In this lesson I will teach you how to use the separable prefix verbs in German (also known as “trennbare Verben”). I explain when to separate the prefix from a German verb and when not to. I’ll also show you a list of the separable prefixes. You will learn how these separable verbs work and how to use a variety of separable verbs in German through a ton of example sentences. In my next few lessons I will focus on smaller groups of prefixes and how they change the meanings of the verbs.
Separable Prefix Verbs Rules Overview
In this post I will explain the following rules in more detail with example sentences for each. If you are looking for a quick overview of how to use the separable prefix verbs in German, these are the rules you need to be able to apply.
- When the separable prefix is used in a simple sentence in the present or simple past tense, put the prefix at the end.
- If you need to use the infinitive of the verb, put the prefix back on the front of the verb.
- When that infinitive requires “zu”, put “zu” between the prefix and the rest of the verb.
- If you are using a past participle, the ones used in the Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt and Futur 2 tenses, put the ge- between the prefix and the rest of the verb.
- When you are using a subordinate clause with a separable prefix, you put the conjugated form of the verb with the prefix at the end of the clause or sentence.
What are German Verb Prefixes?
First off, let’s talk about prefixes in general. If you didn’t watch last week’s video about inseparable verbs, shame on you, but don’t worry, I will repeat myself a bit here. German verbs are often modified with prefixes. They change the meaning and morph one verb into another.
For example, the verb “geben” is often translated as “to give”, but when you add the prefix “aus-” we translate it with the English verb “to spend”. While this does more accurately represent the usage of the verb “ausgeben”, you can also translate it as “to give out”. This tells us the prefix aus- changes the direction of the “geben” from a more general non-specific “away from the subject” direction to a slightly more specific “outward” direction.
Basically every verb in German has a direction of sorts. The direction of “lernen” is “from less to more”. For the verb “leben” the direction is “forward”. The direction of “singen” is “from your mouth away”. These directions are changed by prefixes.
Most prefixes, like “aus-” are separable. This means that the prefix is often moved to the end of the sentence. For example:
Ich gebe zwanzig Euro für das Konzert aus.
I am spending twenty Euros for the concert.
List of Separable Prefixes in German
The list of separable prefixes is considerably longer than the list of inseparable prefixes I explained last week. That’s why there is no way I could cover them all in one video, but you can see them below. Today I’ll use a variety of these prefixes to illustrate the rules for how to use them in a variety of situations, but for those of you who just want to know which prefixes are separable, there you go.
If you want to focus on the most used ones, you can start with this slightly shorter list. They are the most commonly used separable prefixes in the German language.
When to Separate a Separable Prefix from the Verb
Most of the time, separable prefixes will be separated from the main part of the verb, hence the name. When they are separated, they go to the end of the sentence or clause in which the main part of the verb was used. For example:
to clear off
Das Kind räumt den Tisch ab.
The child clears off the table.
The main part of the verb goes where the conjugated verb usually goes. In statements this is most commonly the second position, but I’ll show you some examples later in which the verb is moved to a different location. The prefix ab- is moved to the end of the sentence right before the period. Let’s try a few more of those before I move on to a different rule.
Wann kommt der Zug an?
When does the train arrive?
to give up, surrender
Sisyphus gibt nie auf.
Sisyphus never gives up.
Meine Frau tritt der Kirche bei.
My wife is joining the church.
to pass (ball)
Der Fußballspieler gibt den Ball ab.
The soccer player passes the ball.
to go out
Heute Abend gehen meine Freundin und ich aus.
This evening, my girlfriend and I are going out.
Präteritum Examples with Separable Verbs
All of the examples so far have been in the present tense. If you use the simple past (Präteritum) tense, nothing changes except the form of the verb used. Here are the same examples, but in the simple past.
Das Kind räumte den Tisch ab.
The child cleared the table.
Wann kam der Zug an?
When did the train arrive?
Sisyphus gab nie auf.
Sisyphus never gave up.
Meine Frau trat der Kirche bei.
My wife joined the church.
Separable Prefixes in the Future Tense
If you use the verb “werden” to form the future tense, you push the verb to the end of the sentence or clause in the infinitive form, just like you would with any other verb. With the separable prefix verbs, this means that you put the prefix back on the main part of the verb, as the infinitive form of any verb with a separable prefix is simply that verb with the prefix attached. You put the emphasis of the word on the prefix and not the main part of the verb. This is the opposite for inseparable prefixes. For example:
to climb up
Imse Wimse Spinne wird wieder hinaufklettern.
The Itsy Bitsy Spider will climb up again.
to watch TV
Heute Abend werden wir fernsehen.
This evening we will watch TV.
Separable Verbs with Modal Verbs (Auxiliaries)
to go away
Du musst jetzt weggehen.
You have to go away now.
Als Kind konnten wir keine Musik herunterladen.
When I was a kid, we couldn’t download music.
to lose (weight), take off
Ich muss 10 Kilo abnehmen.
I have to lose 10 pounds.
to take along
Was wirst du mitbringen?
What will you bring along?
Infinitival Clauses with Separable Prefixes
If the infinitive you are using requires “zu”, which I explained several weeks ago, you put “zu” between the prefix and the rest of the verb. For example:
Um dieses Video heute hochzuladen, musste ich den ganzen Tag arbeiten.
In order to upload this video today, I had to work the entire day.
to ask, check
Anstatt bei ihrer Mutter nachzufragen, ist sie einfach ausgegangen.
Instead of asking her mother, she simply went out.
Separable Verbs in the Perfekt Tense
When you use a separable verb in the Perfekt tense or any of the tenses that are based off of it, you put the ge- part of the past participle between the prefix and the rest of the verb. The past participle still goes where it normally would, the end of the sentence or clause. For example:
to take place
Die Versammlung hat im Konferenzraum stattgefunden.
The meeting took place in the conference room.
to listen (to)
Mein Sohn hat mir nicht zugehört.
My son didn’t listen to me.
to give back
Dein Bruder hat mir mein Geld nicht zurückgegeben.
Your brother didn’t give me my money back.
to come by
Meine Mutter ist gestern vorbeigekommen.
My mother came by yesterday.
Perfekt + Separable Prefix + Subordinate Clause
Don’t forget that when you use the Perfekt tense in a subordinate clause that the conjugated verb goes to the end of the clause, which means “haben” or “sein” is behind the past participle. For example:
Als mein Bruder zurückgekommen ist, bin ich weggegangen.
When my brother came home, I left.
Plusquamperfekt with Separable Verbs
As I mentioned these rules apply to the tenses based off of the Perfekt tense, too. This would include the Plusquamperfekt.
Die Polizei hatte neue Informationen über den Banküberfall freigegeben.
The police released new information about the bank robbery.
Futur 2 with Separable Prefixes
Or the Futur 2 (future perfect).
Meine Mutter wird schon eingekauft haben.
My mother will have already shopped.
Passive Voice with Separable Verbs
Or even the passive voice.
Die Informationen wurden von der Polizei freigegeben.
The information was released by the police.
Subordinate Clauses with Separable Prefixes
If you are using a verb with a separable prefix in a Nebensatz or subordinate clause, you put the prefix and the rest of the verb together even if the verb is conjugated. For example:
to shop, buy
Wenn er einkauft, bringt er seinen Hund nicht.
When he shops, he doesn’t bring his dog.
to come by
Meine Mutter fragt, ob meine Freundin vorbeikommt.
My mother is asking if my girlfriend is coming over.
By the way, if you want to learn how to use conjunctions like “wenn” or “ob”, I recently made a video about that.
to have planned
Was ich heute vorhabe, ist ins Kino zu gehen.
What I have planned for this evening, is to go to the movies.
Die Tür, die du gerade zumachst, muss offen bleiben.
The door that you are closing has to stay open.
Rules for Separable Prefix Verbs Recap
I know I have explained a ton of rules today, so let’s do a quick recap so you can see it all together.
- If the separable prefix is used in a simple sentence in the present or simple past tense, put the prefix at the end.
- When you need to use the infinitive of the verb, put the prefix back on the front of the verb.
- If that infinitive requires “zu”, put “zu” between the prefix and the rest of the verb.
- When you are using a past participle, the ones used in the Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt and Futur 2 tenses, put the ge- between the prefix and the rest of the verb.
- If you are using a subordinate clause with a separable prefix, you put the conjugated form of the verb with the prefix at the end of the clause or sentence.
Separable Prefix Songs
Since I know you like having songs for everything, here is a really terrible song I wrote forever ago about separable prefixes. I think it is one of the most cringeworthy things I have ever done, but my students think it is fantastic.