How to Learn Separable Prefix Verbs (trennbare Verben) the Easy Way

One type of word in German which often makes learners sweat is the notoriously complicated separable verb, known in German as trennbare Verben. These are verbs with prefixes added in order to give the verb a more specific or slightly modified meaning.

These often cause learners serious problems, especially if their native language isn’t a Germanic language such as English, Danish, Dutch, Swedish etc. These languages all do something similar with their verbs. In English for example, separable verbs can be compared to phrasal verbs such as use up, find out, give up etc.

If your native language is Spanish for example, the concept of verbs having separable prefixes will seem quite alien to you – languages descended from Latin tend to have whole verbs for each concept instead of having separable components.

Take the verb machen, for example, which means to make. By adding various prefixes, we can create a whole load of new verbs.

abmachen
anmachen
aufmachen
ausmachen
durchmachen
einmachen
festmachen
hinmachen
mitmachen
nachmachen
vormachen
wegmachen
zumachen

Now let’s take just one of these and look it up on dict.cc:

“Oh my f––” I hear you cry! But before you go and learn Spanish instead I am going to to show you why you don’t need to worry about this nightmarish sight.

Why you shouldn’t fear separable verbs

This list of translations of ausmachen in the dictionary is very informative and great if you’re trying to translate a text from German to English and have the English meaning on the tip of your tongue, but it’s not very helpful for learners.

If you try to learn all of these definitions, you will go insane. And not only that – it won’t help use or recognise the verb correctly at all, because you won’t know the right context.

In fact, it’s not helpful to even consider ausmachen as a single verb.

Let me say that again – it’s not helpful to consider ausmachen as a single verb!

The solution to learning all of these meanings is to learn specific meanings in context and then create example sentences.

Ich habe das Licht ausgemacht.I turned off the light.
Wollen wir einen Termin ausmachen?Shall we make an appointment?
Das macht mir nichts aus!It doesn’t bother me!
Ich konnte ein Schiff am Horizont ausmachen.I could make out a ship on the horizon.

As you can see, this is much much less painful to learn!

Advantages of learning separable verbs in context

Learning the separable verbs in this way has a number of advantages.

  1. Much easier and more fun to review.
  2. Since you are learning a context, you will recognise the meaning the next time you encounter the specific context (someone turning off a light, someone making an appointment etc.)
  3. Since you are learning the context, the word will occur to you automatically when you want to produce a similar sentence.

Won’t I confuse the different meanings and contexts?

No, you won’t! Your brain is able to deal with words that look the same but have multiple meanings completely automatically.

It’s just like how lots of words in English have many meanings, yet it never causes problems.

I'll set the table.
The concrete set.
I set the alarm for 8 o'clock.
We set off at dawn.
The runner set a new world record.
Please set your timezone.
Your comment set me thinking.
Ready, set, go!
What a beautiful dinner set.

The next time you encounter the word ausmachen, try to find out what it means in that specific context by asking a native speaker, finding the specific definition in the dictionary, or asking me. You can then make a note of the example sentence in your notebook or on Anki. The next time you encounter that context, your brain will automatically fire up the right meaning.

That’s it for today. I hope this tip comes in helpful!