Prefixes are grouped into three categories: Trennbar (separable), untrennbar (inseparable), and dual - which work as both separable and inseparable, depending on the context.
Comprehending the general meaning of these prefixes and their effects on the verbs to which they are attached is essential to success in German, whether speaking, reading, listening, or writing.
While for the most part there is no perfect translation for German prefixes, some follow patterns that can help you translate the meanings of verbs with prefixes.
Understanding these patterns and the context will not only give you a chance to understand and translate German, but also to speak and communicate fluently.
Keeping track with German prefixes: The 3 categories, explained
1. Separable prefixes (Trennbare Präfixe)
Separable prefixes are the most challenging of the three types, in my opinion. Verbs with separable prefixes show up in conversation and in writing before the actual prefix, leading you to believe the verb means something else until you finally come across the prefix at the end of the sentence and learn the true meaning.
Wichtig: Verbs that stretch over entire sentences or even paragraphs are the scourge of beginners to experienced professionals.
Verbs with separable prefixes are also very common in German. Here's how they work: The prefix separates from the verb stem (which is conjugated like a normal, independent verb) and is then just dropped at the end of the sentence or clause. In spoken German, the separable prefix is emphasized.
Der Mann kauft die Tomaten ein. The man buys the tomatoes.
Die nette Nachbarin bringt einen selbstgebackenen Kuchen mit. The nice neighbor brings a homemade cake.
In the perfect tense, both the verb stem and the prefix are dropped at the end in place of the auxiliary verb "haben" or "sein". The ge-, which would be added to a normal verb stem, is still added: However, it is placed between the separable prefix and the verb.
For example, the verb to shop becomes shopped in the present perfect tense.
Die Eltern haben Lebensmittel für die ganze Woche eingekauft. The parents bought groceries for the whole week.
Popular separable prefixes
Be advised that the suggested approximate translations below will not work 100% of the time, and you will have the best success if you simply memorize the meaning of the words.
This word is similar to the English "to" or "from".
kommen - to come
ankommen - to arrive
schauen - to see
anschauen - look at
This is used frequently and can sometimes mean "on" or "to".
stehen - to stand
aufstehen - to get up/stand up
machen - to do
aufmachen - to open
Also widely used, this usually means "from" or "of".
führen - to lead
ausführen - to perform
kommen - to come
auskommen - to get along with
See how complicated this can get?
As previously mentioned, you can't always rely on these translations. With verbs like come, do, and play, which have numerous meanings and prefixes, it is enormously helpful and recommended by teachers to know the rough translations of the prefixes.
2. Inseparable prefixes (Untrennbare Präfixe)
Probably the most difficult part of separable verbs. Los geht's!
Inseparable prefixes work just like separable prefixes, except that the prefix remains attached to the verb. Good news: This makes it much easier to recognize the full verb, especially in conversations or when listening. Unlike separable prefixes, inseparable prefixes are not stressed when spoken.
Ich bekomme morgen den Schlüssen für mein neues Haus. I'll get the key to my new house tomorrow.
In the perfect tense, verbs with inseparable prefixes do not take the normal ge-. Instead, they retain their prefix and are mostly conjugated in the perfect tense like a normal verb.
Sie können alle Informationen dem Handzettel entnehmen. You can get all the information from the handout.
Common inseparable prefixes
This prefix makes the verb take on a direct object and can sometimes function like the English "be-".
kommen - to come
bekommen - to receive
sprechen - to speak
besprechen - to discuss
This is a difficult question, but usually has to do with reception/perception.
fehlen - to miss
empfehlen - to recommend
finden - to find
empfinden - to feel
Unfortunately, there is only rarely a consistent translation for this word. Also, it can mislead beginners into thinking it is a past participle. To check this in certain contexts, you can look to see if there is already an auxiliary verb haben or sein. If there is not, it is probably a verb with the inseparable prefix ge-.
gewinnen - to win
Die Kinder gewinnen gegen die Erwachsenen. The children are winning against the adults.
Notice that we see ge-, but there is no auxiliary verb.
Die Kinder haben gegen die Erwachsenen gewonnen. The children won against the adults.
3. Double prefixes
The third type of prefixes requires almost exclusively memorization.
Knowing the meaning of prepositions such as through hinter behind, über above, um around, unter under, wieder again will help you translate the meaning of the verb.
However, memorizing the double prefixes does not serve the meaning (although memorizing the meanings certainly helps!). For double prefixes, you need to remember whether the preposition is inseparable or separable.
If the prefix is separable, it is stressed.
If it is inseparable, it is unstressed, as is the case with unilateral prefixes.
As you learn to use the different types of prefixes, you will deepen your speaking and writing skills while expanding your German vocabulary.
When you use German verbs with prefixes, you will recognize patterns that will help you remember how the prefixes change the meaning of the verbs. And once you recognize these patterns, it gets much easier to use German prefixes.
A good tip is to listen to the sentences over and over again. If you know how the prefixes are supposed to sound, it will be easier for you to use them.
The most important thing to remember is that you can never "guess" the meaning of a verb with a prefix, and although there are patterns, only practice makes perfect.
Once you have a good handle on the prefixes, you can start using them! A great way to do this is to write sentences that contain what you want to learn. You will find that you can remember what you learn better if you put it in writing.
The most important thing to remember is that there is never a 100% reliable way to "guess" the meaning of a verb with a prefix, and although there are patterns, only Übung macht den Meister...