“Dann” and “denn” are words that many German students find very confusing. In this blog post, I will explain the difference and offer examples for the various ways in which the words can be used in German.
So why are “denn” and “dann” confusing? There are three reasons.
The first and rather obvious reason is that their spelling is identical with the exception of the vowel. Second, the two words have a different meaning. While “denn” means “because”, “dann” translates as “then”. Third, they belong to different grammatical categories and enforce a different word order. “Denn” is a so-called coordinating conjunction which links two main clauses without changing the word order, whereas “dann” is an main clause connector that does change the syntax. So while both words connect two main clauses, “denn” is followed by the subject and the verb, “dann” needs to be followed by the conjugated verb and then the subject. Let’s look at some examples to clarify the difference.
subject+ conjugated verb
Er arbeitet, denn er muss Geld verdienen (He works because he needs to earn money).
Sie lernt Deutsch, denn sie hat einen deutschen Freund (She is learning German because she has a German boyfriend).
conjugated verb+ subject
Er arbeitet, dann geht er nach Hause (He works, then he goes home).
Sie lernt Deutsch, dann spricht sie mit ihrem deutschen Freund (She is learning German, then she speaks with her German boyfriend).
As the examples show, it is important to concentrate on both the difference in meaning and the position of the verb.
In colloquial German, “denn” is also used in as a modal particle, but mostly in questions. There it acts as an emphasis word that usually doesn’t translate into English at all. When chatting with a friend about the plan for tomorrow evening, a native speaker might ask you:
Wo wollen wir denn morgen Abend hingehen? (Where do we want to go tomorrow night?)
The point of adding “denn” here is to express curiosity about what the other person might suggest. In formal German, the phrase would drop “denn” and use the question word “wohin”: Wohin wollen wir morgen Abend gehen?
When asking why someone isn’t feeling well, a native speaker might wonder
Was ist denn los? (the non-literal translation is "what is going on?")
Here, “denn” is added to express concern.
Finally, a work colleague who wants to make a slightly ironic remark about a co-worker who tends to be late might say:
Was machen Sie denn schon hier? (The literal translation would be “what are you already doing here ?”, but the better translation would be “someone is early!”).
Adding the word ‘denn’ to the sentence doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, but it becomes clear that the speaker is somewhat surprised to see the colleague in the office that early.
“Denn” is not necessary component in any of the particle examples but just an emphasis.
On our German language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!", you will find answers to all your German grammar questions. From adjective declensions in German, the four German cases, the two-way prepositions to German word order.