Verbs you can pull apart

Here are some English examples of a German style of verb:

Bitte absteigen.
Please dismount.
Get off your bike!
A sign in Rothenburg ob der Tauber showing the everyday importance of separable verbs: Man kann absteigen (dismount), aufsteigen (mount, get on), einsteigen (board, jump in) or aussteigen (get out or even opt out).What do all of the sentences below have in common?

♦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.

Some German verbs can be pulled apart and then reassembled. We do exactly the same thing in English by using extra words or prefixes. Our prefixes, however, can’t be taken off the main word and used separately. The Germans‘ verb prefixes, if the verb is detachable or separable, can leave the mother verb and wander off to another part of the sentence, like a young child seeking adventure.

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.
The meaning of the verb can change quite dramatically as that single syllable changes. For instance, notice how sehen changes when you add various prefixes.
  • 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
The same prefix can be used to make several detachable verbs:
  • durch/blättern – to leaf through, turn over pages  
  • durch/arbeiten – to work through
  • durch/denken – to think (something) through
The Quizlet below provides many examples of simply used separable verbs. As you read through it, you’ll notice that the examples gradually become harder. Towards the end of the Quizlet, some examples illustrate how a separable verb is used in more complex sentences and in the past tense. See if you can figure out what the rules are for each usage.
  • 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? 
Separable verbs used in this Quizlet:
  • 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) 

Just like a cup and saucer, the two parts of a separable verb can be used as one entity or they can be detached and used as two separate parts. If you want to find a separable verb in a dictionary, however, you need to look for the whole word.


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:

Schubert Verlag Online Exercises – Separable Verbs 

For a detailed German account of separable (and inseparable verbs), with many examples written in German, go to this site:

Mein Deutschbuch – Separable Verbs

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.

PDF from Mein Deutschbuch – Online Information on Separable Verbs

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