Asking questions in German is one of the big milestones in becoming fluent and it is an essential part of every language. Lately I tried to explain questions to my girlfriend and I want to share my insights with you as well.
There are four basic ways to ask questions in German. You can ask questions by using question words and without using question words. In subordinated clauses you will have to use the indirect question. In specific situations you are able to formulate questions by using a preposition and the word “was”.
Please keep in mind that you do not need to know all of these ways of asking questions. If you are at the beginner level, it will be totally fine to only know one or two ways.
In this case I would recommend you to learn how to do Ergänzungsfragen and Entscheidungsfragen as those are the most used ones.
Questions with Question Words (Ergänzungsfragen)
Questions which use question words are called Ergänzungsfragen (literally: supplementary questions) in German.
Ergänzungsfragen make use of a question word in the beginning of the sentence.
Additionally you will have to change the word order of the sentence by switching the position of the Subject (including personal pronouns) and the verb.
Asking a question by using a question word is the most common and the easiest way to ask a question.
Let’s have a look at some simple examples before we look at some more complex questions.
Question word – verb – subject …
Q: Where is the school?
A: The school is here.
Q: Wo ist die Schule?
A: Die Schule ist hier.
Question word – verb – personal pronoun + subject …
Q: When is your train leaving?
A: My train leaves at five.
Q: Wann fährt dein Zug?
A: Mein Zug fährt um fünf.
Q: What are you doing?
A: I am cooking dinner.
Q: Was machst du?
A: Ich mache Abendessen.
As you can see, the reply is almost the same as the question. To answer the question, we will have to change the pronoun and repeat the question backwards.
At the end, we substitute the question word with our answer.
But what about separable verbs? We have a similar but slightly more complicated structure if we use a question with a separable verb.
As with the simple structure, we will have to answer the question backwards.
We start with the subject (including personal pronouns) and follow up with the verb. Next we add our answer, and finish with the prefix of the verb.
Question word – verb – personal pronoun + subject – prefix
Q: When is your train departing?
A: My train departs at five o’clock.
Q: Wann fährt dein Zug ab?
A: Mein Zug fährt um fünf Uhr ab.
Q: When will you arrive?
A: I will arrive at five o’clock.
Q: Wann kommst du an?
A: Ich komme um fünf an.
Q: Where does the road finish?
A: The road finishes in Berlin.
Q: Wo hört die Straße auf?
A: Die Straße hört in Berlin auf.
Questions without Question Words (Entscheidungsfragen)
Entscheidungsfragen (literally: descision questions) are formed without question words.
Even though they are formed differently from Ergänzungsfragen, they are still pretty easy to formulate and you can always answer them with yes or no.
Consider the phrase: “Can you help me?”, and the answer: “Yes, I can help you”.
The translation for the answer is : “Ja, ich kann dir helfen”. So we can ask the question by switching the position of the subject and the verb (and adjusting the other verbs): “Kannst du mir helfen?”
We formulate our answer by switching back the position of the subject and the verb again.
Let’s look at some more examples:
Q: Do you like swimming?
A: Yes, I like swimming.
Q: Magst du das Schwimmen??
A: Ja, ich mag das schwimmen.
Q: Can you fly?
A: No, I can’t fly.
Q: Kannst du fliegen?
A: Nein, ich kann nicht fliegen.
Q: Are you cooking lunch?
A: Yes, I am cooking lunch.
Q: Kochst du Mittagessen?
A: Ja, ich koche Mittagessen.
Q: Are you driving home?
A: Yes I am driving home.
Q: Fährst du nach Hause?
A: Ja, ich fahre nach Hause.
It is easy to formulate this type of question for separable verbs. You will have to write the main part of the verb at the beginning, and put the prefix at the end of the sentence.
Q: Are you arriving now?
A: Yes, I am arriving now!
Q: Kommst du jetzt an?
A: Ja, ich komme jetzt an!
Q: Are you keeping up?
A: Yes, I am keeping up!
Q: Hältst du mit?
A: Ja, ich halte mit!
As you probably noticed, you will know that you have to use the Entscheidungsfrage when you would use “are you”, “do you”, “can you”, and so on.
This makes it easy for you to notice when you have to use this type of question.
It is the second most used way to ask a question in German and by knowing the Entscheidungsfrage and the Ergänzungsfrage, you will be able to ask everything you want.
With Question Words
The indirect question is the way to ask a question as part of a subordinate clause. For example:
Tell me, what you want me to do. The way you formulate indirect questions is closely related to formulating questions with question words, but still slightly different.
When formulating this type of question, you will use the question word to initiate the subordinate clause, follow up with the subject and the object, and finish with the verb. The answer to this type of question
Let’s look at some examples to understand this better.
Q: Tell me, what you are doing.
A: I am cooking.
Q: Sag mir, was du machst
A: Ich koche.
Q: I don’t know, what she said.
A: She said…
Q: Ich weiß nicht, was sie gesagt hat.
A: Sie sagte…
So we know how to do the indirect questions with normal verbs but we still need to cover seperable words.
Fortunately this is pretty easy since you do not separate the verb in this case. It will be placed, as a whole, at the end of the sentence.
Q: I don’t know, when he is arriving.
A: He is arriving….
Q: Ich weiß nicht, wann er ankommt.
A: Er kommt um fünf an.
Q: I don’t know, when your train is departing.
A: My train is departing at….
Q: Ich weiß nicht, wann dein Zug abfährt.
A: Mein Zug fährt um fünf ab.
When you use a separable verb, you will have to use the same type of answer that you would use when formulating a question by using question words and separable verbs.
Questions which Use The Preposition + “was”
The last type of question is also the least frequently used type of question, but it is nevertheless a useful way to ask a more specific question.
You will use this type of question if you already have some information about what is going on and you want to ask for some more specific information.
Let’s imagine your friend is driving to Berlin, and he told you this, but you want to inquire if he is using the bus or the car.
I am driving to Berlin
Ich fahre nach Berlin
How are you driving to Berlin?
Mit was fährst du nach Berlin? (mit was = by using what)
I am driving with the bus
Ich fahre mit dem Bus
I am sitting in the kitch
Ich sitze in der Küche
What are you sitting on?
Auf was sitzt du?
I am sitting on a chair
Ich sitze auf einem Stuhl
As you can see, we ask this question exactly the same way that we would ask a question with a question word.
The only difference is, that we substitute the question word by the preposition and the word “was”.
The answer also follows the rule for questions with question words, but we have to use the preposition together with the answer part.