Separable verbs in German

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).

Präsens (present)

Person Conjugation Translation
ich sag-e […] ab I cancel
du sag-st […] ab you cancel
er/sie/es sag-t […] ab he/she/it cancels
wir sag-en […] ab we cancel
ihr sag-t […] ab you cancel (speaking to a group)
sie sag-en […] ab they cancel

Präteritum (past simple)

Person Conjugation Translation
ich sag-t-e […] ab I cancelled
du sag-te-st[…] ab you cancelled
er/sie/es sag-t-e […] ab he/she/it cancelled
wir sag-t-en […] ab we cancelled
ihr sag-te-t […] ab you cancelled
sie sag-t-en […] ab they cancelled

Imperativ (Imperative)

Person Conjugation Translation
2nd person singular sag […] ab cancel
1st person plural sag-en wir […] ab Let’s cancel
2nd person plural sag-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.
Infinitive Partizip II Translation
absagen abgesagt cancelled
aufmachen aufgemacht opened
umsteigen umgestiegen changed
zumachen zugemacht 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-


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


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


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


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


  • auseinandersetzen to deal with/to argue with]


  • beitragen [contribute]


  • darstellen [to represent]


  • durchlesen [to read through]
  • durchgehen [to pass through]
The particle “durch-” is sometimes not separable. For example: durchqueren[to traverse]


  • 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


  • entgegenstellen [to oppose]


  • entlangfahren [to drive along]


  • fehlschlagen [to backfire]


  • festlegen [to determine]


  • herstellen [to manufacture]


  • hereintreten [to step in]


  • losgehen [to get going]


  • mitmachen [to participate]


  • nacharbeiten [to rework]


  • überstreifen [to shuffle on/slip over]
The particle “über” is normally not separable. For example: überdenken [reconsider]


  • umsteigen [change (trains)]


  • unterlegen [to place underneath]
The particle “unter-” is sometimes not separable.


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


  • vorbeimarschieren [to march by]


  • wegnehmen [to take away]


  • weiterentwickeln [to perfect/improve]


  • wiedergeben [to return (something)] It is not always separable:wiederholen [to repeat] (not separable)


  • zumachen [to close]


  • 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 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  going to the movie theater?

Verbs:Präsens – Trennbare Verben

One facet of verbs is that they can be preceded by prefixes, small units of language that somehow modify or enhance the meaning of basic verbs. Although there are some patterns as to how these prefixes affect the verbs’ meaning, for the most part you just need to learn the individual verbs.

Die sieben Zwerge sehen im Wohnzimmer fern. The seven dwarves are watching TV in the living room.
Chef spielt ihnen Disneys ‘Snow White’ vor. Doc is playing them Disney’s Snow White.
Er lädt natürlich auch Schneewittchen ein. He invites Snow White as well, of course.
Sie bringt frische Kekse und Kräutertee mit. She brings fresh cookies and herbal tea (to the party).
Als Schneewittchen im Film in den Apfel beißt, fängt Brummbär an, laut zu weinen, und läuft schnell weg … Er kann diese Szene gar nicht ausstehen! As Snow White bites into the apple in the film, Grumpy starts to cry loudly and runs away … He can’t stand this scene!
Schneewittchen läuft ihm nach, und sie gehen lieber in den schönen Wäldern im Harzgebirge spazieren. Snow White runs after him, and they go for a walk in the beautiful forests in the Harz mountains instead.
Snow White bites into the apple in the film

I. Prepositions as separable prefixes

Most prepositions can be made into separable prefixes, and most separable prefixes are originally prepositions. These prefixes change the new verb’s meaning in a way that is often related to the original meaning of the preposition. Here are some examples for the most common separable prefixes:

preposition/prefix (general meaning) example english
AB– (away) abfahren absagen depart cancel
AN– (towards) ankommen anfangen arrive begin
AUF– (up, on) aufstehen aufhören wake up stop
AUS– (out, also suggests completion) aussteigen ausstehen get out (of a bus) stand somebody
EIN– (in) einsteigen einladen get in (a bus, train) invite
LOS– (indicates beginning something) losgehen losbrechen get started break loose/escape (break out)
MIT– (with, along) mitbringen mitkommen bring along come with, come along
NACH– (after, follow) nachholen nachlaufen make up (work, homework) run after someone (literally)
VOR– (before, ahead, forward) vorlesen vorspielen read out loud play (e.g., a film)
WEG– (away) wegwerfen weglaufen throw away run away

II. Other common separable prefix verbs

fernsehen – watch TV spazierengehen – go for a walk
Rad fahren – ride a bicycle schwarzarbeiten – work illegally
teilnehmen – participate schwarzfahren – ride (e.g., a train) without a ticket
kennenlernen – get to know achtgeben – pay attention

III. Word order and separable prefixes

A. Declarative sentences

The separable prefixes affect word order in basic sentences; they also have slightly different participle forms.

The typical word order in basic German (declarative) sentences is SUBJECT-VERB-VERBAL COMPLEMENTS. While this order stays the same for the most part, the separable prefix of the separable prefix verb goes to the very end of the declarative sentence.

parts of the sentence subject verb other items that complete the verb (e.g., direct object) separable prefix
declarative sentence Chef spielt Tennis.
declarative sentence with a separable prefix verb Chef spielt den Film vor.

B. Questions

Separable prefix verbs affect the word order in questions as well:

parts of the sentence subject/question word verb verbal complements/subject separable prefix
declarative sentence Chef spielt den Film vor.
Who? Wer spielt den Film vor?
What? Was spielt Chef vor?

C. With modal verbs

Modal verbs affect the word order of sentences with separable prefix verbs, too:

parts of the sentence subject primary verb verbal complements/subject separable prefix/infinitive
declarative sentence Chef spielt den Film vor.
modal verb: wollen Chef will den Film vorspielen.
question with modal verb Was will Chef vorspielen?

D. With subordinating conjunctions

Finally, separable prefix verbs move around when different phrases are connected by subordinating conjunctions (and also by relative pronouns).

subordinating conjunction subject/question word verb verbal complements/subject separable prefix
Chef spielt den Film vor.
Chef lädt Schneewittchen ein.
Bevor (before) Chef den Film vorspieltlädt er Schneewittchen ein.
Nachdem (after) Chef Schneewittchen einlädtspielt er den Film vor.
Brummbär Ich möchte diesen Film wegwerfen!!! Ich will ihn nie wieder anschauen! I would like to throw away this film!!! I never want to watch it again!
Schneewittchen Nachdem du die DVD wegwirfst, lesen wir dein neues Drehbuch für diese Geschichte! After you throw away the DVD, let’s read your new screen play for this story!
Brummbär Ahm … Es ist noch nicht fertig. Und weiterhin ist es ein bisschen kitschig … Ahm … Die Hexe kann dich natürlich nicht umbringen, und ich bin der Held, und obwohl du den Prinzen kennenlernst, heiratest du mich … Hmmm … Ahem … It’s not finished yet. And furthermore, it’s also a bit kitschy… Ahem … The witch of course can’t kill you, and I am the hero, and although you meet the prince, you marry me … Hmmm …
Schneewittchen Mein lieber Brummbär, du bist echt süß! Aber du solltest deine Karriere nicht aufgeben! My dear Grumpy, you are really sweet! But you should not give up your (day)job!

Below are some of the most commonly used separable prefix verbs with English equivalents. The first column offers some general meanings associated with the prefixes, but these are only tendencies, not set rules.

preposition/prefix(general meaning) example english
AB– (away) abbrennen abgeben abkürzen abnehmen abschließen abtreiben burn down turn in (homework), hand over (ticket) shorten lose weight finish, complete abort
AN– (towards) anerkennen andeuten angeben anklagen ankleiden anschauen anstellen anweisen anwenden recognize hint at, suggest brag, show off accuse dress watch hire, employ instruct use
AUF– (up, on) aufatmen aufbleiben aufführen aufklären auflockern aufnehmen aufräumen aufschlagen aufwachsen breathe a sigh of relief stay up (person), stay open (store) perform (e.g., theater play) inform, enlighten, clear up liven up (a party, person) take a picture of (incl. video images) tidy/clean up (e.g., room) open (eyes, book) grow up
AUS– (out, also suggests completion) ausbilden ausbrechen ausdrucken ausdrücken ausflippen ausgeben ausgehen auslachen ausmachen ausnutzen ausschließen aussprechen aussterben austauschen educate, train break out print (e.g., text, picture) express freak out (flip out) publish, hand out go out, date laugh at (someone) turn off (light), put out (fire) take advantage of (person, opportunity) lock out, exclude pronounce die out, go extinct exchange
EIN– (in) einbrechen einfallen (es ist mir eingefallen) einführen einkaufen einleben (sich) einnehmen einrichten einschätzen einschlafen einschüchtern einwerfen einziehen break in (horse, into house) occur (to someone), come to mind introduce (a topic) go shopping, buy get used to earn, make money furnish (apartment), arrange (furniture) judge, guess (e.g., at size, value) fall asleep intimidate, bully throw in (e.g., remark, towel) move in (e.g., into a new apartment)
LOS– (beginning something) losfahren loswerden get going, leave get rid of, spend, lose
MIT– (with, along) mitbekommen mitfahren mitfühlen mitmachen mitnehmen mitspielen mitteilen get out (of a lecture), understand ride along sympathize participate, do something w/someone take along play along (in a sport) inform, share knowledge
NACH– (after, follow) nachahmen nachdenken (ich möchte darüber ~) nacherzählen nachfolgen nachgeben nachprüfen nachschlagen nachtun nachzählen imitate think about (I’d like to think about that) retell, relate (a story) follow, succeed (e.g., a king) give in (e.g., to pressure) double check (e.g., essay, homework) look up (e.g., a word in a dictionary) follow somebody’s example re-count (double check numbers)
VOR– (before, ahead, forward) vorbereiten vorbestellen vorhaben vorkommen vornehmen vorstellen vortragen prepare order in advance (e.g., books) plan, have in mind come up, happen carry out a task introduce, imagine perform (play), give lecture/opinion
WEG– (away) wegbleiben wegbringen weggehen wegnehmen wegräumen wegtreten wegziehen stay away take/bring away go away take away clear away (e.g., mess) step away pull away

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