Separable and Inseparable Verbs in German Grammar
How to learn the German separable and inseparable verbs
Many verbs in German are formed by adding prefixes. These verbs are called:
separable verbs and inseparable verbs
When prefixes are added to verbs, new verbs with their own meaning are created. Their meaning changes when a prefix is added.
The prefix determines whether a verb is separable or not.
Separable prefixes are separated from the verb in the conjugated form, e.g. anstehen - ich stehe an (to queue - I queue).
Inseparable prefixes cannot be separated from their verb, e.g. bestehen - du bestehst (to pass - you pass).
Sometimes the new word has a similar meaning to the root verb: fragen becomes anfragen (to inquire). Sometimes the newly formed verb seems only slightly related to the root verb or even has an opposite meaning: kaufen becomes verkaufen. Often, however, prefixes change the meaning of a verb so much that they have no obvious relation to the meaning of the root verb: hören (to hear) becomes aufhören (to stop), or fahren (to drive) becomes erfahren (to experience).
Separable verbs follow the same pattern as other verbs (weak or strong), but you have to do something extra:
remove the prefix
conjugate the verb as usual
put the prefix at the end of the sentence
Here are 10 commonly used separable verbs in German along with example sentences:
anfangen (to start): Ich fange heute Abend mit dem Kochen an. (I'll start cooking this evening.)
aufstehen (to get up): Er steht früh auf, um Sport zu treiben. (He gets up early to do sports.)
aussehen (to look): Wie siehst du heute aus? (How do you look today?)
einkaufen (to shop): Wir müssen noch Lebensmittel einkaufen. (We still need to shop for groceries.)
mitbringen (to bring along): Bring bitte eine Flasche Wasser mit. (Please bring a bottle of water along.)
umziehen (to move, change clothes): Sie ziehen nächsten Monat in eine neue Wohnung um. (They're moving to a new apartment next month.)
anrufen (to call): Kannst du mich später anrufen? (Can you call me later?)
fernsehen (to watch TV): Abends sehe ich gerne fern. (I like to watch TV in the evening.)
zumachen (to close): Bitte mach das Fenster zu, es zieht. (Please close the window, there's a draft.)
zurückkommen (to come back): Wann kommst du aus dem Urlaub zurück? (When are you coming back from vacation?)
Comparison with English Phrasal Verbs
Although the different meanings created by the addition of prefixes may at first seem illogical to English speakers, it is important to know that there are similar types of verb phrases in English.
The verb to stand has a very different 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 main difference between the two languages is that in English one or more additional words are used to complete the meaning of the verb, whereas in German these words are prefixes attached to the infinitive form of the verb.
Remember that separable verbs are split in the sentence when used in different tenses or with certain modal verbs. The prefix moves to the end of the sentence or clause in these cases. For example, "Ich fange heute Abend mit dem Kochen an" becomes "Ich habe heute Abend mit dem Kochen angefangen" in the Perfekt tense.
The verbs with the following prefixes are separable:
ab-, an-, auf-, aus-, bei-, ein-, los-, mit-, nach-, her-, hin-, vor-, weg-, zu-, zurück-, zusammen-
In the finite form, these verbs are separated from their prefix, which usually comes at the end of the sentence.
Example: Ich steige in den Bus ein. I get on the bus.
In the past participle, we add ge- between the prefix and the verb.
Example: Ich bin in den Bus eingestiegen. I got on the bus.
List of Separable Verbs
Detailed explanations of the various separable prefixes with meanings and example sentences are given here.
Communicates "away", "down", "off", with the idea of ending or completing an action
fliegen - to fly | abfliegen - to depart (of airplane)
nehmen - to take | abnehmen - to take down/off
Communicates "at", "on" or the idea of starting an action or partially doing something.
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
Communicates "on" or the idea of a sudden take-off
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)
Communicates "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)
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
Communicates "away" or the idea of starting 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
Communicates "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
Communicates the idea of demonstrating, going ahead or leading the way
schreiben - to write | vorschreiben - to stipulate
singen - to sing | vorsingen - to sing to
wärmen - to warm | vorwärmen - to preheat
schicken - to send | wegschicken - to send away
führen - to lead | wegführen - to lead away
Communicates "back", the idea of returning
denken - to think | zurückdenken - to think back
reisen - to travel | zurückreisen - to travel back
Communicates "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
Verbs with the following prefixes are inseparable:
be-, emp-, ent-, er-, ge-, miss-, ver-, zer-
These prefixes remain an integral part of the verb, even in the finite form.
Example: Ich verkaufe mein Auto. I am selling my car.
The past participle of inseparable verbs is not formed with ge.
Example: Ich habe mein Auto verkauft. I have sold my car.
Inseparable verbs are verbs whose initial syllable is not separated from the verb stem in any tense or conjugated form. They are always unstressed syllables and usually, though not always, morphemes (i.e. units of meaning) that cannot stand as independent words. Prefixes that are always inseparable are: be-, emp-, ent-, er-, ge-, miss-, ver-, & zer-.
The most common of these prefixes is ver-.
The meanings of these prefixes are not fixed, but they include a range of possible connotations that can be described in general categories. These definitions do not cover all possible meanings of a prefix, but they can be helpful in understanding the essence of a verb.
List of inseparable Verbs
Detailed explanations of the various non-separable prefixes with meanings and example sentences are given here.
1) Makes intransitive verbs or verbs with prepositional objects transitive or moves the action to another 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 form verbs that are meant to provide something. (Often -ig- is added.)
die Nachricht - message | benachrichtigen to notify
die Waffe - weapon | bewaffnen to arm
3) Added to adjectives to form verbs intended to communicate this quality.. (Often -ig- is added.)
ruhig - quiet, still | beruhigen - to calm
taub - numb | betäuben - to numb, drug
trüb - dreary | betrüben - to sadden
Important: About 25% of all inseparable prefixed verbs begin with be-!
A variant of ent-, used before some verb roots beginning with f.
fehlen - to be lacking | empfehlen - to recommend
finden - to find | empfinden - to perceive, sense
1) Added to verbs to communicate the idea of escaping or leaving.
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. Denotes 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
Important: Approximately 15% of all inseparable prefix verbs begin with ent-!
1) Creates verbs from nouns or other verbs. Communicates the conclusion or end result of an action.
finden - to find | erfinden - to invent
lernen - to learn | erlernen - to learn, acquire
trinken - to drink | ertrinken - to drown
2) Forms verbs from adjectives. Communicates the idea of becoming something or giving something a quality. Often adds an umlaut to the root of the word, if possible.
ganz - whole | ergänzen - to complete
niedrig - low | erniedrigen - to humiliate
neu - new | erneuern - to renew, revive
Important: Approximately 10% of all inseparable prefix verbs begin with er-.
ge- is rare as a verb prefix. It has no clear meaning. In many cases, the verb stem is linguistically extinct.
fallen to fall | gefallen to be pleasing
--- | geschehen - to occur
--- | gelingen - to succeed
Like the English prefix mis-, the German miss- stands for failure. It forms a verb that stands as the 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
1) Attached to verbs to express the idea of ending, decreasing or passing away.
brennen - to burn | verbrennen - to 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) Attached to verbs to express that something is done excessively or incorrectly, or to communicate the opposite meaning of the root word.
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) Forms verbs from adjectives or nouns that communicate 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) Forms verbs from nouns to communicate the idea of providing something.
das Silber - silver | versilbern - to silver plate
der Körper - body | verkörpern - to embody
Important: Approximately 45% of all inseparable prefix verbs begin with ver-.
Forms verbs from nouns, adjectives or other verbs to indicate destruction, usually "to 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
German verbs that are separable or inseparable
Verbs with the following prefixes can be either separable or inseparable:
durch-, hinter-, über-, um-, unter-
Some verbs with these prefixes are always separable.
Example: umschauen – Er schaut sich um. (to) look around - He looks around.
Some other verbs with these prefixes are never separable.
Example: umarmen – Sie umarmt ihn. (to) hug. She hugs him.
Some verbs with these prefixes can either be separable or inseparable: the separable verb and the inseparable verb have two different meanings.
Example: Er fährt das Schild um. He knocks the sign down. – Er umfährt das Schild. He drives around the sign.
We stress the prefix in separable verbs and the syllable after the prefix in inseparable verbs.
umfahren (knock down)
umfahren (drive around)