Separable and Inseparable Verbs in German Grammar

How to learn the German separable and inseparable verbs

Introduction
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

trennbare  Verben  (1).jpg

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.

List of Separable Verbs

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.

Detailed explanations of the various separable prefixes with meanings and example sentences are given here.

Prefix ab-

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

 

Prefix an-

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

 

Prefix auf-

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)

 

Prefix aus-

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)

 

Prefix 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

 

Prefix los-

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

 

Prefix mit-

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

 

Prefix vor-

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

 

Prefix weg-

Communicates "away"

schicken - to send | wegschicken - to send away

führen - to lead | wegführen - to lead away

 

Prefix zurück-

Communicates "back", the idea of returning

denken - to think | zurückdenken - to think back

reisen - to travel | zurückreisen - to travel back

Prefix zusammen-

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.

 

Important:

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.

Prefix be-

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-!

Prefix  emp-
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

Prefix  ent-

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-!

Prefix er-

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-.

Prefix ge-

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

Prefix miss-

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

Prefix ver-

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-.

 

Prefix zer-

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.

Pronunciation Tip

We stress the prefix in separable verbs and the syllable after the prefix in inseparable verbs.

umfahren (knock down)
umfahren (drive around)