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German verbs

Separable & inseparable prefix verbs

About verb prefixes | Differences in usage | Separable prefixes | Inseparable prefixes | Dual prefixes

Other verb topics: The infinitive | The past participle | The present participle | Weak verbs | Strong verbs | Mixed verbs
List of strong & irregular verbs & their forms | More on German verbs: GERMAN GRAMMAR INDEX

About separable & inseparable prefix verbs

Verbs from nouns, adjectives, & other verbs

A characteristic feature of German is its ability to create verbs with new meanings through the addition of prefixes. Many verbs in German are created from the addition of prefixes to nouns, adjectives, or other verbs. For instance, from the noun Urlaub, vacation, comes the verb beurlauben, to grant a leave. And from the adjective einfach, simple, comes the verb vereinfachen, to simplify.

When added to verbs, prefixes create new verbs with their own meanings. Sometimes the new word is similar in meaning with root verb: fragen, to ask, becomes befragen, to question, or nachfragen, to inquire, for example. Sometimes the newly created verb seems only somewhat related to the root verb or is even opposite in meaning: kaufen, to buy becomes verkaufen, to sell. Quite frequently, however, prefixes change the meaning of a verb so substantially, they have no apparent relationship to the meaning of the root verb: hören to hear becomes aufhören, to stop, cease; fahren, to drive becomes erfahren to experience.

Comparison with English phrasal verbs

While the different meanings that arise through the addition of prefixes may at first seem illogical to English speakers, it is important to note that English has similar types of verb phrases. The verb to stand is quite different in meaning from to stand out, to stand by, to stand back, or to stand in. And the verb to call is very different from to call up, to call out, to call for, or to call off. The major difference between the two languages is that in English an additional word(s) are used to complete the meaning of the verb, while in German these words are prefixes attached to the verb's infinitive form.

Separable vs. inseparable prefix verbs: Usage

As the name implies, inseparable prefix verbs have affixes at the start of the word that remain attached to the root in all conjugations and tenses. By contrast, the prefixes of separable prefix verbs are detached from the verb root when the verb is conjugated as a finite verb in the sentence (i.e. the one that agrees with the subject of the sentence) in the present and simple past tenses:

  Inseparable prefix verbs Separable prefix verbs
Morgen besuche ich meine Eltern.
Sie erfährt das Stadtleben.
Er unterschreibt den Brief.
Morgen kaufe ich ein.
Der Film fängt um 19.15 Uhr an.
Wir nehmen immer daran teil.

Gestern besuchte ich meine Eltern.
Sie erfuhr das Stadtleben.
Er unterschrieb den Brief.
Gestern kaufte ich ein.
Der Film fing um 19.15 Uhr an.
Wir nahmen immer daran teil.

Another important difference occurs in the past participle form. In the past participles of separable prefix verbs, the -ge- prefix appears between the prefix and the verb root. However, the past participles of inseparable prefix verbs completely omit the ge- prefix in their past participles and retain the inseparable prefixes in place of the ge-.

  Inseparable prefix verbs Separable prefix verbs
Gestern habe ich sie besucht.
Sie hat das Stadtleben erfahren.
Er hat den Brief unterschrieben.
Gestern habe ich eingekauft.
Der Film hat schon angefangen.
Wir haben immer daran teilgenommen.

In infinitive constructions that use zu, the zu likewise appears between the prefix and verb root of separable prefix verbs, and these are written together as a single word. Inseparable prefix verbs, on the other hand, behave in these infinitive constructions just like verbs that have no prefixes..

  Inseparable prefix verbs Separable prefix verbs
Ich habe vor, meine Eltern zu besuchen.
Um den Brief zu unterschreiben, brauche ich einen Stift.
Anstatt heute einzukaufen, bleibe ich zu Hause.
Wir haben keine Lust, an der Sache teilzunehmen.

Like inseparable prefixes, separable prefixes remain attached to the verb root in the verb's infinitive form, and when the finite verb appears at the end of a dependent clause.

  Inseparable prefix verbs Separable prefix verbs
Infinitive Willst du deine Eltern besuchen?
Er wird den Brief unterschreiben.
Wo wirst du morgen einkaufen?
Wir wollen immer daran teilnehmen.
Dependent clauses Ich sage, dass ich Peter besuche.
Als er den Brief unterschrieb, klingelte das Telefon.
Er fragte, ob ich morgen einkaufe.
Wenn du daran teilnimmst, lernst du viel.

See also The infinitive, The past participle, Infinitive constructions.

Inseparable prefixes

Inseparable prefix verbs are verbs whose initial syllable is never detached from the verb root in any tense or conjugated form. These are always unstressed syllables and usually, though not always, are morphemes (i.e. units of meaning) that cannot stand as separate words. Prefixes that are always inseparable are: be-, emp-, ent-, er-, ge-, miss-, ver-, & zer-. The most common of these is ver-.

Though the meanings of these prefixes are not fixed, they encompass a range of connotations that can be described in general categories. These delineations are not exhaustive and do not include every possible meaning of a prefix, but can be helpful in understanding the gist of a verb.

Prefix Meaning Examples
be- 1) Makes intransitive verbs or verbs with prepositional objects transitive, or shifts the action to a different object.
zaubern - to do magic | bezaubern - to enchant
Ich beantworte die Frage. (Ich antworte auf die Frage.)
Er beschenkt Sie. ( Er schenkt Ihnen etwas.)
2) Added to nouns to create verbs with the idea of providing something. (Often -ig- is added.) die Nachricht message | benachrichtigen to notify
die Waffe weapon | bewaffnen to arm
  3) Added to adjectives to create verbs with the idea of bestowing that quality. (Often -ig- is added.) ruhig quiet, still | beruhigen to calm
taub numb | betäuben to numb, drug
trüb dreary | betrüben to sadden
  Note: Approximately 25% of all inseparable prefix verbs begin with be-.
ent- 1) Added to verbs to convey the idea of escaping or moving away. fliehen to flee | entfliehen to escape, flee (from)
kommen to come | entkommen to escape, come away (from)
  2) Creates verbs from nouns, adjectives, or verbs. Indicates the removal of something.

ent- often corresponds to English un-, de- or dis-.
laden to load | entladen to unload
decken to cover | entdecken to discover
fern far | entfernen to remove, delete
die Fessel chain | entfesseln to unchain
  Note: Approximately 15% of all inseparable prefix verbs begin with ent-.
emp- A variation of ent- that is used before some verb roots beginning with f.
fehlen to be lacking | empfehlen to recommend
finden to find | empfinden to perceive, sense
er- 1) Creates verbs from nouns or other verbs. Conveys the conclusion or end achievement of an action. finden to find | erfinden to invent
lernen to learn | erlernen to learn, acquire
trinken to drink | ertrinken to drown
  2) Creates verbs from adjectives. Conveys the idea of becoming something or giving something a quality. Often adds an umlaut to the root, where possible. ganz whole | ergänzen to complete
niedrig low | erniedrigen to humiliate
neu new | erneuern to renew, revive
  Note: Approximately 10% of all inseparable prefix verbs begin with er-.
ge- ge- is rare as a verb prefix. It carries no distinct meaning. In many instances, the root verb is linguistically extinct. fallen to fall | gefallen to be pleasing
--- | geschehen to occur
--- | gelingen to succeed
miss- Like the English prefix mis-, the German miss- indicates failure. It creates a verb that stands as a negative opposite to its positive or neutral root. -- | misslingen to fail
fallen to fall | missfallen to displease
billigen to approve | missbilligen to disapprove
handeln to act | misshandeln to maltreat, abuse
ver- 1) Added to verbs to express idea of completion, waning, or going away. brennen to burn | verbrennen burn (to ashes, to death), scorch
hungern to be hungry | verhungern to starve
geben to give | vergeben to give away
jagen to hunt | verjagen to chase away
  2) Added to verbs to express the idea of doing something to excess or wrongly, or to convey the opposite meaning from its root. lernen to learn | verlernen to unlearn, forget
führen to lead | verführen to seduce
achten to esteem | verachten to despise
bergen to salvage | verbergen to conceal, hide
  3) Creates verbs from adjectives or nouns that convey the idea of becoming something or giving something a quality. Deutsch | verdeutschen to translate into German
der Stein stone | versteinern to turn to stone
die Ursache cause | verursachen to cause
einfach simple | vereinfachen to simplify
deutlich clear | verdeutlichen to elucidate
  4) Creates verbs from nouns to convey the idea of providing something. das Silber silver | versilbern to silver plate
der Körper body | verkörpern to embody
  Note: Approximately 45% of all inseparable prefix verbs begin with ver-.
zer- Creates verbs from nouns, adjectives, or other verbs to indicate destruction, usually "into pieces". das Glied member, limb | zergliedern to dismember
klein small | zerkleinern to reduce to small bits
stören to bother | zerstören to destroy
teilen to divide | zerteilen to disperse

There are a handful of prefixes which may be separable or inseparable. These include: durch-, über-, um-, and unter-. The distinctions in usage are the same as the distinctions between inseparable and separable prefixes discussed below.

Separable prefixes

Separable prefix verbs are verbs whose initial syllable is detached from the verb root in finite or inflected forms. These are always stressed syllables and usually, though not always, are morphemes (i.e. units of meaning) that can stand as separate words. These are most frequently prepositions (e.g, ab, an, auf, aus, bei, mit, nach, statt, vor, zu) or adverbs (e.g., fort, los, nieder, vorbei, weg, zurück, zusammen). However, nouns and adjectives can also serve as separable prefixes (e.g., teilnehmen, festhalten).

Because the separable prefixes are typically words with distinct meanings, their meanings as prefixes are often more stable and predictable than the connotations of the inseparable prefixes. Nonetheless, the possible meanings given below are not exhaustive; they are meant as a general reference. Here are some of the more common separable prefixes and their frequent meanings.

Prefix Meaning Examples
ab- Conveys "away", "down", "off", with the idea of finishing or completing an action
fliegen to fly | abfliegen to depart (of airplane)
nehmen to take | abnehmen to take down/off
an- Conveys "at", "on", or the idea of starting an action or doing something partially. lächeln to smile | anlächeln to smile at
schauen to look | anschauen to look at
probieren to try | anprobieren to try on
tasten to touch | antasten to touch on
trinken to drink | antrinken to start drinking
auf- Conveys "up" or the idea of a sudden start klären- to clarify | aufklären to clear up
essen to eat | aufessen to eat up
munter lively | aufmuntern to liven up
brechen to break | aufbrechen to break open, to set out (on a trip)
aus- Conveys "out" with the idea of completing an action gleichen to equal | ausgleichen to even out
rufen to call | ausrufen to cry out
radieren to erase | ausradieren to erase (completely)
ein- Derived from the preposition "in". Conveys "in" or the idea of getting used to something atmen to breathe | einatmen to inhale
leiten to lead | einleiten to introduce
spielen to play | einspielen to warm up

los- Conveys "away" or the idea of beginning something fahren to drive | losfahren to set out (on a trip)
reißen to rip | losreißen to tear away
werden to become | loswerden to get rid of
mit- Conveys "along", "away", or the idea of accompanying or cooperating nehmen to take | mitnehmen to take along
singen to sing | mitsingen to join in singing
machen to do | mitmachen to participate
vor- Conveys the idea of demonstrating, going forward, or preceding schreiben to write | vorschreiben to stipulate
singen to sing | vorsingen to sing to
wärmen to warm | vorwärmen to preheat
weg- Conveys "away" schicken to send | wegschicken to send away
führen to lead | wegführen to lead away
zurück- Conveys "back", the idea of returning denken to think | zurückdenken to think back
reisen to travel | zurückreisen to travel back
zusammen- Conveys "up" or "together", the idea of reducing to a focal point schrumpfen to shrink | zusammenschrumpfen to shrivel up
kleben to adhere | zusammenkleben to stick together
brechen to break | zusammenbrechen to collapse, cave in

Prefixes that are separable or inseparable

Some prefixes can be used as separable prefixes or inseparable prefixes. The most common of these are durch-, über-, um-, unter-, and wider-. There is a usually a clear distinction in meaning between those used separably and those use inseparably. The separable prefixes are usually more literal in meaning than the inseparable ones. It is also quite easy to distinguish between the two because the separable prefixes are always stressed and the inseparable prefixes are always unstressed. (Underlining indicates word stress.)

  Inseparable prefix verbs Separable prefix verbs
durch- Most compounds with the durch- prefix are either separable or exist in both forms. Means 'through', 'without interruption', or indicates the conquering of obstacles or denotes completion
  durchleben to experience
durchdenken to think over
  Ich habe es nicht richtig durchdacht.
durchschlafen to sleep uninterrupted
durchfallen to fall through; fail
  Er ist in der Prüfung durchgefallen.
über- About 75% of verbs with the über- prefix are inseparable. Usually combined with transitive verbs, indicates 'over', 'up', or movement over a boundary.
  übersetzen to translate
übermalen to paint over
  Die Grafittis übermalen wir mit grauer Farbe.
überordnen to give precedence to
überkochen to boil over
Die Kartoffeln kochen über.
um- um- is equally frequent as a separable and an inseparable prefix. Means 'around', or indicates movement in a different/opposite direction or to a different side, or a change of some kind.
  umgeben to surround
umgehen to go around
umarmen to embrace
   Wir umarmen uns.
umschulen to retrain
umwenden to turn over
umsteigen to change (buses, etc.)
  Wir steigen in Köln um.
unter- unter- is equally frequent as a separable and an inseparable prefix. It is almost always transitive or reflexive. Means 'under', 'among' and can imply 'at the bottom of a text'. In a few words, the meaning is indistinct.
  unterschreiben to sign
unterdrücken to suppress
unterschätzen to underestimate
  Der Lehrer unterschätzt ihre Intelligenz.
unterkommen to find accomodation
untertauchen to submerge
untergehen to sink
  Die Sonne geht unter.
wider- With a few exceptions, most verbs with the prefix wider- are separable. Means 'against', 'toward', or 'back'.
  widersprechen to contradict
widerrufen to take back, revoke
  Der Angeklagte widerruft sein Geständnis.
widerhallen to echo, reverberate
widerspiegeln to reflect
  Kunst spiegelt den Zeitgeist wider.

Sometimes two verbs exist that as infinitives appear to be identical, except that one has a separable prefix and the other an inseparable prefix. However, differences lie in both meaning and also pronunciation; as with other verbs with prefixes, separable prefixes are stressed, inseparable unstressed.

  Inseparable prefix verbs Separable prefix verbs
  umschreiben to paraphrase, circumscribe
  Er hat den Kern des Problems umschrieben.
  He outlined the heart of the problem.
umschreiben to rewrite
  Ich habe den Artikel umgeschrieben.
  I rewrote the article.
  überspringen to skip, jump
  Er überspringt die Hürde.
  He jumped the hurdle.
überspringen to cross over
  Die Gewalt springt in Nachbarstaaten über.
  The violence is spreading to neighboring countries.
  durchschauen to see through
  Er durchschaut ihre Lügen.
  He sees through her lies.
durchschauen to look over, look through
  Wir schauen die Bücher durch.
  We're looking over the books.

Books consulted:
Hammer's German Grammar and Usage, 2nd ed., by A.E. Hammer, revised by Martin Durrell, 544 p. (1983)
Using German, 2nd ed., Martin Durrell, 319 p. (2003)
Duden. Die Grammatik, Bd. 4., 4th ed., 800 p. (1984)

About verb prefixes | Differences in usage | Separable prefixes | Inseparable prefixes | Dual prefixes
List of strong & irregular verbs | Dative verbs | Genitive verbs | Verb + preposition idioms
For more German verbs topics, see the GERMAN GRAMMAR INDEX

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