How to Deal with Those Nasty German Prefixes

Verbs featuring separable prefixes often present themselves in conversation and writing with the prefix following the main root verb. This arrangement can lead you to interpret the verb in one way until the conclusion of the sentence when the prefix emerges, revealing the true meaning.

Mark Twain, whose famous work “The Awful German Language” provides an analysis of German separable prefixes, talks about the challenge of dealing with these nasty particles: “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 anyone 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.”

Types of German Prefixes

In German, some words called prefixes can be added before the infinitive of a strong, weak or mixed verb and joined to it. Verb prefixes in German can be separable or inseparable. A separable prefix is the kind that moves to the end of a sentence when the verb is conjugated. In spoken German, the separable prefix of a German verb is stressed.

Inseparable prefixes in German share similarities with English verb prefixes, although they may lack a direct English equivalent. These prefixes do not receive stress in the pronunciation of the verb. Notably, there are nine primary inseparable prefixes: be-, emp-, ent-, er-, ge-, miss-, ver-, voll-, and zer-.

In contrast, nearly all other prefixes in German are separable. Pronouncing verbs with separable prefixes involves stressing the prefix, with common examples being prepositions such as mit- (with) or zu- (to). Additionally, a few prefixes can exhibit both separable and inseparable characteristics, even when attached to the same root verb.

German Verbs with Prefixes Mostly Have to be Learned by Heart

When you advance with your German you will sooner or later come across some initially confusing phenomenon: German prefixes.

Verbs with a separable prefix (trennbare Verben)

Some German words include a prefix on a verb stem. In certain situations prefixes are not separated or unrennbare verbs.

In many instances the prefix separates the verb to the end and goes towards the sentence and combines the second part of the verb (the stem or roots) into the second part. Sometimes the prefix provides further context for verbs. The verb “gehen” means to go. Some verbs have prefix meanings that are altered by the addition. Typically, the word fallen means “fall”, while the word einfall means “to come back to mind”.

Those cause worldwide headaches especially when they are appearing in form of prefixed German verbs. While you got along with machen and maybe its siblings aufmachen, zumachen, ausmachen and anmachen, now you will be confronted with the rest of the bunch:
abmachen, mitmachen, nachmachen, durchmachen, vermachen, vormachen, anmachen, einmachen. (meaning in order of appearance: to take off, to join, to imitate, to go through, to inherit, to pretend, to turn on, to pickle)

The machen-variants are a pretty distinguishable. But there will be other words driving you mad. These seem so similar and there is no crispy explanation to help you differentiate them from each other.

An example is the couple malen – bemalen (both: to paint). To know which one to use one needs to create examples and then figure out some logic. That logic might not be that obvious at first.

To be honest, often at times it will never become obvious and simply has to be learned by rote repetition. A gorgeous example can be found on Wikipedia with the verb ,legen‘.

German prefixes can drive you mad

A nice Symbol for German Prefixes – (c) Pixabay

In the case of the above couple malen/bemalen, be- expresses the fact that the painting is directed towards/onto something. ,Es bemalt die Wand.‘ means ,It paints onto the wall.‘

While ,Es malt die Wand.‘ would mean that the kid is painting a wall (on a piece of paper).‘ Then there is also a third variant: anmalen >> ,Es malt die Wand an‘  would also mean ,It paints onto the wall.‘

Understand the madness part now? There are lists out there trying to provide German learners with the meaning of the most common of these German prefixes. To give you an idea take a look at this page by Professor Bernd Griebel or this one on

At times it seems easier to simply learn the verbs with prefixes by heart than to learn all possible meanings of German prefixes. Not because it couldn’t be done, but the moment you seek for the right meaning in a specific context, you would have to pick the right one among several possible answers. That’s highly inefficient and might inhibit your ability to speak.

A Separable Prefix Verb in das Perfekt

Separable prefix verbs exhibit a distinct pattern when employed in the present perfect tense (das Perfekt). Unlike most verbs where the syllable “ge-” typically precedes the participle, for separable prefix verbs, it is inserted between the separable prefix and the verb stem. Here are examples illustrating this structure:

Original Sentence: Ich sehe ihn. (I see him) Present Perfect: Ich habe ihn gesehen. (I have seen him)

Original Sentence: Ich sehe fern. (I watch TV) Present Perfect: Ich habe ferngesehen. (I have watched TV)

It’s important to note that separable prefix verbs encompass both regular and irregular forms. An inseparable prefix verb does not take the ge— prefix.

The Prefix “Ge-“

The prefix “ge-” in German often lacks a consistent translation, and its presence can occasionally mislead beginners into assuming it is a past participle. One way to verify this in certain contexts is to check for the presence of the auxiliary verbs “haben” or “sein.” If these auxiliaries are absent, it likely indicates a verb with the inseparable prefix “ge-.” For example:

For example, we have ”gewinnen” — to win

Present tense: Sie gewinnt. (She wins.)

Note the presence of “ge-” with root verbs without an auxiliary verb.

Past participle: Sie hat gewonnen. (She has won.)

Noun Formation

In addition to its role in verbs, the prefix “ge-” in German can be utilized to form collective nouns (Kollektiva). Here are some examples of collective nouns with the prefix “ge-“:

Singular: das Gebilde (Meaning: )

Plural: die Gebilde

These collective nouns typically exhibit neuter gender and often involve umlauting the stem vowel. While most use a singular form to convey a set of multiple objects, some employ both singular and plural forms (“-e”) to denote one or more objects or sets. It’s important to note that these nouns may originate from verbs or other nouns, providing a diverse range of meanings and contexts.

Here is Where the System Fails

To prove my first point you will find some examples for a handful of very common verbs with prefixes that all have a different meaning. So here we go:


  • anheben > lift
  • angeben > boast
  • ansehen > view/watch
  • angehen > approach/concern


  • aussteigen > get out
  • aussehen > look
  • auslegen > interpret
  • ausstellen > exhibit
  • austrinken > drink up


  • nachdenken > reflect
  • nachkommen > follow
  • nachsehen > peek
  • nachzahlen > remargin
  • nachgehen > pursue


  • übersehen     > overlook sb Als Kind wurde er oft übersehen. insep.
  • überschätzen > overestimate
  • überfahren > run over
  • übersetzen > translate 
  • überstehen > withstand
  • überlegen > consider
  • überfliegen > scan


  • vorgehen > go ahead Ich gehe schon mal vor. sep.
  • vorsehen > be careful
  • vorkommen > occur
  • vorstellen > introduce
  • vorlesen > to read out

and many more. Then there are the ones that might help you a bit with your understanding :

Yet, these few prefixes often make sense when translated:

auf- up

  • aufregen > upset
  • aufstehen > get up
  • auflegen > hang up
  • aufwachen > wake up
  • aufstellen > put up

durch- through

  • durchstreichen > strike through Er strich den ganzen Absatz durch. sep.
  • durchqueren     > cross Sie durchquerten die Wüste. insep.
  • durchlesen > read over
  • durchbrechen > break through
  • durchsehen > see through

(r)ein- in(side)

  • einsteigen         > enter (mount in) Er steigt in die U-Bahn ein. sep.
  • einfrieren > freeze in
  • einlegen > insert
  • reinkommen > come in

mit- along

  • mitfahren > to ride along
  • mitdenken > to think along
  • mitnehmen > take along
  • mitspielen > play along

weg- away

  • wegfahren > drive away Wir fahren am Wochenende weg. sep.
  • wegnehmen > take away
  • weggehen > go away
  • wegsehen > look away

zurück- back-

  • zurückgeben > give back Gib mir mein Geld zurück. sep.
  • zurückgehen > go back
  • zurücksehen > look back
  • zurückschlagen > fight back

Separable Prefix Verbs with A Modal Verb

Separable verbs maintain their unity when used alongside modal verbs. In their infinitive form, these verbs remain intact, simplifying their usage.

Consequently, when paired with a modal verb, the entire separable verb can be placed at the end of the clause without requiring to be further conjugated. For instance:

“Ich will Geld ausgeben.” (I want to spend money.)

Although “aus-” is a separable prefix, as evident from its absence in the list of non-separable prefixes, in this instance, it is utilized in its infinitive form following the modal verb “wollen” (to want), which is conjugated in the first person singular present tense as “will” (want). As a result, no separation occurs. Here’s an additional example:

“Ich werde es abgeben.” (I will give it up.)

Similarly, “ab-” functions as a separable prefix, but its usage with a modal verb allows it to remain in its infinitive form. When a separable verb follows a modal verb, the practice is to leave it undivided, treating it like any other infinitive verb. There’s nothing to alter here—just proceed accordingly.

On Negation

When dealing with separable verbs, to express negation, place “nicht” directly before the prefix. For instance, consider the phrase “He washed his hands”:

“Er wäscht sich seine Hände ab.”

Now, let’s see this sentence as a negative statement:

“Er wäscht sich seine Hände nicht ab.” (He doesn’t wash his hands off.)

In this context, the addition of “nicht” before the separable prefix signifies the negation of the action, providing a clear expression of the opposite meaning.

Use with the Imperative

Separable verbs also separate from the prefix when employed in the imperative mood. To convey directions or issue commands, acquainting yourself with the imperative form is essential.

For instance, if you wish to instruct someone to wash off their hands, the phrase will be “Wasche deine Hände ab!” It’s noteworthy that in the imperative form, separable verbs like “abwaschen” (wash off) undergo separation, with the prefix popping off and relocating to the end of the verb.

Inseparable Prefixes

Inseparable prefixes act similarly to separable ones, with the key difference being that the prefix remains attached to the verb. This simplifies the identification of the complete verb, especially during conversations or while listening. Notably, unlike separable prefixes, inseparable ones are not stressed when spoken.

For instance: “Ich erkenne diesen Stadtteil.” (I recognize this part of the city.)

In the perfect tense, verbs with inseparable prefixes diverge from the norm. Instead of the typical “ge-” prefix, they retain their prefix and add a “-t” ending after the stem.

Consider the example with the verb “ertappen” (to catch): “Wir haben ihn auf frischer Tat ertappt!” (We caught him red-handed!)

When the stem verb is irregular, it’s crucial to use the irregular past participle, replacing the “-ge” with the inseparable prefix. For example, with “erkennen,” derived from “kennen” with an irregular past participle “gekannt”: “Ich habe ihn nicht erkannt.” (I didn’t recognize him.) Here are some common inseparable prefixes and their explanations:

  • Be: Functions akin to the English “be-” and often makes the verb take a direct object. Examples: kommen (to come), bekommen (to receive), sprechen (to speak), besprechen (to discuss)
  • Emp: Typically related to reception/perception. Examples: fehlen (to miss, to lack), empfehlen (to recommend), finden (to find), empfinden (to feel, to perceive)
  • Ent: Often causes the verb to do the opposite of its stem. Examples: arten (to develop, to become), entarten (to degenerate), werten (to evaluate), entwerten (to void)
  • Er: Functions as “re-” in English or signals the completion of an action, especially if it can end in death. Examples: kennen (to know), erkennen (to recognize), schießen (to shoot), erschießen (to shoot dead)
  • Ge: Usually lacks a consistent translation and may trick beginners into thinking it’s a past participle. Check for the absence of auxiliary verbs “haben” or “sein.” Example: gewinnen (to win)
  • Miss: Functions similarly to the English “mis-.” Examples: brauchen (to need), missbrauchen (to misuse), trauen (to trust), misstrauen (to mistrust)
  • Ver: Often causes the verb to do the opposite of its stem. Examples: kaufen (to buy), verkaufen (to sell), bieten (to offer), verbieten (to forbid)
  • Zer: Almost always indicates destruction or demolition. Examples: reisen (to travel), zerreißen (to shred, tear up), beißen (to bite), zerbeißen (to gnaw, bite in two)

While finding consistent translations for inseparable prefixes may be challenging, recognizing these patterns can assist. As mentioned, memorization remains a reliable strategy for success.

Dual Prefixes

When it comes to memorization, the third category of prefixes in German primarily demands memorization. Dual prefixes incorporate prepositions as their prefix, so understanding the meanings of prepositions like hinter (behind), über (above), um (around), unter (down or below), wider (against), and wieder (again) will assist you in translating the verb’s meaning.

For dual prefixes, it is essential to memorize whether the preposition is inseparable or separable. A helpful method to discern the difference is to pay attention to the pronunciation and stress:

  • If the prefix is stressed, it is separable:
    • sich umschauen (To look around)
    • Ich schaue mich um. (I look around.)
  • If the prefix is unstressed, it is inseparable and always remains with the verb stem:
    • übersehen (To overlook/ignore)
    • Ich übersehe seinen Fehler. (I overlook his mistake.)

Some verbs with these prefixes have both separable and inseparable forms, and the meaning changes depending on the chosen form. These changes can be quite substantial, as seen in the case of umfahren. Note the significant shift in meaning and how it impacts sentence construction in the present and past tenses.


  • Ich umfahre das Fahrrad. (I drive around the bicycle.)
  • Ich bin das Fahrrad umfahren. (I drove around the bicycle.)


  • Ich fahre das Fahrrad um. (I run the bicycle over.)
  • Ich bin das Fahrrad umgefahren. (I ran the bicycle over.)

There’s still some logic to the different usages you can try to apply, which is that generally the more figurative meanings of the verb have inseparable prefixes, and the literal ones – separable prefixes.

German Prefixes and the Conjunction ‘dass’

It’s also important to understand the behavior of separable verbs when the conjunction ‘dass’ (that) is used. For instance:

  • Du stehst nicht gerne früh auf.
  • Ich weiß, dass du nicht gerne früh aufstehst. (I know that you don’t like getting up early)

As we can see, the separable prefix is reintroduced to the root verb. The verb maintains its conjugation and is positioned at the end of the subordinate clause.

The Biggest Advantage of German Prefixes

There is one huge advantage of this system when it comes to grammar: they all behave the same when you build the past of them. There are only very few exceptions.

What that means is this:
denken – dachte – gedacht
ausdenken – dachte aus – ausgedacht
bedenken – bedacht – bedacht
verdenken – verdacht – verdacht
gedenken – gedacht – gedacht
nachdenken – dachte nach – nachgedacht
and a few more.

Did you get that? If not let me know in the comments and I’ll show it to you or head over to this article about the irregular verbs in German where you’ll find this explained in more detail and much more.

Adjectives and Adverbs Derived from Verbs with Prefixes

Like any other verbs in the German language, those with prefixes have the flexibility to transform into adjectives or adverbs. Primarily, their participial forms serve this purpose, functioning in a manner similar to regular verbs.

Present Participles Examples (with separable or inseparable prefixes):

  1. “Andauernd” (from “andauern” – to last; to continue):
    Frag doch nicht andauernd!
    (Don’t keep constantly asking!)
  2. “Alleinerziehend” (from “alleinerziehen” – to raise [a child] alone):
    Eine alleinerziehende Mutter.
    (A single mother.)
  3. “Entgegenkommend” (from “entgegenkommen” – to accommodate):
    Sie waren sehr entgegenkommend.
    (They were very accommodating.)
  4. “Beiliegend” (from “beiliegen” – to be enclosed [along with]):
    Der beiliegende Brief.
    (The enclosed letter.)

Past Participle Examples (with separable or inseparable prefixes):

  1. “Aufgeschlossen” (from “aufschließen” – to unlock; to open up):
    Eine aufgeschlossene Politikerin.
    (An open-minded politician.)
  2. “Erweitert” (from “erweitern” – to extend):
    Erweiterte Öffnungszeiten.
    (Extended opening hours.)
  3. “Hochgekrempelt” (from “hochkrempeln” – to roll up [a sleeve]):
    Hochgekrempelte Ärmel.
    (Rolled-up sleeves.)
  4. “Vorausgesehen” (from “voraussehen” – to foresee):
    Es gab unvorausgesehene Konsequenzen.
    (There were unforeseen consequences.)
  5. “Vollendet” (from “vollenden” – to complete):
    Ein vollendetes Manuskript.
    (A completed manuscript.)
  6. “Zugestiegen” (from “zusteigen” – to board [after the trip started]):
    Zugestiegene Fahrgäste.
    (Passengers who have just boarded.)

These examples showcase the versatility of German verbs with separable or inseparable prefixes, demonstrating their ability to transition seamlessly into descriptive adjectives and adverbs through their participial forms.

German Prefixes with Nouns

I haven‘t mentioned yet that these German prefixes can also be found on substantives: die Rückkehr (zurück), die Vorsicht and adjectives: rückwirkend, rückständig, vorsichtig with a similar meaning.

Feel free to contradict with good samples of verbs with understandable German prefixes in the comments. I will then add them to the lists above or alter my article to make it even more precise. There is no need to learn abstract and useless prefixes on their own as you won’t be able to use it when you speak but it’s for sure interesting food for thought.

Viel Erfolg. I wish you success.

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FAQs about the separable and inseparable prefixes in German

Here are some of the questions people ask about the different types of prefixes in German.

What are the separable prefixes in German?

Separable, or detachable prefixes, in German are prefixes that can be separated from the root verb in certain contexts, often in the conjugated forms of verbs. Examples of common separable prefixes include “ab,” “an,” “auf,” “aus,” “bei,” “ein,” “mit,” “nach,” “vor,” “zu,” and “her.”

What is the prefix “be” used for in German?

The prefix “be” in German is versatile and can convey various meanings, such as completion or intensification. It is often used to form transitive verbs and is found in words like “besprechen” (to discuss), “besuchen” (to visit), or “bemalen” (to paint).

What are some German inseparable prefixes?

German inseparable prefixes are prefixes that cannot be separated from the base verb. Examples include “ver,” “ent,” “er,” “zer,” “ge,” “miss,” “un,” and “be.” When these prefixes are attached to root verbs, they alter the meaning of the base verb in a way that cannot be easily deduced from the individual components.

Does German have affixes?

Yes, German has both prefixes and suffixes, which are types of affixes. Prefixes are attached at the beginning of a word, and suffixes are attached at the end.

In addition to separable and inseparable prefixes, German uses various suffixes to create new words or modify the meaning of existing ones. Affixes play a crucial role in German word formation and can impact the meaning and grammatical function of words.

What is the prefix ‘be’ used for in German?

In German, the prefix ‘be’ serves various purposes, often indicating the process of becoming or bringing about a certain state. It can be found in verbs that convey actions like covering, beginning, or completing an action. For example, “beginnen” (to begin) and “bedecken” (to cover) incorporate the ‘be’ prefix, reflecting the notion of starting or completing a particular action.

What is the feminine suffix in German?

German nouns have grammatical gender, and while there isn’t a specific feminine suffix for all feminine nouns, there are certain patterns to identify feminine nouns. Common feminine suffixes include “-heit” (e.g., Freiheit – freedom), “-keit” (e.g., Wirklichkeit – reality), and “-ung” (e.g., Meinung – opinion). However, it’s important to note that not all nouns with these suffixes are feminine, and there are exceptions in the German language.

Summing Up: How to Deal with Those Nasty German Prefixes

By dissecting these linguistic building blocks, this guide illuminates the intricacies of the most important German prefixes tied to infinitive forms and forming varied tenses. While navigating the labyrinth of the German language, hopefully the explanations and example sentences provided here will help you handle such language structures with confidence and precision. If you’d like to know more, come check us out at SmarterGerman!