Here are some English examples of a German style of verb:
♦OK, boot up your computer.
♦After downloading the new software, you’ll need to reboot your computer.
♦Make sure you put your coat on.
♦I need to read it through.
♦Go on, read it out.
♦You should write that down.
The extra „bit“ in each of these verbs gives them a different meaning from the verb that stands alone. For instance, if you suggested „booting a computer“ without the word „up“ or the prefix „re“, it might sound as though you were kicking it around the room like an Australian football. But add that magic little word „up“ or the prefix „re“ and the verb takes on a whole new meaning.
Whereas such verbs in English often involve tucking another word into the sentence, in German that extra word is tacked onto the beginning of the verb, just as we tack prefixes onto some of our verbs (reboot, rewrite, undo). The difference is that we don’t take those prefixes off. With some verbs, the Germans can detach those prefixes and put them somewhere else in the sentence.
The English verbs „to read“ and „to read out„, for instance, are mirrored by the German verbs „lesen“ and „vorlesen„. The „out“ means that someone is reading in front of or to somebody else. In German, the „vor“ syllable conveys the same meaning. What makes this unusual for English speakers is that in German, „vor“ can either be stuck like glue to the verb or can come off – like trouser legs that one zips off in the summertime.
- lesen: Er liest es. – He reads it.
- vorlesen: Er liest es vor. – He reads it out. (separated in the present tense)
- vorlesen: Er muss es vorlesen. – He must read it out. (stuck together in a sentence with a modal verb)
Here are a few more examples:
- Meine Mutter liest mein Gedicht vor. – My mother reads my poem out.
- Ich lese es durch. – I read it through.
- Kannst du deine Geschichte vorlesen? – Can you read your story out?
As shown in the last example above, with the modal verbs, such as können and müssen, the separable verb remains intact.
- Der Junge lädt die App herunter. – He downloads the app.
- Er muss die App herunterladen. – He must download the app.
- an/sehen – to look at
- aus/sehen – to look/appear
- um/sehen – to look around
- fern/sehen – to watch TV
- hoch/sehen – to look up
- durch/blättern – to leaf through, turn over pages
- durch/arbeiten – to work through
- durch/denken – to think (something) through
- For instance, where do you put „zu“ (to) when it’s required with a separable verb?
- What do you do with „ge“ when the separable verb is used in the perfect tense?
- How does the speaker pronounce the separable verb when it is used as an infinitive, i.e. when the whole verb is used as a single word?
- aus/sehen – to look like, appear
- auf/hören – to stop
- an/rufen – to ring up
- vor/schlagen – to suggest
- aus/blasen – to blow out
- ab/holen – to fetch, to pick up
- zurück/kommen – to come back
- vor/lesen – to read out
- zu/geben – to admit
- an/kommen – to arrive
- aus/flippen – to flip out, freak out, go mad (just like English – to flip out)
- heraus/holen – to pull out, get out, fetch out (often shortened to raus/holen)
- fern/sehen – to watch TV (literally to watch far away)
- schief/gehen – to go wrong (literally to go crooked, one of my favourites)
Online Exercises on Separable Verbs
Schubert Verlag (a publisher of German textbooks) offers many excellent online exercises with immediate feedback about whether your answer is right. All you need to do is click on the traffic light beside the question to read the correct answer. Try this link:
♦For a detailed German account of separable (and inseparable verbs), with many examples written in German, go to this site:
♦If you really want to challenge yourself, you can download this PDF on separable verbs at the link below and read it slowly. Fortify yourself with a cup of hot chocolate and a big dictionary. The file is entirely in German, so it is not for the fainthearted.