A characteristic feature of German is its ability to create verbs with new meanings through the addition of prefixes to nouns, adjectives, or other verbs.
For example:

  • aus + gehen = ausgehen - to go out
  • ver + kaufen = verkaufen - to sell

German has two categories of prefixes: inseparable prefixes and separable prefixes. However, few prefixes exist that can be used in either catgory.
Also, a verb could have more than one prefix, each giving a new verb with a different meaning than the others. Take the verb 'kommen' for example:

Verb Definition
kommen to come
ankommen to arrive
mitkommen to come along
weiterkommen to get on
hereinkommen to come in
herauskommen to come out
nachkommen to come later
zurückkommen to come back

Inseparable Prefixes

These prefixes are always attached to the front end of a verb and are never removed from it no matter the tense or form of the verb. When pronouncing a verb with an inseparable prefix, the stress is always on the stem of the verb.
The table below shows these prefixes, along with some examples:

Prefix Verb Definition
be- bekommen to get/receive
besuchen to visit/attend
emp- empfehlen to recommend
empfinden to feel
ent- entlassen to discharge/fire
entscheiden to decide/determine
er- erfinden to invent/make-up
erwarten to expect/anticipate
ge- gehorchen to obey
gestatten to permit/allow
miss- missachtest to disobey/disregard
misstrauen to mistrust/suspect
ver- vergessen to forget
verstehen to understand
zer- zerstören to destroy
zerkratzen to scratch

The inseparable prefix remains attached to the verb when its conjugated. Notice the position of the inseparable prefix in the following examples:

  • Ich verstehe sehr gut Deutsch - I understant very good German
  • Ich besuche meine Eltern jeden Tag - I visit my parents everyday

Separable Prefixes

Separable prefixes are adverbs and prepositions that are detached from the verb when it is conjugated. It would be completely impractical to list all of those prefixes; as there are many. When pronouncing a verb with a separable prefix, the stress is always on the separable prefix.
The table below shows the most common ones along with some examples:

Prefix Verb Definition
an- ankommen to arrive
anrufen to phone somebody
auf- aufstehen to wake up
aufhören to stop/cease
aus- ausgehen to go out
aussprechen to pronounce
bei- beibringen to teach
beitragen to add/contribute
ein- einkaufen to go shopping
einladen to invite
fort- fortfahren to continue/proceed
fortgehen to go away
mit- mitgehen to go along
mitarbeiten to collaborate
nach- nachahmen to imitate/copy
nacharbeiten to rework/revise
vor- vorstellen to present/introduce
vorbereiten to prepare/set up
weg- wegfahren to drive away
weglaufen to run away
zu- zuhören to listen
zunehmen to increase/grow

As already mentioned, when a verb with a separable prefix is conjugated in the present tense, the separable prefix is detached from it. The prefix is moved to the end of its clause. Notice the position of the inseparable prefix in the following examples:

  • Herr Bauer ruft seine Frau an - Mr Bauer is calling his wife
  • Ich gehe mit meinen Freunden jeden Tag aus - I go out with my friends everyday
  • Sie kauft im Supermarkt ein - She is shopping in the supermarket

Prefixes that can be Separable or Inseparable

A few prefixes exist that can be either separable or inseparable, depending on the way the verb is pronounced. When the stress is on the prefix itself, the prefix is separable. But when the stress is on the stem of the verb, it's a strong signal that the prefix is an inseparable one.
A few examples are shown in the next table:

Prefix Separable Verb Inseparable Verb
durch- durchfallen durchdringen
um- umsteigen umarmen
wieder- wiedergeben wiederholen

Of course, the verb conjugation depends on whether the prefix is separable or inseparable, as shown in the next example:

  • Wir steigen in Berlin um (umsteigen) - We change (busses) in Berlin
  • Wir umarmen uns (umarmen) - We embrace ourselves

That brings us to the end of this lesson. Make sure to solve the exercises associated with this lesson before proceeding to the next ones.