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German separable verbs versus verbs with inseparable prefixes


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I wonder if there is a way to remember those typically German separable verb and inseparable verb combinations?

I remember that ubersetzen means "to translate" but also "to cross over" (?) whether one decides to separate the preposition "uber" from the main verb. Does anyone here have a good system to remember the common ones and how to differentiate them?


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  • 3 months later...

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Just memorize. There is a list of common separable and inseparable verbs here that I find useful:


The hard one is that some prefixes can be separated, or not, like your example of über. I think that depending on the preposition the separable prefixes tend to have a certain meaning and my intuition is that separating implies movement of some kind related to the content. To cross something überqueeren is separable because you have motion across/over (über). To translate übersetzen is not separable because there is no such movement.

Unter follows a similar logic. Unterlegen is separable if it means to lay under and inseparable if it takes on a different meaning, like to highlight something (similar to unterstreichen - to underline (inseperable)).

I think that works for quite a few of them, though some one's that are separable or inseparable have meanings that don't involve movement, so you may have to feel those out more. Like wider und wieder.


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  • 2 months later...

You can distinguish three kinds of phrasal verbs with prefixes / particles in German.

The first is called Präfixverb, which are prefix + verb. The characteristic of a prefix is that it cannot stand alone (ge-, er-, ver-, be-, ent-,...) and therefore you can't split them up syntactically. Like, you can't say "Ich lebte es er" (from "erleben"), but have to say "Ich erlebte es". In pronunciation, the stress is on the root verb (erLEBEN).

The second is called Partikelverb; particle + verb. A particle can stand alone (an-, mit-, nach-, unter-,...) and you split them up: "Ich gebe das Buch ab" (from "abgeben"). The stress is on the particle (ABgeben).

Now the third kind are called Partikelpräfixverben, and as one would expect, they are a mix of the two. They are also particle + verb, but they behave like Präfixverben: you cannot split them up and the stress is on the root verb. This would be "übersetzen" in the sense of "to translate" (überSETZEN) -- "ich übersetze den Text", not "ich setze den Text über".

"übersetzen" in the meaning of "to cross over" would be a Partikelverb -- it's said "ÜBERsetzen" and you split it up syntactically -- "das Boot setzte über", not "das Boot übersetzte" (that would mean that the boat translated something!!).

Another fun example is "umfahren" which has contrary meanings depending on how you stress it: umFAHREN as a Partikelpräfixverb means "to drive around", UMfahren as a Partikelverb is "to run over" ;)

Moral of the story -- to find out if you can separate a verb, you have to check two things:

a) can the first part stand alone, as a preposition for example?

--> if it can't, then you can never split it up.

B) if the first part can stand alone, how do you stress the word?

--> if the stress is on the root verb, then you cannot split them up.

--> if the stress is on the first part, then you split them up.

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