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Separable Verbs in German- When Do They Split?

Updated: Feb 8

Separable verbs ("trennbare Verben" in German) often pose a puzzle for learners. The challenge lies not only in identifying them but also in understanding when they split and when they don't. In this comprehensive guide, we'll demystify separable verbs, making your German language journey smoother.

Identifying Separable Verbs

These verbs consist of a one-syllable prefix (typically a preposition like "an," "auf," "aus") and a core verb. The core verb is usually an independent verb on its own. Let's explore common examples:

  • aufstehen (to get up)

  • ankommen (to arrive)

  • ausgehen (to go out)

  • einkaufen (to shop)

  • fernsehen (to watch television)

  • anfangen (to start)

  • einschalten/ausschalten (to switch on/off)

  • anstoßen (to toast)

Now equipped with the ability to identify separable verbs, let's unravel the rules governing when they split and when they remain intact.

When Do Separable Verbs Split?

The rule is surprisingly straightforward: Separable verbs split when they are the sole verb in a main clause. In this scenario, the prefix moves to the end of the sentence, and the core verb takes the second position and gets conjugated. However, when there are two verbs in a main clause (an auxiliary verb and a separable verb) or in a subordinate clause, separable verbs do not split.

Examples of Separable Verbs Splitting:

  1. Ich stehe morgens normalerweise um 7 Uhr auf. (I normally get up at 7am)

  2. Sie kommen gegen 12 Uhr in Hamburg an. (They arrive in Hamburg at around noon)

  3. Wir gehen am Wochenende aus. (We go out on the weekend)

Examples of Separable Verbs Not Splitting:

  1. Ich muss morgens normalerweise um 7 Uhr aufstehen. (I normally need to get up at 7am)

  2. Sie werden gegen 12 Uhr in Hamburg ankommen. (They will arrive in Hamburg at around noon)

  3. Wir wollen am Wochenende ausgehen. (We want to go out on the weekend)

In subordinate clauses, separable verbs also stay together.

  • Da ich morgens normalerweise um 7 Uhr aufstehe, versuche ich vor Mitternacht ins Bett zu gehen.

Exceptions and Non-Separable Prefixes

While the majority of prefixes indicate separable verbs, a few introduce inseparable verbs in German. These prefixes include be-, ent-, er-, ge-, ver-, zer-, emp-, er-, miss-. For example: bezahlen (to pay), entscheiden (to decide), erwarten (to expect), verdienen (to earn), zerstören (to destroy).

Er bezahlt die Rechnung. (He pays the bill)

Sie entscheidet sich zu studieren (She decides to study)

Wir erwarten ein Ende der Pandemie. (We expect the end of the pandemic)

Sie verdient ziemlich gut. (She earns pretty well)

Der Tornado zerstört viele Häuser. (The tornado destroys many houses)

Navigating Tricky Prefixes

Some prefixes don't determine whether a verb is separable or not. Examples include durch-, um-, wieder-, über-, unter-, wieder. For instance, wiederkommen (to return) is separable, while wiederholen (to repeat, revise) is not.

Wir kommen gleich wieder. (We'll be right back)

Wir wiederholen trennbare Verben. (We're revising separable verbs)

Navigating the Journey

Our advice? Focus on the overarching rule that separable verbs split in main clauses when they are the sole verb. As you progress, you'll naturally grasp the exceptions. Concentrate on mastering the rule, and the exceptions will fall into place organically.

Embark on a deeper exploration of German grammar through our blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!" Dive into topics like the four cases, the Perfekt tense, German pronouns, adjective endings, and more.

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