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Inseparable Prefixes

Inseparable Verbs: verbs with an unstressed prefix that are not separated when used in a sentence, e.g. beschreiben, erfinden, entspannen.

As Piggeldy and Frederick stroll down country roads in Das Fernweh (the yen for faraway places) Piggeldy gushes at the way his brother Frederick has aptly described this unknown concept.

So schön kann nur mein lieber Bruder Frederick 'Fernweh' beschreiben.

So beautifully can only my dear brother Frederick describe "fernweh".

Caption 36, Piggeldy und Frederick: Das Fernweh

Beschreiben (to describe) is the inseparable verb in our example and if we subtract the prefix be- it becomes schreiben (to write).

Different prefixes alter or change the meaning of their respective unadorned infinitives or root words, which may even be other parts of speech. See this list:

Be-: often makes a transitive verb from an intransitive verb, e.g. siegen (to win) vs. besiegen (to defeat)

Er-: tends to relate to creative processes, e.g. erfinden (to invent), erörtern (to discuss)

Ent-: usually describes processes of removing, e.g. entfernen (to remove), entführen (to kidnap)

Zer-: is used for destructive actions, e.g. zerstören (to destroy), zerdrücken (to crush, to mash)

To put this rough rubric into practice, let's look at another inseparable verb in one of our clips. Reporter Raudy, from the trendy magazine RheinMain Szene, tells recording artist "Der Graf" (the Count) to relax, when the Count admits that at times he still experiences stage fright.

Echt? Entspann dich doch! Ich bitt' dich!

Really? Hey, relax! I'm asking you!

Caption 7, RheinMain Szene: Unheilig - "Der Graf" - Part 3

As we can see from the list above, the inseparable prefix ent- reverses a process in place. In this last example, it "loosens the strings" of the Count’s tightly strung psyche, hence entspannen means “to relax.

Further practice

Review the lesson Separable or not separable... that is the question!, and then test yourself with this exercise on separable and inseparable verbs.

Learning Tip

Pick out a troublesome German phoneme, like the pesky R-sound. Create a word set by selecting only words that have this phoneme, whether in the initial or intermediate position. Then go back to the newly created word set and practice those words. Don’t be discouraged if you find progress slow in coming. It takes time, effort, continuous monitoring, and even trial and error, before you get it all right. When you meet a German who can no longer immediately peg your land of origin you’ll be glad you made the effort!

Grammar

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