Illustration by Chaim Garcia
Separable verbs are perhaps the closest possible equivalent to phrasal verbs in English. But unlike phrasal verbs, they follow very clear rules.
Let’s take a look at the verb fahren (to drive). Conjugated in a sentence, it might look like this:
- Wir fahren nach Köln. (We’re driving to Cologne.)
Straightforward enough, and it doesn’t look like anything was separated here. Phew. But what about losfahren (to take off in a vehicle)?
- Wir fahren in zwei Minuten los. (We’re going to take off in two minutes.)
Wait, someone just chopped that verb in half! How about mitfahren (to drive with)?
- Meine Eltern fahren auch mit. (My parents are also coming along.)
Or abfahren (to depart)?
- Der Bus fährt um 10 Uhr ab. (The bus departs at 10 a.m.)
See how the particle is relegated to the end of the sentence in the present tense? For non-native speakers, learning German is like a perpetual exercise in memory. Have you forgotten a particle? Left something behind? Here’s an example of how things can get really complicated in German:
- “Bitte halten Sie diesen Bereich für an- und abfahrende Hotelgäste von 08.00 bis 20.00 Uhr am Wochenende frei.” (Please keep this area clear for arriving and departing hotel guests from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. during the weekend.)
Can you spot the separable verb in this sentence? You know by now that the particle is always relegated to the end of the sentence, so it’s not too outlandish to say that frei is the prefix we’re looking for. But now we’re missing the verb. It must be at the beginning — and we know bitte (please) is not a verb. It must be halten (because there’s no other option).
Yep, German sentences sure put the “com” back in “complicated.” In some situations, you can’t interrupt a speaker before they finish, otherwise you’ll never really know what verb they will use and what they’re on about. You must be patient and wait, so you can draw meaning from their words.
The situation becomes a tad more complicated, however, when you conjugate the verb in the past participle. Here we need to use ge- to conjugate the verb properly. But what happens to the moveable particle? Do we continue to place it at the end of the sentence?
- Wir sind nach Köln gefahren. (We drove to Cologne.)
Hmm. I don’t see any separation here. Let’s try another:
- Wir sind schon losgefahren. (We’ve already taken off.)
See how the particle is now separated by ge- instead? And see how it’s no longer at the end of the sentence, but still attached to the main particle of the verb? Not nearly as confusing as a detachable particle coming at the end of a long sentence.
Just look at this one:
- Alle Briefe wurden mit dem Stempel “Adresse existiert nicht, Empfänger unbekannt” an die Absender zurückgeschickt. (All the letters were returned to their senders’ homes stamped “Address nonexistent, recipient unknown.”)
Here, we see how the verb is complete and inseparable. It’s the same for all other verbs with separable particles — anfangen becomes angefangen and wegnehmen becomes weggenommen.
Do you now see German separable verbs’ equivalent to phrasal verbs in English? English native speakers are familiar with expressions such as to call it off or to break it down; and sometimes we even put the particle at the end of a long sentence (though we’re advised not to separate the particles, or to write long German-style sentences).
My strategy when dealing with these quirky verbs as I learn German and speak it? Visualize. Whenever I begin a sentence with a separable verb, I think of the word, proceed to build a sentence and try not to lose sight of the bit I left behind. That way, when I am about to finish the sentence, I rescue it from oblivion and include it at the end. Then I erase it from my memory and jump to the next sentence.