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.