Common Separable Prefixes & Their Meanings
Hallo, Deutschlerner. In my last lesson I explained the rules for the separable prefix verbs in German. This included a variety of tenses and uses for those verbs and covered pretty much all of the mechanics you will need in order to use them properly.
Today I’m going to introduce you to the most common separable prefixes in German and show you how each of them modify the meaning of the verb to which it is attached. I will use them in a variety of examples, so you will see a lot of the rules I explained last week, but if you want to learn about those rules, they will not be explicitly taught in this lesson. I recommend you read last week’s lesson before you start this one. With that out of the way, let’s get into the list.
If you want to translate these prefixes directly from German to English, you will run into a lot of problems. Languages are not a 1-to-1 kind of thing. You can’t always translate one word with another word in the other language. This is pretty clear with verbs like “gehen”, which we usually translate with the English verb “to go”. If you say in English, however that you are going to the store, you probably mean “Ich fahre zum Laden.” instead of “Ich gehe zum Laden.” “gehen” carries with it the connotation of you going on foot. In English the verb “to go” doesn’t necessarily need to be on foot. You can use a vehicle or even a plane.
These kinds of subtle differences are why it is virtually impossible to translate prefixes with one word or even one idea. They carry a lot of nuance. Basically what I am saying is that while I can give generalizations about prefixes and their meanings, the more subtle details of the meaning may be lost in these generalizations, so you may have to look at the use in context to find out how the prefix is modifying the verb in question.
The first prefix on my list for today is “ab-”. This prefix is most often associated with removing something or moving something away from something else. Sometimes this removal may give the impression of a downwards movement. Take the verb “bauen” for example. Normally “bauen” is translated with “to build”. The verb “abbauen” is “to dismantle”. It is literally to build something away. You can also think of it as “unbuild”.
to build, (to dismantle)
Sie bauen noch einen Starbucks da.
They are building another Starbucks there.
Nach dem Oktoberfest werden alle Zelte abgebaut.
After the Oktoberfest all tents are dismantled.
to bend, (to turn)
The verb “biegen” is a fun one, visually. Normally it means “to bend”. Add in the prefix ab- and it acts more like the English verb “to turn”. If you think of it literally it is like saying “to bend off”. You are bending yourself off of the road or bending your path away from the road.
Der Mönch biegt den Löffel mit seinem Gehirn.
The monk bends the spoon with his mind.
Biegen Sie bei der nächsten Straße nach rechts ab!
Turn right at the next street.
abfahren & abfliegen
to depart (with something on wheels) & to depart (with a flying apparatus)
A very common use for this prefix would be departures. For example: abfahren and abfliegen. This is the reason you will see signs in train stations with the word “Abfahrt” or in airports with the word “Abflug”. These are the noun versions of these verbs. They change “departing” into “departure”. Here are those two verbs in action.
Der Zug fährt um zehn Uhr ab.
The train departs at ten o’clock.
Der Flug fliegt um zehn Uhr ab.
The flight departs (takes off) at ten o’clock.
to read, (to read off)
Der Bürgermeister liest ein Buch.
The mayor is reading a book.
Der Bürgermeister liest seine Rede vom Teleprompter ab.
The mayor reads his speech from a teleprompter.
Since today’s list is about the most popular separable prefixes, there are a ton of verbs that use this prefix. Whatever the original verb was, think of the prefix ab- as removing that action or taking it off. If you want to see more verb examples for any of the prefixes, click here to find a list of the most common verbs that work with each of the prefixes on our list for today.
Next up is the prefix an-. It generally adds “up” or “on” to a verb. Most often it is translated with the English word “on”. This is one of the easiest prefixes to understand for English speakers, as the translation and the use is pretty much the same in both languages. The most difficult part is stretching your understanding of how “on” works in English to make sure you encompass everything the German prefix does. You can think of “an-” as kind of the yin to ab-’s yang. “an-” means that things go towards or close to contact”, but contact isn’t necessary, while ab- does the opposite. Let’s take a look at some examples, so you know what I mean.
to build, (to build/add on, cultivate)
Bob baut einen Schuppen.
Bob is building a shed.
Er baut eine Veranda an.
He is building on a porch. (He is adding on a porch.)
Bob baut Möhren in seinem Garten an.
Bob is cultivating (growing) carrots in his garden.
This verb has two uses. It can be used in a more literal sense and simply take the verb “to build” and add the preposition “on”, but its more common meaning is “to grow, cultivate”. While at first glance this translation doesn’t quite fit, think of what you do when you plant and grow something. You build it onto the earth. That’s what cultivating is.
to tie, (to tether)
So bindet man eine Fliege.
This is how you tie a bow tie.
Der Cowboy bindet sein Pferd an.
The cowboy tethers his horse.
(The cowboy ties his horse to a post.)
to burn, (to start burning)
Der Waldbrand brennt seit Mai.
The forest fire has been burning since May.
Ehm, das Omelett brennt an.
Um, the omelet is burning.
(The omelet is starting to burn.)
to hang, (to attach, hitch, stick)
Das Bild hängt an der Wand.
The picture is hanging on the wall.
Ich habe das Dokument an diese E-Mail angehängt.
I attached the document to this email.
The next prefix on my list is “auf”. Contrary to what many people believe, “auf” and “an” are not actually both “on”. This is abundantly clear with the prefix versions. “auf-” as a prefix can have several translations. It can be translated with “up or upwards”. Keeping with the tradition of using “bauen” in all of my examples so far. Here is what it looks like with “auf-” in front.
to build up, construct, establish
Ich habe eine gute Beziehung mit meinen Kollegen aufgebaut.
I have built up a good relationship with my colleagues.
to do (sports), to float, (to scare up, get ahold of)
Ich treibe gar keinen Sport.
I don’t do any sports at all.
Das Schiff treibt im Hafen.
The ship floats in the harbor.
Meine Mutter hat mir ein paar S’Mores Pop-Tarts aufgetrieben.
My mom scared up some s’more Pop-Tarts.
to light, (to light up)
Das Morgenlicht leuchtet mir das Gesicht.
The morning light lights my face.
Der Panikalarm leuchtet auf.
The panic alarm is lighting up.
The prefix “auf-” can also be translated with “open”. This is due to the fact that opening things often means that you move something up in order for it to be in the open position. For example:
to make, do, (to open, make open)
Immer wenn meine Mutter einkaufen möchte, macht sie zuerst eine Liste.
Always when my mother would like to go shopping, she makes a list first.
Kannst du bitte die Tür aufmachen?
Can you please open the door?
to close, (to unlock, open)
Probably the most confusing example of this is with the verb “schließen”.
Schließ bitte die Tür!
Please close the door.
Der Junge schließt die Tür auf.
The boy unlocks (opens) the door.
The reason this is confusing is due to the fact that almost every textbook I have ever seen shows only the definition “to close” for “schließen”, but it also means “to lock”, which is more appropriate for these examples, as “aufschließen” is really just to open the lock.
to hear, listen, (to stop)
The last use of auf- is for stopping actions. For example:
Hörst du die Musik?
Do you hear the music?
Hör auf aus dem Müll zu fressen!
Stop eating out of the trash.
This verb is often confusing to learners as well, as it no longer has the meaning of “listen” at all and is only left with “stop”, which is incredibly confusing. The reasoning is simple, it used to be “stop what you are doing and listen up”. Over time the “listen” part dropped out and the “stop” part remained. Aren’t languages fun? Another fun fact, this actually means that the prefix “auf-” doesn’t mean “stop” in this instance. It is simply “up”, as we have used so far. This is true of all of the other times when auf- is translated with “stop”.
The stopping part comes from the verb “halten” and not the prefix. It is really “to hold up”, same as the English.
to give up
This one isn’t even translated as to stop, but it is often given as an example of this prefix meaning “to stop”, which it clearly doesn’t. It still means “up”. It is true that when you give something up, you stop doing it, but that “stopping” connotation doesn’t come from the prefix.
This one is probably one of the easier ones on the list. It is most often translated with “out” and that is usually perfect. For example:
to breathe, (to breathe out)
Der Fisch atmet im Wasser.
The fish breathes in the water.
By the way, this verb works with several prefixes, as you can breathe in (einatmen) and out (ausatmen) or you can even do them both (durchatmen). Also “aufatmen” is “to sigh, breathe easily, relax”.
to throw, (to eject, expel, cast)
Der Spieler wirft den Ball.
The player throws the ball.
Man sollte den USB-Stick sicher auswerfen, bevor man ihn vom Computer entfernt.
You should eject your USB stick securely before you remove it from the computer.
to hold, (to withstand, endure, hold out)
Der Räuber hält die Pistole in seiner linken Hand.
The robber is holding the pistol in his left hand.
Blonde und rothaarige Kinder können die heiße Sommersonne nicht aushalten.
Blonde and red haired children can’t withstand the hot summer sun.
to stay, remain, (to stay out, not show up)
Wir bleiben heute zu Hause.
We are staying at home today.
2012 ist der Weltuntergang ausgeblieben.
In 2012, the end of the world didn’t show up (didn’t happen).
bei- as a general “together” feel to it, but is usually translated as “with” or “at”. It is used to add something to the original verb. For example:
to carry, (to contribute)
Mein Hund trägt einen Knochen im Mund.
My dog is carrying a bone in its mouth.
Er trägt gar nichts zu diesem Gespräch bei.
He doesn’t contribute anything to this conversation.
to bring, (to teach)
Der Kellner bringt mir ein Glas Wasser.
The waiter brings me a glass of water.
Herr Antrim bringt uns Deutsch bei.
Herr Antrim teaches us German.
to keep, retain, (to maintain, retain)
Ich behalte diesen kaputten Fernseher um ein Aquarium daraus zu machen.
I am keeping this broken television in order to make an aquarium out of it.
Obwohl er seit 1968 in den USA wohnt, behält er seinen Akzent immer noch bei.
Although he has lived in the USA since 1968, he still retains (maintains) his accent.
to step, kick, (to join)
Das Mädchen tritt ins Klassenzimmer.
The girl steps into the classroom.
Leider könnt ihr meinen Klassen nicht beitreten.
Unfortunately you can’t join my classes.
This prefix generally indicates a motion into something, whether this be a literal sense like in the verb “eintreten”, “to enter” literally “to step in”, or a more abstract meaning like in “einstellen”, which can mean to set something on your phone or other digital device or to stop something like production. Here are a few examples:
Als ich das Zimmer eintrat, schauten alle Schüler mich an.
When I walked into the room, all of the students looked at (examined) me.
Ich schlage vor, dass ihr Deutsch als Standardsprache auf eurem Handy einstellt.
I recommend that you all set the default language on your phone to German.
to build in, mount, install
Der Klempner baut den neuen Wasserhahn ein.
The plumber is installing the new faucet.
to turn into
Biegen Sie in diese Straße ein!
Turn into this street.
The prefix “fort-” is similar to the English “onward” or “away”. For example: fortfahren is to continue or proceed when you are in a vehicle. Alone “fahren” simply means “to drive”. Fort- isn’t nearly as popular as “an-” or “ab-”. It can only be used with about half as many verbs as those two prefixes can. Here are a few examples of “fort-”.
to bring (take) away
Nach der Party muss ich meine Oma zurück nach Hause fortbringen.
After the party I have to bring my grandma back home.
to continue, resume
Morgen setzen wir unsere Lektion über die Wechselpräpositionen fort.
Tomorrow we will continue our lesson about the two-way prepositions.
to chase away, drive away
Meine Kinder jagen den Schmetterling fort.
My children are chasing the butterfly away.
to continue, persist
Trotz der Problematik der Statue besteht sie immer noch im Park fort.
Despite the problematic nature of the statue, it continues to be in the park.
This one is used even less than “fort-”, but is an important one, as it means “free”. This is sometimes monetary, but more likely it is more abstract than that. For example:
Herr Antrim gibt am Samstag ein neues Album bei SoundCloud frei.
Herr Antrim is releasing a new album on SoundCloud on Saturday.
to work free
Der Dieb arbeitet die Wand frei, damit er Geld darin verstauen kann.
The thief works the board free so he can hide money behind it.
to clear, disengage
Er hat sich von seiner Arbeit für dich freigemacht.
He cleared his work schedule for you.
to release, let free
Wenn Kriminelle Politiker werden, lassen Kriminelle Kriminelle frei.
When criminals become politicians, criminals set criminals free.
The adjective “hoch” means “high”. When you use it as a prefix, it means the same. It is usually used to indicate an upward motion.
to hold up (in a high position)
Der Mandrill hält den Löwen hoch.
The mandrill holds the lion high. (Lion King)
to roll up (sleeves)
Jetzt krempeln wir unsere Ärmel hoch und arbeiten hoch.
Now we are rolling up our sleeves and working hard.
to project, extrapolate
Wissenschaftler rechnen hoch, wie viele Bären in den USA im Jahr 2050 sein werden.
Scientists project how many bears will be in the USA in the year 2050.
to shoot upwards, launch
Batman schießt seinen Enterhaken hoch.
Batman shoots his grappling hook upwards.
Another easy-to-understand prefix is “mit-”. It means “with” and is used as such. Sometimes this is a bit abstract, but for the most part, this prefix is pretty straight forward.
to contribute, collaborate
Ich finde es cool, wenn andere YouTuber an meinem Video mitarbeiten können.
I think it is cool, when other YouTubers contribute to my video.
to bring along
Mein Sohn bringt immer Dinosaurier mit.
My son always brings along dinosaurs.
to keep up with
Usain Bolt kann mit mir nicht mithalten.
Usain Bolt can’t keep up with me.
to help out (with), assist
Herr Antrims E-Book hilft mit, das A1 Niveau zu beherrschen.
Herr Antrim’s e-book helps out to master the A1 level.
The prefix “nach-” always means “after”. Unfortunately, this isn’t always as literal as people would often like. For this reason, many people will tell you that it has several meanings including “following”, “imitation”, or “reduction”. All of these, however, still just are variations of “after” that are less literal than other options. So in my examples for this prefix, I will show you some literal options and some less literal ones.
Wenn ich mit dem Bearbeiten des Videos fertig bin, arbeite ich es manchmal noch einmal nach.
When I am done with the editing of the video, I sometimes rework it again.
to retell, recount
Fred erzählt Teds Geschichte nach.
Fred retells Ted’s story.
to check, look up
Wenn du ein Wort nicht kennst, solltest du im Wörterbuch nachsehen.
If you don’t know a word, you should look it up in a dictionary.
Viele YouTuber ahmen einfach andere YouTuber nach, anstatt etwas besonderes zu machen.
Many YouTubers simply imitate other YouTubers instead of doing something special/unique.
The word “tief” simply means “deep”, but when it is used as a prefix, it is used to indicate the low point of something. In my first example “tiefhängen”, it means that the branches are hanging at their lowest point. They are hanging down so much so that they are in the way of the walking path. Using it as a prefix isn’t very common, because the meaning is more than just down or downwards, but it is common enough to be on today’s list. Here are a few examples:
to hang low (deep)
Die Äste des Baumes hängen jetzt tief.
The branches of the tree are hanging low now.
to hit below the belt
Der Boxer schlug gerade tief.
The boxer just hit below the belt.
to hold low/deep
Der scheue Junge hält seinen Kopf tief.
The shy boy holds his head low.
to sink deep
Die Titanic sank 1912 tief.
The Titanic sank in 1912.
This one simply means “away”. It is pretty much always translated with the word “away” and the English version is very similar. This is one of the easiest prefixes to use.
to stay away
Bitte bleiben Sie weg!
Please stay away.
to look away
Wenn das Monster im Film erscheint, sieht meine Tochter weg.
When the monster appears in the movie, my daughter looks away.
to throw away
Jeden Morgen werfe ich den Kaffeesatz von gestern weg.
Every morning I throw out the coffee grounds from yesterday.
to erase, wipe away
Ich wische die Fingerabdrücke vom Fenster weg.
I wipe away the fingerprints from the window.
The prefix “zu-” means “to” or “towards”. This also sometimes gets translated as “close”, but that is due to the fact that whatever is going on is “to” the wall or whatever the “closed” position is. For example: “zumachen” is literally “to make to”, but is translated as “to close”. The reason is that you are “making it to the closed position”.
Mach bitte die Tür zu!
Please close the door.
to gain weight
Seit der Quarantäne habe ich zehn Kilo zugenommen.
Since the quarantine I have gained ten kilos.
to tuck in
Seine Mutter deckt ihn jeden Abend zu.
His mother tucks him in every evening.
to press closed
Nachdem du den Pool aufgeblasen hast, musst du den Lochdeckel zudrücken.
After you have blown up the pool, you have to press the hole cover closed.
Now that you know what the most common separable prefixes are in German, you can use them on your own. If you want a list of verbs that are paired with each prefix, you can find that linked here. If you want to practice what you learned in this video, you can get a worksheet with an answer key here.