Puzzled by German prefixes?
There’s no question about it: Learning German grammar can be trying.
German verbs, the words that bring life and action to the language, are often hard for English speakers to comprehend.
Part of this is just due to certain differences between German and English.
Whereas English can use several different words to communicate one idea, German may use one word to communicate several different ideas.
This is why it is essential to not only know the context in which the word is being used, but to know how prefixes can drastically alter the meaning of common verbs.
So here’s a clear picture of how German prefixes work!
Breaking It Down: An Intro to German Prefixes
Prefixes are divided into three categories: Trennbar (separable), untrennbar (inseparable) and dual—which function as both separable and inseparable depending on context.
Understanding the general meanings of these prefixes and how they affect the verbs to which they are attached is essential for success in the German language, be it in speaking, listening, reading or writing.
While there is, for the most part, no perfect translation for German prefixes, some do follow patterns that can help you translate meanings of verbs with added prefixes.
Understanding these patterns, along with understanding context, will give you a fighting chance in not only understanding and translating German, but also in speaking and communicating to a higher level of fluency.
Getting the Picture with German Prefixes: The 3 Categories, Explained
1. Trennbare Präfixe (Separable Prefixes)
Separable prefixes are, in my opinion, the toughest of the three types. Verbs with separable prefixes will appear in conversation and writing before the actual prefix, which tricks you into thinking the verb means one thing until the very end of the sentence—when you finally encounter the prefix and uncover the true meaning.
Perhaps nobody understood this difficulty better than Mark Twain, whose now infamous “The Awful German Language” provides an analysis of German separable prefixes:
“The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called ‘separable verbs.’ The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance.”
While Twain’s analysis of German grammar may be from an American viewpoint, it does echo some of the hardships anyone who wants to learn German may face. Verbs that stretch for sentences, even paragraphs, are the scourge of beginners to seasoned pros.
Verbs with separable prefixes are also very widely used in German. They function as such: The prefix separates from the verb stem (which is conjugated as if it were a normal, standalone verb) and then is dropped at the end of the sentence or clause. In spoken German, the separable prefix is stressed.
Das Pferd steigt ohne Angst in das Flugzeug ein. (Without fear, the horse boards the airplane.)
Zur Beerdigung, bringt die alte Frau ihren Lieblingskuchen mit. (The old woman is bringing her favorite cake to the funeral.)
In the present perfect tense, both the verb stem and the prefix are dropped to the end in the place of the auxiliary verb haben or sein. The ge- that would be added to a normal verb stem is still added: It is, however, placed between the separable prefix and the verb.
For example, the verb aufräumen (to tidy up, to clean up) would become aufgeräumt in the present perfect tense.
Die beschuldigten Kinder haben das Zimmer aufgeräumt. (The accused children cleaned up the room.)
Common Separable Prefixes
Be aware that the approximate translations given below will not work 100% of the time, and your best bet at achieving success is to simply memorize the meanings of words.
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This one is similar to the English “to” or “from.”
schauen — to look
anschauen — to look at/examine
kommen — to come
ankommen — to arrive
This is used widely, and can sometimes mean “up” or “on.”
machen — to make
aufmachen — to open
stehen — to stand
aufstehen — to stand/get up
Also widely used, this most often means “out” or “from.”
führen — to lead
ausführen — to execute/perform
kommen — to come
auskommen — to come out
See how this could get tricky?
Possibly the easiest, this one means “in” or sometimes “down.”
drücken — to press
eindrücken — to press in/dent
atmen — to breathe
einatmen — to inhale
Another easy one, this usually means “with.”
kommen — to come
mitkommen — to come with
machen — to make, to do
mitmachen — to do with
This can mean “after” or function like the English prefix “re-.”
gehen — to go
nachgehen — to pursue/trace
füllen — to fill
nachfüllen — to refill
This one is harder to translate, but can mean “to.”
geben — to give
zugeben — to admit/confess
lassen — to let
zulassen — to authorize
As mentioned, you can’t always rely on these translations. However, for verbs like kommen, machen and spielen that can take several different meanings and prefixes, knowing the rough translations of the prefixes can do wonders.
2. Untrennbare Präfixe (Inseparable Prefixes)
OK. We are through with the hardest part. Let out a sigh of relief and pat yourself on the back!
Inseparable prefixes function in the same way as separable prefixes, only the prefix remains attached to the verb. This makes it a lot easier to identify the full verb, particularly in conversation or while listening. Unlike separable prefixes, inseparable prefixes are not stressed when spoken.
Ich erkenne diesen Stadtteil. (I recognize this part of the city.)
In the perfect tense, verbs with inseparable prefixes do not take the normal ge-. They rather keep their prefix and are for the most part conjugated as a normal verb in the perfect tense.
Die Katze hat ihren Feind erschossen. (The cat shot [dead] its enemy.)
Common Inseparable Prefixes
This one makes the verb take a direct object and can sometimes function like the English “be-.”
kommen — to come
bekommen [+ direct object] — to receive
sprechen — to speak
besprechen — to discuss
This is a tricky one, but usually has to do with reception/perception.
fehlen — to miss, to lack
empfehlen — to recommend
finden — to find
empfinden — to feel, to perceive
This usually makes the verb do the opposite of its stem.
arten — to develop, to become
entarten — to degenerate
werten — to evaluate
entwerten — to void
This can function in a couple different ways: Sometimes, it acts like the English “re-” and other times it signals the completing of an action, particularly if that action can end in death.
kennen — to know
erkennen — to recognize
schießen — to shoot
erschießen — to shoot dead
Unfortunately, this one seldom has a consistent translation. Also, it can trick beginners into thinking it is a past participle. To check this in some contexts, you can see whether there is already an auxiliary haben or sein. If there isn’t, then it is probably a verb with the inseparable prefix ge-.
gewinnen — to win
Sie gewinnt. (She wins.)
Notice that we see ge- but there is no auxiliary verb.
Sie hat gewonnen. (She won.)
Thankfully, this is an easy one to remember, as it functions similarly to the English “mis-.”
brauchen — to need
missbrauchen — to misuse
trauen — to trust
misstrauen — to mistrust
When added, this one often, but not always, causes the verb to do the opposite of its stem.
kaufen — to buy
verkaufen — to sell
bieten — to offer
verbieten — to forbid
Those with an appetite for destruction will easily remember that zer- almost always causes a verb to signify zerstören (demolition or destruction) of something.
reisen — to travel
zerreisen — to shred, tear up
beißen — to bite
zerbeißen — to gnaw, bite in two
Inseparable prefixes are going to be harder to find a consistent translation for, although these patterns can help. As mentioned, the only surefire way to succeed is to memorize, memorize, memorize!
3. Dual Prefixes
Speaking of memorization, the third type of prefix almost exclusively requires memorization.
Dual prefixes take prepositions as the prefix, so knowing the meaning of prepositions like durch hinter (behind), über (above), um (around), unter (down or below), wider (against) and wieder (again) will guide you to translating the meaning of the verb.
The memorization for dual prefixes is not for meaning, however (though memorizing their meanings certainly won’t hurt!). For dual prefixes, you need to memorize whether the preposition is inseparable or separable.
- If the prefix is separable, it is stressed.
- If it is inseparable, it is unstressed, the same way that one-way prefixes function.
Learning to use the different types of prefixes will deepen your speaking and writing abilities while also adding to your vocabulary.
As you use verbs with prefixes, you will notice patterns to help you remember how the prefixes change the meanings of the verbs.
However, the most important thing to remember is that there is never a surefire way to “guess” the meaning of a verb with a prefix, and while there are patterns, only practice will truly make perfect.
Viel Glück! (Good luck!)
And Speaking of Practice…
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