Non-People Questions in German: Understanding Was and Was für and Welcher

Hallo, Deutschlerner. In my last post about question words, I explained question words that are used to ask about people. In this post I’ll explain which question words to use when you aren’t asking about people. There are only two words on my list for today, but there are a lot of little things that you should know about these question words in order to use them properly. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get started. 

was vs was für vs welcher - A2 German Grammar

If you are really wanting to put your German learning on track, consider joining Herr Antrim’s Deutschlerner Club! For just $14.99 per month you will get access to his full A1 and A2 courses plus new materials as he creates them. You will go from knowing zero German to being able to have a short conversation in a short few weeks. Before you know it, you will be conversational in German on a variety of important topics, all while mastering German grammar.

“Was” as the Subject

The English question word “what” is usually best translated with the German question word “was”. There are two ways to use the question word “was”. Let’s start with some examples of how to use it as the subject of the sentence. 

Was ist dein Lieblingsfilm? –
What is your favorite film? 

Was fällt vom Himmel? –
What is falling from the sky?

In these two examples, “was” is the subject of the sentence. We can tell this by answering the questions. 

Was ist dein Lieblingsfilm? Lucky Number Slevin ist mein Lieblingsfilm. –
What is your favorite film? Lucky Number Slevin is my favorite film. 

Was fällt vom Himmel? Der Regen fällt vom Himmel. –
What is falling from the sky? Rain is falling from the sky. 

“Was” as the Direct Object

“Was” can also be used as the direct object in the sentence, meaning something that is being acted upon. For example: 

Was möchten wir zum Frühstück essen? –
What would we like to eat for breakfast? 

Was hast du gestern gemacht? –
What did you do yesterday? 

In these two questions, the word “was” represents the direct object of the sentence. If we answer those questions, we need the accusative case. 

Was möchten wir zum Frühstück essen? Wir möchten Eier und Obst essen. –
What would we like to eat for breakfast? We would like to eat eggs and fruit. 

Was hast du gestern gemacht? Ich habe Baseball gespielt. –
What did you do yesterday? I played baseball. 

How to Use “Was für”

When I talked about the accusative question word “wen”, I mentioned you can use it with accusative prepositions. That is not usually the case for “was”, as you would use a wo-compound instead of “was”. You won’t see “für was” very often. Instead, people often say “wofür”. I’ll cover those wo-compounds in an upcoming video, but the short version of that lesson is that you add “wo” in front of whatever the preposition is to create a wo-compound that is essentially the preposition plus “what”: for what, around what, through what, etc. 

What you can do, however, is use “was für”. When used in this order, you aren’t saying “for what”, but rather “what kind of”. For example: 

Was für Musik hörst du gerne? –
What kind of music do you like to listen to? 

Was für Bücher hat er gelesen? –
What kinds of books has he read? 

Was für ein Geschenk hat sie bekommen? –
What kind of a gift did she get? 

Was für einen Wein trinken wir heute Abend? –
What kind of wine are we drinking this evening? 

Was für eine Jacke trägt man bei 12 Grad? –
What kind of a jacket does one wear at 12 degrees (53° F)? 

Which ending does “ein” get in “Was für ein”?

Make sure that when you use “was für” you choose the correct grammatical ending for “ein”. Contrary to popular belief, the accusative case is not always needed after the combination of “was für”. That’s because these two words work together to act as one as the question word of the sentence. In my example “Was für einen Wein trinken wir heute Abend?” I chose the accusative case, not because of the preposition “für”, but because “Wein” is the direct object of the sentence. It is the thing being drunk. 

English Grammar Nerd Side Note

Yes, “drunk” is the proper form of the verb “drink” in that last sentence. The forms of drink are: drink, drank, have drunk. When using the passive voice, as I did, you use the present perfect form “drunk”. It is also an important distinction that the wine is being drunk and not getting drunk. If that were the case, the wine has become sentient and is becoming drunk on its own alcohol, which sounds a lot like a plot for a bad film starring Seth Rogan. 

Here are some more examples using “was für” followed by a variety of cases to show that it isn’t always followed by the accusative case. 

Was für ein Tag ist heute? –
What kind of day is today? 

Was für einen Tag hast du heute gehabt? –
What kind of a day did you have today? 

Was für einem Mann hast du geholfen? –
What kind of a man did you help?  

The first example “Was für ein Tag ist heute?” uses the nominative case, as “Tag” is the subject of the sentence. The second example uses the accusative case, as “Tag” is the direct object of the sentence. It is the thing being had by “you”. In the last example, I used the dative case, as the man is the object of the dative verb “helfen”. 

Breaking Down the Cases

An easier way to think about this is to remove “was für” from the sentence entirely. This leaves you with the base sentence and makes the cases more clear. 

Ein Tag ist heute. –
A day is today. 

Einen Tag hast du. –
You have a day. 

Einem Mann hast du geholfen. –
You helped a man. 

“Was für” as an Exclamation

Another way to use “was für” is in an exclamation. Such as:

Was für einen großen Hund hast du! –
What a big dog you have! 

Was für ein schöner Tag! –
What a beautiful day! 

Was für ein süßes Kind! –
What a sweet child!

How to Use “Welcher”

Sometimes German learners will mix up “Was für ein” and “Welcher”. “Welcher” is the German version of “which”. It is used to inquire about a specific item from a group of items, while “was für ein” is asking for a specific type of thing within a group. Here are a few examples of how you can use “welcher”. 

Welcher Tag ist heute? –
Which day is today? 

Heute ist Dienstag. –
Today is Tuesday. 

Was für ein Tag ist heute? –
What kind of day is today? 

Heute ist ein schöner Tag. –
Today is a beautiful day. 

Welcher Zug fährt nach München? –
Which train is traveling to Munich? 

Dieser Zug fährt nach München. –
This train is traveling to Munich. 

Was für ein Zug fährt nach München? –
What kind of train is traveling to Munich?

Der Zug nach München ist ein ICE Zug. –
The train to Munich is an ICE train. 

Choosing the Endings for “Welcher”

“Welcher” doesn’t always end with R. These examples end with R, because they are both masculine nouns in the nominative case. Let’s take a look at some other examples to see some variety in the endings used. 

Welche Farbe hat das Auto? –
Which color is the car? 

Welches Buch hast du gelesen? –
Which book did you read? 

Zu welchem Fußballverein gehörst du? –
To which soccer team do you belong? 

The first example ends with E, because the noun that follows is feminine and accusative. “Welches Buch” used an S at the end to show the neuter accusative form. The last example used the dative case after the dative preposition “zu”, which is why the masculine noun “Fußballverein” required “welchem” in front of it. 

“Welcher” is in a category of words known as “additional der-words” in some textbooks. This basically means that the last letter has to match the gender and case of the noun that follows it. 

“Aus welchem Grund”

Let’s take a look at one more example, so I can draw attention to another common problem for native English speakers. 

Aus welchem Grund sagst du das? –
For what reason do you say that? 

In this example I translated “aus welchem Grund” as “for what reason”. All of the other examples were translated with the English question word “which”. So, which translation is correct? Does this word mean “which” or “what”? Well, this is another example of English native speakers not knowing their own language. 

When “Which” is Actually “What”

My students wouldn’t translate almost any of the sentences in this entire video with “which”. They seem to ignore “which” entirely. They exclusively use “what”. This phenomenon has become more common in the past few years and I can’t really put my finger on why it happens. Just be forewarned that if you are a native English speaker, you might have trouble figuring out when you need “welcher” if you can’t figure out when to use “which” in English. 

The easiest solution to this problem is that the German word “was” cannot be followed up by a noun unless it is also using “für” as in my other examples. The only way to say “what” followed by a noun in German is to use “welcher”. 

What movie did you watch? –
Welchen Film hast du gesehen? 

What color is your car? –
Welche Farbe hat dein Auto? 

What size shoe do you wear? –
Welche Größe von Schuhen trägst du? 

What material is this shirt made of? –
Aus welchem Material ist dieses Hemd gemacht? 

If you are really wanting to put your German learning on track, consider joining Herr Antrim’s Deutschlerner Club! For just $14.99 per month you will get access to his full A1 and A2 courses plus new materials as he creates them. You will go from knowing zero German to being able to have a short conversation in a short few weeks. Before you know it, you will be conversational in German on a variety of important topics, all while mastering German grammar.

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