – 61.100

            There are not really “rules” in that grey zone, just preferences.
            The only occasions where you really NEED the wo-words are the ones with the generic “das”

            - Das (einzige,lustigste,…), woran ich mich erinnern kann…

            Whenever you have something like

            - the/a [ noun ], which…

            the non-wo-word version will be better.

            Like

        • Almost :)… much better would be

          - Der Bus, auf den ich warte,…

          because “der Bus” is well established. We only describe closer… like

          “Which bus”
          “The one I am waiting for”
          “Oh that one.”

          but it’s a verbalized thing…. not vague enough for “worauf”. Just to make sure… it doesn’t matter whether or not we know what bus exactly. Wo-words work if we don’t even know that it is in fact a bus.

          Like

          • Hmm okay thanks.

            What about: Mein Bruder ist leider mit dem Auto verunglückt, worum sich unsere Eltern viel Sorgen machen?`

            Unsere Eltern machen sich viel Sorgen darum, dass mein Bruder mit dem Auto verunglückt ist.

            Like

          • Haha… you don’t really sound convinced :)
            This example works perfectly though… except… it should be “worüber” because “Sorgen machen” in that context takes “über”.

            Like

  5. Great article as always!

    So if i want to say, “Vienna is the city where I come from” (yes, a bit contrived I know), I would say:

    Wien ist die Stadt, woraus ich komme.

    Wäre das richtig?

    Like

  6. Hei Emmanuel,
    Noch ein toller Artikel !
    Meine versuche:
    1)Als direktes fragewort : Woran denkst du ? Ich denke an ihr.
    2) Als relativpronomen und indirectes fragewort: Der messer, womit ich das brot geschnitten habe , ist schwarz .
    Bis bald Ahmad

    Like

  7. I think I can explain the free relative thing, at least with respect to English. We (and by “we”, I mean “English”) have three kinds of things that can begin with a wh-word. One is the standard relative clause. In most dialects, these can start with “who”, “which”, or “where” (or “that” or nothing), but not with “what”:

    (1) The man [who I met yesterday] turned out to be really famous.

    The other two, indirect questions and free relative clauses, can both start with a greater variety of wh-words, but not with “that”. Like you said, they look pretty much the same. But what’s interesting are the differences. (Look, I just used a free relative!) The things we usually call indirect questions take the place of full clauses. Often, these are places where the meaning really does correspond to a question:

    (2) Sophie asked me [who I met yesterday]. (= Sophie asked me, “Who did you meet yesterday?”)
    (3) I wonder [who Sophie ate lunch with yesterday]. (= I wonder: Who did Sophie eat lunch with yesterday?)

    Other times, this is less clear. (4) is an indirect question.

    (4) I know [who Sophie ate lunch with yesterday]. (= I know that Sophie ate lunch with somebody yesterday, and I know the answer to the question “Who did Sophie eat lunch with yesterday”?)

    Okay, but that looks a lot like a free relative. And indeed, we can put a relative clause in the same position:

    (5) I know the man [who Sophie ate lunch with yesterday].

    But! (4) and (5) mean totally different things. I can say (4) if I know that Sophie had lunch with someone named Henry, but I have no idea who in the hell Henry could be. On the other hand, for (5) to be true, I have to be acquainted with Sophie’s lunch companion. In this case, the actual free relative sounds kind of weird — I need to use “whoever” here instead of “who”, but the meaning corresponds to (5), not to the indirect question in (4):

    (6) I know [whoever Sophie ate lunch with yesterday]. (= I know Henry, Tom, Joanne, and anyone else Sophie could have eaten with.)

    The point is: Indirect questions always correspond to whole clauses. Free relatives correspond to nouns. Maybe this is easier to see when we have a free relative in a place where we would never find an indirect question. (You can’t say, for example, “Sophie told whether she witnessed the murder to the investigators”)

    (7) Sophie told [what she knew] to the investigators.

    The meaning of (7) is something like “Sophie told the facts [that she knew] to the investigators” or “Sophie told something to the investigators”. The free relative here takes the place of a noun, and can always be paraphrased by a regular relative clause like “the facts that she knew”. The reason they’re called “free” relatives is that they’re missing their “head” — the noun that they attach to. Regular relative: [The place where I grew up] stinks; free relative: [Where I grew up] stinks. The free relative is missing the head “place”. So you can also call these “headless relatives”, which I think is a way cooler name. In your example above the “what I see” in “I like [what I see]” is a headless relative because it means basically “I like the thing(s) that I see”. It’s not an indirect question because it doesn’t mean “I like that I see something”, which is (kind of) what you’d get if you tried to make “what I see” take the place of a whole clause.

    Okay, phew, I’m done. I hope this was moderately clear — if not, I can answer questions and/or try to be clearer.

    Like

    • Wow… thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and write this down. It’s pretty interesting and also quite convincing. However,there were still a few things I wasn’t sure about and so I wrote a long comment with questions and examples until I realized something

      - Wer das will, ist unklar.
      - Wer das will, ist dumm.

      In the first sentence, the adjective refers to the whole fact. In the second it refers to the person specified. So maybe we could say that we’re looking at a free relative if whatever is referred to in the clause itself is ALSO referred to in the main sentence, while in an indirect question, the thing referred to in the clause has no role outside of it, but instead the fact itself.

      - I know who you know.

      This could be either.

      - I live where you live.

      This is a relative because the location in the where-part also what matters in the main part. It’s a location there as well.

      - I ask where you live.

      Here, it’s the fact that matters.

      - She told them what she knew.
      - She told them whether bla bla bal.

      The first one is a relative because the roles are the same.
      The second one cannot ever be a relative because “whether” isn’t ever asking for a thing.

      - Tell me what you’re reading.

      Again, this can be both… a relative in case we refer to the exact words the person is reading, or a question if we refer to, say, the book.
      I don’t know if that is accurate but that does make sense to me… what do you think ?
      Anyway… from a purely structural point of view they are the same thing, at least in German, I think. They are a constituent in the container sentence.
      By the way… just for the people reading these comments… it’s nothing you need to know to learn a language… it’s definitely nerd stuff :)

      Like

      • “In the first sentence, the adjective refers to the whole fact. In the second it refers to the person specified. So maybe we could say that we’re looking at a free relative if whatever is referred to in the clause itself is ALSO referred to in the main sentence, while in an indirect question, the thing referred to in the clause has no role outside of it, but instead the fact itself.”

        I think this is exactly right. And in the last case, it can be both because “tell” can be followed either by a noun (tell me a story) or by a whole sentence (tell me [that] you love me).

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, this was really informative, and after reading this a couple times, I realize I was even further off base than I’d thought. I’m glad you made a point of explaining why the “Wo-word” are very different grammatically, really, from the “Da-words”. In fact, a lot more different than I initially would have thought. Seeing “wo” connected to so many of the same other words as “da” had me thinking there was a closer association between the two in practice, but I usually couldn’t make them work, and now it is clear why that is. So thanks for that. Secondly, I’m also glad you went to pains to explain that the “wo” in these constructions doesn’t really have any connection to “where.” That also seemed apparent from the context where I’d see the words used, but I’m relieved to see you actually state plainly that we shouldn’t be looking for some connection to “where” because my brain had still continued to try to do that when I come across these words! I’m sure others have the same experience. I’ve read over this blog entry twice now, and I’m sure I’ll be doing it even more times — there is a lot of very good information here to absorb and get a feel for — plus, your injecting humor all over the place makes it fun to do it anyway. You clearly put a lot of time, thought, and effort into this lesson and I’m grateful for it. Like your other essay on the “Da-words”, I have the feeling that thanks to Google, you’ll see the hits and comments continue to increase for a long time to come. I’d done other searches on this subject in the past and NONE of them came anywhere close to getting deep into the nuts and bolts of how these words are, you know, actually used correctly in German. Most of them do state that it is essential to understand how and when to use them, and then they just sort of skim over the important details and understandable, clear explanations that had us searching for those answers in the first place! So, well done and a sincere thank you once again! ;-)

    Like

    • It’s really good to hear that you like it because it’s your post basically :) … it was really interesting to think about the wo-words and analyze what they do, and there was more to them than I had thought at first. Now I’m well prepared if someone asks me about them and that is awesome :)

      Like

  9. You asked if it was possible to say this sentence “I’ll go with the car, which I am really looking forward to.” I’d say it works if you say “forward to doing” to bring in the emphasis on the action rather than one noun. It’s not the sort of thing I’d use in non-casual writing, but I’m sure it gets said in conversation. To be really nit-picky, though, (and partially contradict my first suggestion), I’d say “I’m going with the car…looking forward to.” The use of present continuous here suggests that this is a plan, not just a sudden idea, and so it sounds more natural to use with “looking forward to.” And then it’s your choice if you want to keep “doing” at the end of the sentence.

    Like

  10. Wow great post! I’ve just started learning German, and your blog looks like it will be a great reference tool. I’m blogging about my experience at http://cathleenblogs.wordpress.com

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  11. Numerous efforts are made to learn the vocabulary words, but all the efforts goes in vain when they learnt words are not retained in the memory for ever. So for retaining the words for a longer duration of time visit http://www.vocabmonk.com and unlock all the amazing features.

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