How to deal with those nasty German Prefixes

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. 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 vairant: 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.

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

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.

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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