With separable verbs, you can give a verb a new meaning simply by adding a prefix. You could, for example, take the verb laufen (to run) and add the prefix ab- (off). The new verb ablaufen has nothing to do with the movement originally described, but means “to expire”! By adding a new element to a verb, this verb takes on a new meaning. Most of the time, this meaning is easy enough to guess if you know the original verb and the new element. In that sense, separable verbs are a good way to expand your German vocabulary. On the downside, they come with some rules to follow. The existence of inseparable verbs that look a lot like separable verbs doesn’t make it easier. That shouldn’t keep you from adding them to your vocabulary, though. We will show you what separable verbs are (and what they are not) and give you a short guide on when and how to use them.
- What are separable verbs?
- How to decide between separable and inseparable verbs
- How to use separable verbs
What are separable verbs?
In German, you can build a new verb by adding a prefix to another verb. The result is a new, stand-alone verb with its own entry in your dictionary and an altered meaning.
- fahren – to drive
- abfahren – to depart
One prefix can be used with different verbs (abbauen/to dismantle, abhauen/to run away, abholen/to pick up), and one verb can be used with different prefixes (abfahren/to depart, wegfahren/to drive off, sich verfahren/to get lost)
When conjugating, some of these new verbs will split and some won’t. If you reached an intermediate level of German, you may already have noticed this. Level up your German by learning which are the separable and which are the inseparable verbs.
How to decide between separable and inseparable verbs
So how do we know if a verb is separable or inseparable? It all comes down to pronunciation. If the stress lies on the prefix, the verb is separable, if the stress lies on the first syllable after the prefix, it is inseparable.
abholen (to pick up) with the stress on the prefix ab– is separable:
- “Er holt seine Tochter ab.” – “He picks up his daugther.”
bestellen (to order) with the stress on the first syllable after the prefix (stel-) is inseparable:
- “Er bestellt eine Suppe.” – He orders a soup.
For non-native speakers, this can be hard to grasp. Luckily, there is another clue that lies in the German prefix.
List of separable German prefixes
The following German prefixes are always separable and thus make separable verbs:
ab– (away, from, off)
an- (to, at, on)
auf- (on, to, in, up)
aus- (out, from, off, of)
ein- (in, into)
her- (here, from)
heraus- (out, forth)
herein- (in, inside)
herauf- (up, upward)
There are many more. Let’s do some sentences with verbs with separable prefixes to see them separated:
abfahren (to depart)
- “Der Zug fährt ab.” – The train is departing.
ankommen (to arrive)
- “Der Zug kommt an.” – The train is arriving.
aufgeben (to give up, surrender, abandon)
- “Er gibt auf.” – He gives up.
As a rule of thumb, if a prefix can be used on its own, it is separable. This is mostly the case for verbs with prepositions.
List of inseparable German prefixes
The following German prefixes are always inseparable:
Be-, ent-, emp-, er-, ge-, hinter-, miss-, ver-, zer-
- “Ich begebe mich nach Hause.” – I go home.
- “Ich entnehme eine Probe.” – I take a sample.
- “Er empfiehlt dieses Buch.” – He recommends this book.
Have you noticed how we didn’t give a translation for these prefixes? The reason for this is that they have no meaning on their own. As a rule of thumb, prefixes that can’t stand alone are inseparable. If you are not sure if a prefix is a word in its own right, use an online dictionary to find out. Instead of memorizing an endless list of separable German verbs, you should try to remember these inseparable prefixes.
German prefixes that can be separable, inseparable or both
This is where it gets complicated. There are a few German prefixes that can be separable, inseparable – or even both – depending on the verb they are added to:
über- (above, over)
unter- (under, below)
wider- (contrary, against)
For an example, let’s look at the prefix um-:
umsehen (to look around), separable:
- “Er sieht sich um.” – He is looking around.
Umarmen (to hug), inseparable:
- “Er umarmt seine Tochter.” – He is hugging his daughter.
Umfahren (to drive around, to run over), separable and inseparable with different
- “Er umfährt den Fußgänger.” – He drives around the pedestrian.
- “Er fährt den Fußgänger um.” – He runs over the pedestrian.
How to use separable verbs
So you’ve come across a verb with a prefix and decided that it is a separable verb. There are three cases that need your special attention:
1. Present tense, simple past and imperative
In these tenses, the prefix is separated from the verb and usually put at the end of the sentence. Let’s look at some German sentences with verbs with separable prefixes in these tenses, for example aufgeben (to give up):
- “Ich gebe auf.” – I give up.
- “Ich gab auf.” – I gave up.
- “Gib auf!” – Give up!
2. Past participle
The characteristic element of the past participle (Partizip II) is the prefix – ge:
“gehen” (to go) – “gegangen” (gone)
Inseparable verbs, the ge– goes between the prefix and the verb:
- “Ich habe aufgegeben.” – I have given up.
3. Clauses with um zu
In Clauses with um zu, the verb usually follows zu:
- “Ich kaufe ein Fahrrad, um damit zu fahren.” – I buy a bike in order to ride it.
If the verb in question is separable, zu is inserted between the prefix and the verb, all three elements form one single word:
- “Ich kaufe ein Fahrrad, um damit heimzufahren.” – I buy a bike in order to ride it home.
All you need to know about German separable verbs
You now know all you need to detect and use German separable verbs. In short, you either need to learn how to pronounce the verb to tell whether you can separate the prefix, or you need to memorize which German prefix has a meaning on its own. Remember, a prefix that has a meaning on its own is always separable. The separation takes place only in the present tense (Präsens), the simple past (Präteritum) and the imperative (Imperativ). In the past participle, the characteristic ge- is inserted between the prefix and verb. The same happens to the zu in clauses with um zu.
Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website contentrundumstier.de.