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Separable verbs in German (Trennbare Verben)

One of the things that is the most surprising (and exasperating) when you start learning German is the idea of a separable verb. We’re going to look at what they are and how to conjugate them in more detail. They are similar to phrasal verbs in English.

Introduction to Separable Verbs

For these verbs, the particle is separated and placed at the end of the clause for simple verb tenses (as long as the clause is not subordinate or relative).

Let´s look at the separable verb "absagen" (cancel) as an example.

The verb is formed by the particle ab and the verb sagen.

"Sagen" alone means to say, but together with the particle "ab" it means "cancel".

Er sagt ein Konzert ab
He cancelled the concert

As you can observe in this example, the particle "ab" is placed at the end of the clause.

This property of separating only takes place in verb tenses that do not have an auxiliary verb (helping verb). In German, they are:

Präsens (present)

PersonConjugationTranslation
ichsag-e [...] ab
I cancel
dusag-st [...] abyou cancel
er/sie/essag-t [...] abhe/she/it cancels
wirsag-en [...] abwe cancel
ihrsag-t [...] abyou cancel (speaking to a group)
siesag-en [...] abthey cancel

Präteritum (past simple)

PersonConjugationTranslation
ichsag-t-e [...] ab
I cancelled
dusag-te-st [...] abyou cancelled
er/sie/essag-t-e [...] abhe/she/it cancelled
wirsag-t-en [...] abwe cancelled
ihrsag-te-t [...] abyou cancelled
siesag-t-en [...] abthey cancelled

Imperativ (Imperative)

PersonConjugationTranslation
2nd person singularsag [...] abcancel
1st person pluralsag-en wir [...] ab
Let’s cancel
2nd person pluralsag-t [...] ab
cancel
polite form (Sie)sag-en Sie [...] ab
cancel

The construction of the "Partizip II"

To make the Partizip II for the separable verb, you do the same as you would for the "Partizip II" for verbs that are not separted and add the particle as a prefix.

InfinitivePartizip IITranslation
absagenabgesagtcancelled
aufmachenaufgemacht
opened
umsteigenumgestiegen
changed
zumachenzugemacht
closed

Separable Verbs in Subordinate Clauses

For subordinate clauses, separable verbs behave like normal verbs, meaning that they aren´t separate:

Sie hat erzählt, dass er ein Konzert absagt
She said that he’s cancelling a concert

Separable Verbs in Relative Clauses

In relative clauses the separable verbs do not split:

Ich schickte dir eine SMS, die nie ankam
I sent you a text that never arrived

Separable verbs in Clauses "(um)" + "zu"

Compound clauses with "(um) + zu", the separable verbs are split by placing the preposition zu between the particle and the verb:

Es ist schwer, das Spiel wegzulegen
It’s difficult to put down this game

Separable particles

Sometimes, particles change the meaning of the verb they accompany just slightly, other times drastically.

Separable particles are:

Separable particles
ab-
an-
auf-
aus-
auseinander-
bei-
dar-
durch-
ein-
entgegen-
entlang-
fehl-
fest-
her-
herein-
los-
mit-
nach-
über-
um-
unter-
vor-
vorbei-
weg-
weiter-
wieder-
zu-
zurück-

"ab-"

  • absagen [cancel]
  • abschrauben [unscrew]
  • absegeln [sail away]
  • abbiegen [turn]

"an-"

  • anleiten [guide]
  • anmelden [register]
  • anrufen [call]
  • anfangen [start]
  • anhalten [stop]
  • ankommen [arrive]
  • anbieten [offer]
  • anpassen [adapt]
  • anschließen [connect]

"auf-"

  • aufheizen [heat up]
  • aufhaben [wear]
  • aufstehen [to stand up]

"aus-"

  • aussteigen [to get off/to exit (the bus)]
  • aussehen [to look/to apear] (Ex: "She looks beautiful" NOT "She looks at a map)"

"auseinander-"

  • auseinandersetzen to deal with/to argue with]

"bei-"

  • beitragen [contribute]

"dar-"

  • darstellen [to represent]

"durch-"

  • durchlesen [to read through]
  • durchgehen [to pass through]

The particle "durch-" is sometimes not separable. For example: durchqueren[to traverse]

"ein-"

  • einsteigen [to step into/to enter (on the bus)]
  • einkaufen [to go shopping]
  • einschalten [to turn on]
  • einladen [to invite]

    It is not always separable

"entgegen-"

  • entgegenstellen [to oppose]

"entlang-"

  • entlangfahren [to drive along]

"fehl-"

  • fehlschlagen [to backfire]

"fest-"

  • festlegen [to determine]

"her-"

  • herstellen [to manufacture]

"herein-"

  • hereintreten [to step in]

"los-"

  • losgehen [to get going]

"mit-"

  • mitmachen [to participate]

"nach-"

  • nacharbeiten [to rework]

"über-"

  • überstreifen [to shuffle on/slip over]

The particle "über" is normally not separable. For example: überdenken [reconsider]

"um-"

  • umsteigen [change (trains)]

"unter-"

  • unterlegen [to place underneath]

The particle "unter-" is sometimes not separable.

"vor-"

  • vorlesen [to read aloud]
  • vorsehen [to provide]

"vorbei-"

  • vorbeimarschieren [to march by]

"weg-"

  • wegnehmen [to take away]

"weiter-"

  • weiterentwickeln [to perfect/improve]

"wieder-"

  • wiedergeben [to return (something)]

    It is not always separable:

    wiederholen [to repeat] (not separable)

"zu-"

  • zumachen [to close]

"zurück-"

  • zurückkommen [to come back]

The special case of particle placement

As we said, the separable particle of the verb is placed at the end of the sentence:

Geht er ins Kino mit?
Is he also going to the movie theater?

But if a complement is taken for granted (it doesn’t provide new information) in street German (although this is not correct) is placed at the end, leaving the particle inside the sentence so that we hear:

Geht er mit ins Kino?
Is he also going to the movie theater?

Audiovisual Supplement

We will conclude with a nice song from an amateur Austrian choir: Kurt Mikula. The song is "Zünd ein Licht an" (turn on a light).




3 Comments

#3 [Rodrigo53]2016-08-16 16:33
For reply to query ... my email is roghat3@gmail.com
In your example following should you show it as 1st person plural not 1st person singular ???
1st person singular sag-en wir [...] ab
Let’s cancel

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