1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Identify when a separable-prefix verb is being used, and translate it.
  • Decide whether a verb in use is a separable-prefix or an inseparable-prefix verb.
  • Use adjective endings to identify the case, gender, and number of noun phrases.
  • Distinguish adverbs from adjectives within a noun phrase.
  • Identify and translate adjectives and verbs being used as nouns.
  • Identify and translate place names being used as adjectives.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Verbs with Inseparable Prefixes

Some verbs appear both with and without prefixes, and the meanings of the verb change quite considerably with the prefix. The inseparable prefixes are: be-, ent-, emp-, er-, ge, miß-, ver-, and zer-. Examples of some verbs in this category are:

With prefix Without prefix
begehen (to commit) gehen (to go)
empfangen (to receive fangen (to catch)
enthalten (to contain) halten (to hold)
erhalten (to receive) halten (to hold)
gefallen (to please) fallen (to fall)
mißverstehen (to misunderstand) stehen (to stand)
verstehen (to understand) stehen (to stand)
zerfallen (to fall to pieces) fallen (to fall)

Note how the prefix has changed the meaning. Only in the case of miß– and zer can we always attach a meaning to the inseparable prefix, i.e., “mis-“ and “to pieces” respectively. Quite often however the addition of ent– to a verb lends the meaning “away from,” e.g. entnehmen = to take away, remove; entkleiden = to remove clothes, undress. And often the addition of a be turns an intransitive verb transitive, e.g., bewohnen = to inhabit (something).

As mentioned at the end of Unit 3, the conjugations of verbs with inseparable prefixes simply follow the same forms as the root verb. For example, verstehen (to understand), bestehen (to exist; to insist),  gestehen (to confess), and entstehen (to be created, to develop, to form) all share the same endings and forms as stehen (to stand):

Die Frau versteht die Kinder.
The woman understands the children.

Die Frauen verstanden die Kinder.
The women understood the children.

These prefixed verbs are found in dictionaries as separate entries, not under the root verb.

Last revised on September 5, 2017.

3. Verbs with Separable Prefixes

The number of separable prefixes is far greater than that of inseparable prefixes. Separable prefix verbs, as the name implies, separate into two parts when used in any way other than in their infinitive form. Let us consider two examples: aufgehen (to rise, go up) and untergehen (to descend, go down):

Die Sonne geht um sechs Uhr auf.
The sun rises at 6 o’clock.

Die Sonne geht am Abend unter.
The sun sets in the evening.

Here is a list of common separable prefixes:

ab off, down, away über over
auf up, open um around
aus out      umher around
ein in unter down
empor up  vor ahead, forward
entgegen toward, to   vorbei past, by
fest fast, firm   vorüber past
fort away     weg away
heim home  weiter on, farther
her here, towards wieder back, again
hin there, away from zu to, toward; shut
mit along, with zurück back
nieder down zusammen together

You can see that prepositions are the most common separable prefix, and some are not prepositions at all. Your challenge is to use what you’ve learned so far about German syntax to recognize when a word is apparently functioning as a separated verbal prefix.

Points to remember:

  1. The prefix appears after the predicate. From now on you will need to finish reading to the end of each sentence or clause before you can be certain about the meaning of any conjugated verb. If you find a prefix there, you must associate it with the conjugated verb and consider the meaning of, for example, aufgehen, not of gehen. If you are trying to locate the verb in a dictionary, this can be a very important difference.
  2. Likewise, you can decide whether a word appearing in the middle of a sentence is a verbal prefix or not by identifying the roles of the words after it – if they start a whole new statement, then perhaps this word is indeed a verbal prefix. Here’s an example in which a single subject is shared between two statements, both using a separable-prefix verb:

    Das Schiff saß auf der Sandbank fest und ging nicht weiter.
    The ship was stuck on the sandbar and went no further.

    Keep in mind that German punctuation rules do not call for a comma as often as English does, so you may not see a comma to help you decide whether the predicate has ended.

  3. Most of the separable prefixes can be translated literally and will give you a simple meaning to a verb, e.g., ausgehen = to go out, to exit; vorübergehen = to go past, to pass by.
  4. Sometimes verbs will have different meanings dependent upon whether the prefix is separable or not. The most common prefixes to play this double role are durch, über and unter. Your dictionary will indicate which verbs have this double role. Compare:

    Das Schiff setzt die Autos nach Japan über.
    The ship is transporting the cars to Japan.

    Er übersetzt das Buch ins Englische.
    He is translating the book into English.

    Look up übersetzen in your dictionary to see how it describes the difference between the separable and the inseparable verbs.

Last revised on September 14, 2015.

4. Adjective Endings

You learned in Unit 3 how endings are added to the der– and ein words. In addition, German adds endings to regular attributive adjectives when they are modifying a noun. Recognizing these endings can sometimes be a crucial reading skill in order to detect the case and number of a noun.

Noun Phrases without an Article

When a noun phrase does not begin with either a der– word or an ein– word, then essentially any adjectives have to take their place as far as providing signals to you about the case, number, and gender of the noun they are modifying. The chart or “paradigm” below shows what happens to the adjectives if we take the three nouns der Wein, die Milch, and das Bier and describe them with the simple adjectives rot (red), frisch (fresh) and kalt (cold):

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative roter Wein frische Milch kaltes Bier rote Weine
Accusative roten Wein frische Milch kaltes Bier rote Weine
Dative rotem Wein frischer Milch kaltem Bier roten Weinen
Genitive roten Weines frischer Milch kalten Bieres roter Weine

Compare this to the der– word chart in Unit 2 and you will notice only one difference; the genitive singular (masculine and neuter) ends in –en rather than ‑es. Otherwise the endings are the same. In other words, you will be able to apply that same skill from Unit 2 to this kind of noun phrase, so that you can use the above adjective endings to help you identify the case, number, and gender of the noun being modified.

Noun Phrases with an Article

When articles (der and ein words) begin the noun phrase, then any adjectives modifying a noun show a different pattern of endings than above. It is not necessary to memorize these declensions in order to read and comprehend German. Remember that it is the article that begins the noun phrase that best helps you identify the role the noun is playing in a sentence.

Nevertheless, it is often useful to recognize that some ending has been added:

  1. To help you distinguish adjectives from other kinds of modifiers within the noun phrase which, naturally, do not appear with “adjective endings.” We’ll return to this in the next section.
  2. To give you confidence when looking up adjectives in the dictionary, knowing what letters at the end will not be included in the dictionary listing.
  3. In the case of some ein word phrases, the endings immediately give you more information about the noun than the ein word does alone.

So, here are the adjective endings when an article is present:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
N. der alte Mann
ein alter Mann
die alte Frau
eine alte Frau
das junge Mädchen
ein junges Mädchen
die alten Frauen
keine alten Frauen
A. den alten Mann
einen alten Mann
die alte Frau
eine alte Frau
das junge Mädchen
ein junges Mädchen
die alten Frauen
keine alten Frauen
D. dem alten Mann
einem alten Mann
der alten Frau
einer alten Frau
dem jungen Mädchen
einem jungen Mädchen
den alten Frauen
keinen alten Frauen
G. des alten Mannes
eines alten Mannes
der alten Frau
einer alten Frau
des jungen Mädchens
eines jungen Mädchens
der alten Frauen
keiner alten Frauen

Points to remember:

  1. The first word in the noun phrase indicates in most instances the role the noun plays in the sentence, i.e., its case and its number.
  2. No ending on an ein– word is unique to singular nominative and singular accusative.
  3. The ending –em is unique to dative singular.
  4. die or an ein– word ending in –e (e.g. keine) followed by an adjective which ends in ‑en is always plural.
  5. Note the significance of adjective endings on number words. See the end of Reference section 1.
Last revised on November 23, 2020.

5. Recognizing Adverbs vs. Adjectives

Any German adverb/adjective, for example gut, appears identically whether used as an adjective (meaning "good") or as an adverb (meaning “well” or "in a good way"). Often you have to decide from context how the German word is functioning—unless it is an adjective modifying a noun. That case is simpler: as you learned above, it then must have the appropriate adjective ending. This is crucial for you to learn how to use for determining whether a word is being used adverbially or adjectivally within noun phrases. Adverbs, of course, never have an adjective ending.

Der gute, dicke Kuchen schmeckt.
The good, thick cake is tasty.

In the above example, the presence of the endings on both gut and dick reveal that they are both adjectives which modify the noun Kuchen.

Der gut dicke Kuchen schmeckt.
The nicely thick cake is tasty.

In the above example, the lack of any ending on gut and its position relative to the words around it reveal that it is an adverb which modifies the adjective dick. It cannot possibly be an adjective modifying the noun Kuchen because it lacks the ending which would have been required. And the position of gut inside the noun phrase for Kuchen clarifies that it modifies dick, as opposed to modifying the main verb of the entire sentence as it would if it were located outside the noun phrase. And yes, the presence or absence of that comma can be a helpful clue, as well.

However, it is possible for German adjectives to appear without any endings. Like in English, an adjective can be the predicate of a statement with the verb "to be." In German, then, the adjective would take no ending, since it is not modifying a particular noun. Example:

Das ist gut.
That is good.

Last revised on September 24, 2015.

6. Adjectives as Nouns

In English we sometimes use adjectives as nouns, e.g., “the rich and the poor,” and German does the same. In both languages, essentially the adjective is standing for a missing, unspecified noun which this adjective would be modifying. For example: “the rich (people) and the poor (people)” or “I’ll take the blue (one) and the green (one)”. But you’ll note two differences in how such words appear in German: they are capitalized like all other nouns, and they also carry the meaningful adjectival ending they would have as if they were modifying a noun. For example, in nominative case, referring to the plural idea of “rich (people)” and “poor (people)”: “the rich” = die Reichen, “the poor” = die Armen. Such adjectival nouns are far more common in German than in English. Here are several more examples:

der Alte (nominative case, singular) “the old man” or some other masculine being. In accusative case, the same word would be den Alten.

die Alte (nominative or accusative case, singular) “the old woman” or some other female being.

einen Grünen (accusative case, singular) could refer to “a person associated with the Green party” or in a more general context, simply “a green one.”

das Alte (nominative or accusative case, singular) “the old one” (given the neuter gender, it presumably refers to an object) or more abstractly, “that which is old.”

das Gebaute (nominative or accusative case, singular) “that which was built” or “what was built” or perhaps “the buildings” – as always, adjust to the context.

das Beste an der Sache (nominative or accusative case, singular) “the best part of the affair/story” or “what was best about this” (where Sache would be referring back to something previously explained).

As you can see, you must have mastered the meanings of the adjective endings, and you will need to pay attention to the form of any definite or indefinite articles which belong to this noun, in order to figure out this noun’s role and number within the sentence.

Also keep in mind that such nouns would be modified by adverbs rather than by other adjectives, in agreement with what you learned in the preceding section, and like the adjectival nouns you learned about in Unit 2. The third example below includes this situation.


Ich tue immer mein Bestes.
I always do my best.

Vermeers Gemälde zeigen oft das Schöne in dem Häuslichen.
Vermeer’s paintings often reveal the beautiful in the household sphere. [or:]
Vermeer’s paintings often point out what’s beautiful in the domestic.

Ich suche immer stark Überraschendes als Geburtstagsgeschenk für meine Schwester.
I always look for something really surprising as a birthday present for my sister. [or:]
I always look for really surprising things as a birthday present for my sister.

Last revised on November 10, 2021.

7. Place Names as Adjectives

German has a very simple way of using place names as adjectives: add the ending –er. Note that no other adjective endings are added, regardless of case or number.

das Genfer Abkommen the Geneva Convention
der Hamburger Flughafen the Hamburg airport

These adjectives can also be used as nouns:

der Berliner the Berliner (male from Berlin)
die Berlinerin the Berliner (female from Berlin)
Last revised on September 5, 2014.

8. Verbs as Nouns

Word Formation

These sections of the textbook help improve your speed during the skimming phase of reading and help you gradually build vocabulary.

You can recognize verbs functioning as nouns by their capitalization and their grammatical behavior as nouns. All such nouns are neuter. Thus, das Schwimmen means “the activity of swimming,” das Schreiben “writing,” das Lernen “learning.” You will often see these words used without an article. Examples:

Im tiefen Schnee ist das Gehen sehr schwierig.
In deep snow, walking is very difficult.
(a more natural translation:) It is very difficult to walk in deep snow.

Wo lernt man Segelfliegen in Deutschland?
Where does one learn hang-gliding in Germany?
(a more natural translation:) Where does one learn to hang-glide in Germany?

Ich lernte das Schwimmen.
I learned how to swim.

Das Schwimmen in der See ist nicht leicht.
Swimming in the ocean is not easy.

To practice some key skills covered in this unit, play the Unit 4 Syntax Untangler activity. (Link opens in a new window.)

You may find the Review Units 1-4 exercise more valuable now or as a later review opportunity.

Last revised on March 12, 2018.