German verbs with fixed prepositions don’t exist. In this lesson I will explain why some people think verbs with fixed prepositions exist, how this myth originated, and what you should really learn instead.
German Verbs with “Fixed Prepositions” Skit
Herr Lehrer: Guten Morgen, Schüler. Today we are going to learn about German verbs with fixed prepositions. These are verbs that have to be used with certain prepositions. For example: warten (to wait) requires the preposition “auf”. You need to say: Ich warte auf den Bus. – I am waiting on the bus.
Lerner: Can’t I just leave out the prepositional phrase entirely? Could I say: “Ich warte. – I am waiting.”?
Herr Lehrer: Yes, but…
Lerner: What if I’m waiting in a place? Could I say: “Ich warte im Bahnhof. – I am waiting in the train station.”?
Herr Lehrer: Yes, but…
Lerner: What if I am waiting with someone else? Could I say: “Ich warte mit meiner Mutter. – I am waiting with my mother.”?
Herr Lehrer: Well, yeah, but in order to say you are waiting for or on something, you need the preposition “auf”.
Lerner: So the preposition “auf” isn’t really “fixed” so much as just commonly used with “warten”.
Herr Lehrer: Maybe I chose a bad example. When using the verb “denken”, you need to use the preposition “an”. For example: Ich denke an Schokolade. – I am thinking of chocolate.
Lerner: What about the question: “Was denkst du über die neue Lehrerin? – What do you think about the new teacher?”
Herr Lehrer: Yeah, you can say that, too. Some verbs, like “denken”, have two fixed prepositions.
Real Herr Antrim: NO THEY DON’T! Fixed prepositions are not a thing. Today I am going to bust this myth and explain how these things really work.
Why German Verbs with “Fixed Prepositions” Can’t Exist
Here’s the thing. If verbs with fixed prefixes were a thing, why are there certain verbs that take more than one preposition on a regular basis? For example: If you use “bestehen” with the preposition “auf” it translates as “to insist on”.
Er besteht auf organisches Obst.
He insists on organic fruit.
If you use it with “aus”, it means “to consist of”.
Diese Serie besteht aus zwanzig Folgen.
This series consists of twenty episodes.
But to complicate this matter even more, you can use the verb “bestehen” in other instances when the preposition used doesn’t have anything to do with the verb. For example:
Es bestehen keine Zweifel an seinen Fähigkeiten.
There are no doubts about his skills.
When this is done, the verb “bestehen” translates as “to exist”.
Es besteht eine starke Verbindung zwischen Dampfen und vielen Krankheiten.
There is a strong link between vaping and many illnesses.
sich freuen auf vs sich freuen über
Surely this is an isolated example, right? Absolutely not. I’m sure you were confused when you learned there was the phrase “sich freuen auf”, which means “ to look forward to”, but also the phrase “sich freuen über”, which means “to be pleased with or happy about”. Again, we have an instance in which a preposition has been so commonly used with a certain verb that people think it is attached or “fixed” to that verb.
In reality, neither of these prepositions are “fixed” to the verb freuen. The verb “freuen” means to make happy. It is used reflexively, which means that you say things like “Ich freue mich” (I make myself happy) and “Freust du dich” (you make yourself happy). This is because the person in those sentences is making themselves happy. When you use “über” it has the same translation it always does, “over”.
Ich freue mich über den Sonnenschein.
I am am happy about the sunshine.
In that sentence, you are saying that you are making yourself happy over the sunshine.
Ich freue mich auf das Wochenende.
I am looking forward to the weekend.
In this sentence, you are casting your happiness in the direction of the weekend. The preposition “auf” shows this when you throw something onto something else.
Er wirft das Buch auf das Regal.
He throws the book onto the shelf.
If German verbs with “fixed prepositions” don’t exist, what should we learn instead?
Herr Lehrer: Ok, Herr Allwissend.
Herr Antrim: Ähm. Doktor Allwissend, aber das ist ein anderer YouTube Kanal. Hier ist nur Herr Antrim.
Herr Antrim: Uh. Doctor All-Knowing, but that is a different YouTube channel. Here is just Herr Antrim.
Herr Lehrer: Whatever smartypants. What would you suggest we learn if “verbs with fixed prepositions” is such a problematic topic?
I would recommend learning verbs on their own and then the prepositions that are commonly used with them. Calling them “fixed prepositions” gives the impression that you have to use these prepositions with these verbs or that any other prepositions are wrong. This severely limits your creativity with the language. Don’t think of them as fixed prepositions, but rather, “this is how I express that”.
A common problem amongst language learners is that they try to do one-to-one translations. This causes them to force translations that don’t make sense or pigeon hole words to the point that they can’t be used to their full potential. If you think that “arbeiten” has to be used with “an”, you might have trouble when you are working on the floor on your car.
Ich arbeite auf dem Boden an meinem Auto.
I am working on my car on the floor/ground.
denken an vs nachdenken über
If you know that “denken” means “to think”, you can separate that from the prepositions “an” and “über” and the prefix “nach”. This makes the following distinction easier.
Ich denke an meine Mutter.
I am thinking about my mother.
Ich denke über den Sommer in Schweden nach.
I am reflecting on the summer in Sweden.
In the first one, we simply have the verb “denken” and the preposition “an”, which generally translates as “on”, but in a way that means you are sort of next to something. I think of the prefix “nach” as “after”. This means that “nachdenken” means “to think after”, as in “after the event has taken place”. Add in “über” and you end up with “thinking over something after it has taken place”. Even with this stretch of translations one can see the benefits of learning the words for their actual meanings instead of thinking “this combination of words means this” and “that combination of words means that”.
The Bottom Line About German Verbs with “Fixed Prepositions”
The bottom line is this, there are certain prepositions in German which are used commonly with certain verbs. Many people call them “fixed prepositions”, but this leads to confusion when these verbs are used with different prepositions or without a preposition at all. It is helpful to learn how certain verbs and prepositions interact with each other, but it is just as important to realize that the prepositions aren’t “fixed” to the verb in any way.
More Examples of German Verbs with “Fixed Prepositions”
Since I know you need more examples, let’s take a look at a few more verb and preposition combinations. The following examples are amusing to me, because there are those, who will tell you that the prepositions “an” and “von” can both be used with “hängen”, but it changes the meaning.
hängen + an, von, über, in, and more
If something uses “hängen an”, it is supposed to mean “to attach”. If something uses “hängen von”, it is supposed to mean “to depend upon”. Unfortunately, the verb “hängen” just means “to hang”. You can hang things on walls and from things that are above you. You can even hang things between other things. This means you can use pretty much all of the prepositions of place with the verb “hängen”. To say that one or more of them are “fixed” to the verb is really going to mess with you when you need to hang a picture on the wall between the other two pictures above the desk.
Der Junge hängt sich an dieses Mädchen.
The boy is attaching himself to (hanging around) this girl.
Deine Zukunft hängt von diesem Ergebnis ab.
Your future depends upon this result.
Das Foto hängt an der Wand.
The photo is hanging on the wall.
Die Lampe hängt von der Decke.
The lamp is hanging from the ceiling.
Der Junge hängt das Foto an die Wand zwischen den anderen Fotos über dem Schreibtisch im Büro.
The boy is hanging the photo onto the wall between the other photos above the desk in the office.
schimpfen mit vs schimpfen über
Here’s a brain-buster. schimpfen mit vs schimpfen über THEY ARE BOTH LISTED AS “TO COMPLAIN ABOUT SOMEBODY”! Is my dictionary just trying to mess with me? What is going on here? Well, the verb “schimpfen” on its own means “to rant, offend, or scold”. It is basically to talk bad about someone. If you use it with “mit”, it means that you are speaking with that person while you are complaining about them.
Generally, this is translated as “to scold”. When you use the preposition “über”, it means that you are talking about the person, but they are not in the conversation. This is usually translated as “to complain about”. So what happens when you complain about someone with someone else.
Ich schimpfe oft über meine Mutter mit meiner Frau.
I often complain about my mother with my wife.
sich unterscheiden durch vs sich unterscheiden in vs sich unterscheiden von
And now the bonus round. What is the difference between “sich unterscheiden durch” and “sich unterscheiden in”. To me “to differ through” and “to differ in” are about the same thing. The change in translation from “differ” to “distinguish” doesn’t help either, as distinguish just means that they differ. So how do these two verbs differentiate from one another?
“Sich unterscheiden durch” und “sich unterscheiden in” unterscheiden sich durch die Menschen, die diese Präpositionen benutzen, und in den Regionen, wo man öfter “in” oder “durch” sagt.
“sich unterscheiden durch” and “sich unterscheiden in” differ through the people who use these prepositions and in the regions, where one uses “in” or “durch” more often.
Oh, and there is also “sich unterscheiden von”. For example:
Pandas unterscheiden sich von anderen Bären durch die Fellfärbung und andere Merkmale.
Pandas differ from other bears through the fur color and other features.
Comments about German Verbs with “Fixed Prepositions”
Now that you know that there is no such thing as a verb with a fixed prefix, I want you to write a sentence or two in the comments below that uses a verb with a preposition other than the ones traditionally listed as “fixed prepositions”. Expand your German language flexibility and be entertained by the creativity of others. Das ist alles für heute. Danke fürs Zuschauen. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss.