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: prefixed 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‘.
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 prefixes. To give you an idea take a look at this page by Professor Bernd Griebel or this one on about.com.
At times t is easier to simply learn the verbs with prefixes by heart than to learn all possible meanings of 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
- aufregen > upset
- aufstehen > get up
- auflegen > hang up
- aufwachen > wake up
- aufstellen > put up
- 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
- einsteigen > enter (mount in) Er steigt in die U-Bahn ein. sep.
- einfrieren > freeze in
- einlegen > insert
- reinkommen > come in
- mitfahren > to ride along
- mitdenken > to think along
- mitnehmen > take along
- mitspielen > play along
- wegfahren > drive away Wir fahren am Wochenende weg. sep.
- wegnehmen > take away
- weggehen > go away
- wegsehen > look away
- zurückgeben > give back Gib mir mein Geld zurück. sep.
- zurückgehen > go back
- zurücksehen > look back
- zurückschlagen > fight back
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 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. Get rather established in the Keyword Method (available in the A1 part of my German grammar video set) and learn these verbs with prefixes smarter.
Viel Erfolg. I wish you success.
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