Among the subordinate clause conjunctions in the German language students have to master, "wenn", "falls" and "ob" are often considered particularly difficult to use. However, when you understand the difference between them you will no longer confuse them. This is the aim of this post.
Wenn translates as "whenever" or "if" and is used for recurring events, such as routines and conditions.
Wenn ich meinen Deutschunterricht beginne, frage ich meine Teilnehmer:innen, wie es ihnen geht.
(When(ever) I begin my German lessons, I ask my students how they are)
Ich trinke gern ein Glas Wein, wenn ich mein Abendessen esse. Vor einem besondern Essen trinke ich auch gern Champagner.
(I like to drink a glass of wine, when eat my dinner. Before a special dinner I also like to drink champagne)
Wenn man in Deutschland studieren möchte, muss man Deutsch können.
(If you want to study in German, you have to know some German)
"Falls" is similar to the conditional meaning of "wenn", but it is used in situations that are deemed less likely. So the best English translation would be "in case"
Ich würde gern morgen mit Ihnen sprechen, falls Sie morgen Zeit haben. Ich weiß jedoch, dass Sie sehr beschäftigt sind.
(I would like to talk to you tomorrow, in case you have the time to do so. I know though that you are very busy)
Falls Sie die Prüfung beim ersten Mal nicht besten sollten, können Sie sie im nächsten Semester wiederholen.
(In case you do not pass the exam on your first attempt, you can resit it in the next term)
Sie reisen Ende Mai nach Mallorca, falls es möglich ist
(They travel to Mallorca at the end of May, in case it's possible/if possible)
"Ob" is very different than "wenn" and "falls" since it translates as "whether" or "whether or not" and so its use is restricted to "yes" or "no" answers and indirect questions in German.
Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen, wie spät es ist.
(Could you please tell me what time it is)
Ich frage mich, ob du morgen Zeit hast.
(I wonder whether you're free tomorrow)
Wissen sie vielleicht, ob der Professor morgen seine Vorlesung abhält.
(Do you happen to know whether the professor is giving his lecture tomorrow)
To learn more about German word order, don't miss my posts on the difference between als and wenn, um zu vs. damit, the connectors nachdem, danach, bevor, vorher, infinitive clauses in German, when to use dass, aber vs. sondern, how to structure German sentences with tekamolo, and on relative clauses in German.
On our German language blog, you will also find posts on the conjugation of regular and irregular verbs in the present tense in German, the rules on the perfekt tense in German, on how to use nicht and kein in German, an explanation of German pronouns generally and mir vs. mich in particular, separable verbs in German, the difference between am meisten and meistens. You might also be interested in the difference between language levels from a1 to c2, how to master verbs with prepositions in German, a review of online German dictionaries, and my answer to the question if it is possible to learn German in one year. There, you will also find our top 5 tips on how to improve your German and on how to avoid the most common mistakes in the German language.
You might also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Learning German. Check it out to learn how to learn German fast. Our German lessons and small-group intensive German courses can help you achieve your goals.