The Difference between ‘kennen’ and ‘wissen’

In this post I’ll be talking about two German verbs that are very common and widely used, “wissen” and “kennen”. Both translate to the English verb “to know”, but they are used in different situations and as in English there is only one verb for both situations, it happens a lot that students use “wissen” instead of “kennen”, and vice versa. In order to avoid misunderstandings, it’s necessary to know the difference between these two German verbs.

Let’s start with “wissen

You use “wissen” when you start a sentence with ‘I know, that … etc.’ such as “I know, that one plus one is two”. You also use wissen, when you have the knowledge about something, as in “I know how to drive a car” or “I know when he’ll be back from work”. These sentences are usually followed by a subordinate clause. Here are some examples to get a better understanding:

Ich weiß, wann der Film beginnt.
I know when the film starts. You have the knowledge about something. And you see that there is the question word “wann” (when) after I know. That is a clear sign that you have to use “wissen” and not “kennen”.

Weißt du, wie man einen Kuchen bäckt?
Do you know how to bake a cake? This is a question and you ask if someone has a specific knowledge. You can also see that I used a question word – wie (how) that is an indicator for “wissen”.

Nein, ich weiß nicht, wo er wohnt.
No I don’t know where he lives. The question word in this case is wo (where).

Ich weiß, dass Kolumbus Amerika entdeckt hat.
I know that Columbus discovered America. This is an example for a sentence that starts with “I know, that etc.” Sentences like these always use “wissen”.

Hast du gewusst, dass ich in Berlin wohne?
Did you know that I live in Berlin? This time it’s a question, but it’s the same principle. “I know, that etc” requires “wissen”.

And now let’s move on to the second verb: “kennen

You use “kennen” when you’d like to express that you’re familiar with someone or something, for example: “I know your brother”. Or “I know the bakery on Main Street”. These are usually simple sentences, they can be as short as “Yeah, I know him”. Let’s have a look at some examples with “kennen”:

Ich kenne die neue Freundin von Peter.
I know Peter’s new girlfriend, or as we literally say: I know the new girlfriend of Peter. In this example you express that you’re familiar with a person.

Kennst du die Hauptstadt von Deutschland?
Do you know the capital of Germany? You could replace “Do you know” with “Are you familiar with” and that’s an indicator for “kennen”.

Ja, ich kenne sie.
Yes, I know it. In German we say I know her, because capital is a feminine noun. A short and sweet sentence, that’s a sign for kennen. Sentences with “wissen” are usually much more complex.

Ich kenne den Unterschied zwischen kennen und wissen.
I know the difference between „kennen“ and „wissen“. Basically, when you say “I know something”, you use “kennen”.

Kennt ihr das Passwort für das WLAN?
Do you guys know the password for the WiFi? And here again, I’m asking “Do you know something?” and that’s why I used “kennen”.

OK so let’s summarize:

– You use wissen, when you say something like „I know how to cook pasta“.
– You also use wissen when there are question words in the sentence, for example “I know where the keys are”.
– Another typical scenario for wissen is “I know that…” as in “I know that an hour has 60 minutes”.
– You use kennen in sentences like “I know someone” or “I know something” as in “I know the difference between this and that”.

I know that these rules might be confusing, but you’ll get a feeling for it and the longer you practice and speak German, the easier it gets and you won’t have to think too much because it just sounds right.

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