Prefix Verbs

So far we’ve been talking about ‘root’ verbs, but many common verbs in German are formed by combining a root verb with a prefix. We have prefix verbs in English too (recalculate, unwind) but they’re much more common in German, and the way they work is a little different.

Verb prefixes in German can be separable or inseparable. A separable prefix moves to the end of a sentence when  the verb is conjugated.* For example, the mixed verb bringen (to bring) can add the separable prefix mit (with) to become the verb mitbringen (to bring along, bring with). Or add the separable prefix zu (to) to the weak verb hören (to hear) to make zuhören (to listen to):

Ich bringe morgen meinen Freund mit.
I’ll bring my friend along tomorrow.

Sie hörte mir zu.
She listened to me.

When the verb is not conjugated – when it’s used with a modal verb, for example – the prefix stays attached:

Darf ich meinen Freund mitbringen?
May I bring my friend along?

Er will mir nicht zuhören.
He doesn’t want to listen to me.

At this point, you may be starting to think of English "phrasal" verbs like “take out the garbage,” which are similar in that the extra word can often be moved to the end of the sentence (“take the garbage out”) and even occasionally stuck onto the beginning (“the outtakes from the film”). These can be helpful in conceptualizing separable prefixes, but remember that they’re not quite the same thing grammatically.

Inseparable prefixes are more like English verb prefixes, although they don’t always have a direct English translation. Inseparable prefixes are never stressed in the pronunciation of the verb. There are nine major inseparable prefixes: be-, emp- ent-, er-, ge-, miss-, ver-, voll- and zer-.

Other than these nine, almost all other prefixes in German are separable. Separable prefixes are always stressed in pronouncing the verb. The most common ones are prepositions, like mit- (with) or zu- (to) above.

Finally, there are a few prefixes which can be separable or inseparable, even when attached to the same root verb. The pronunciation rules still apply –  they are stressed when separable and unstressed when inseparable. There’s also a rough logic to the different usages: generally the more figurative meanings of the verb are inseparable, and the literal ones are separable. The classic example of this is übersetzen, which can mean to ferry, carry over (literal, separable, stress on ‘über’) or to translate (figurative, inseparable, stress on ‘setz’).

Truthfully, though, no one really uses übersetzen in the old separable sense anymore. A better example would be durchsuchen, which we used in the section on the Passive voice. Durchsuchen is formed from the weak verb suchen  (to search) and the prefix durch (through). We were using the inseparable form, which means to thoroughly search (a physical space), as the police would do after a crime. In the separable form, it means to literally search through (files, records, mail) and the past participle would have been durchgesucht instead of durchsucht.

As that example indicates, prefix verbs are a little irregular in how they form the past participle. An inseparable prefix verb does not take the ge— prefix. But a separable prefix verb takes the ‘ge’ between the prefix and the main verb.

This is easier to visualize with a table. The first column is what you already learned in section V.4, and the next two columns show how prefixes fit in:


root verbs (no prefix)

inseparable prefix

separable prefix

weak verbs

ge + verb stem + t kaufen > gekauft

prefix + verb stem + t verkaufen > verkauft

prefix + ge + verb stem + t

einkaufen > eingekauft

weak –ieren verbs

verb stem + t

fotografieren > fotografiert

prefix + verb stem + t missinterpretieren > missinterpretiert

prefix + verb stem + t

anprobieren > anprobiert

strong verbs

ge + irreg. stem + (e)n schreiben > geschrieben

prefix + irreg. stem + (e)n beginnen > hat begonnen

prefix + ge + irreg. stem + (e)n

anbieten > hat angeboten

mixed verbs

ge + past stem + t denken > gedacht

prefix + past stem + t benennen > bennant

prefix + ge + past stem + t auskennen > ausgekannt


Separable prefix verbs are especially likely to use the ‘infinitive imperative’ mentioned in V.7, e.g. Aufpassen! (pay attention!). And in an infinitive clause – where you’d put zu (to) in front of the verb – a separable verb ‘swallows’ the zu the same way it does with the ge above: