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The complete A-Z guide to German prefixes and what they mean

The complete A-Z guide to German prefixes and what they mean
This Berlin raccoon is no longer 'versteckt' as it 'anschaut' from its hiding spot. Photo: DPA
From 'an' to 'zer', we break down what those pesky prefixes mean, and show that they're not as hard to master once you start seeing the patterns in them.

Despite German’s reputation for being a complicated language with a monstrous mass of rules (which it largely is), it’s also extremely logical.

One key example of this is the prefix, or the first parts of a verb, like the ver- in verloren (lost), which you might feel at times when you grapple with German.

READ ALSO: Das ist ja mal wichtig: The complete guide to German particles and what they mean

But fear not: here’s a breakdown of the most common prefixes auf Deutsch, the idea or concept that they connote, and example sentences of where you will hear them used.

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See also on The Local:

Ab 

This short word implies that something is being taken away – whether knowledge or extra kilos you put on during the coronavirus crisis. 

Some examples are abfahren (to depart), abholen (to pick up), abreisen (to set off on a journey or leave), ablesen (to construe knowledge from reading something), abnehmen (to decrease, to lose weight)

Example sentence: Ich hole das Paket von der Post ab. (I’m picking up the package from the post office.)

An

This implies that you’re getting closer to a target, or generally moving in the direction of an action, whether putting on clothes or attempting to grow a tomato plant on your balcony.

Just anschauen (take a look, or look in this direction) at these other examples such as angreifen (to seize, to attack), anbieten (to provide or offer), anziehen (to attract, to pull, to get dressed), anbauen (to grow, cultivate, add on something in a house)

Example: Sie hat ein neues Beet angelegt. (She created a new garden patch.)

Das musst du dir unbedingt anschauen. (You really have to take a look at that.).

This is what it could look like if you try to ‘anbauen’ tomatoes on your balcony. Photo: DPA

Auf

With this prefix, you’re opening something (aufmachen), or generally moving upwards as seen with words such aufstehen (get up), aufkommen (arise) or aufbauen (to construct, build, or establish).

Examples: Das Geschäft macht um 08:00 Uhr auf. (The store opens at 8am.)

Ich muss leider früh aufstehen. (Unfortunately I have to wake up early.)

Aus

You are either literally removing something – whether paper, as in the example of ausdrucken (or printing out) or clothes (getting undressed) – or figuratively as in ausnehmen (exclude). 

Example: Schalt doch bitte das Licht aus! (Please turn off the light!)

Be

This emphasises an action, such as beliebt (beloved) or the result of an action such as besuchen (visit).

Example: Möchtest du mich zur Veranstaltung begleiten? (Would you like to accompany me to the event?)

Bei 

This means to add on something, such as beitragen (contribute) or figuratively, ie. beibringen (or teach). You can also beistehen (support, or literally standing by) or beisteuern (contribute). 

Example: Rachel steuert €10 zum Geschenk bei. (Rachel contributed a gift of €10.)

Ent

Something is being taken away, as implied by words like entführen (kidnapped), entkommen (escaped) or entfernen (remove). But it’s not always negative. Even in a philosophical sense, entdecken (discover) means that something is no longer covered (decken) and entspannen (relax) implies an ‘entfernen’ of Spannung (tension).

Example: Sie haben den Spreewald zum ersten Mal entdeckt. (They discovered the Spreewald)

Ein

Essentially you are integrating something or looking inwards with ‘ein’. This can be seen in words like einladen (an invite to something), einbrechen (breaking in), or einkaufen (shopping, generally implying you are buying in something for yourself).

Example: Ich würde dich gerne zum Abendessen einladen. (I would like to invite you/treat you to dinner.)

Er

This shows the successful end result of an action such as erreichen (reach), erraten (guess) erhellen (to light), erfahren (discover). It can also signify either the beginning or end to something, such as erstarren (to freeze).

Example: Sam hat die richtige Antwort erraten. (Sam guessed the right answer.)

Her

This implies moving from the inside to the outside, such as herkommen (coming here) or something being produced or manufactured (herstellen).

Example: Komm her, ich muss dir etwas zeigen! (Come here, I have to show you something!)

Hinein

This implies a transition of something from the outside to the inside, as expressed in words such as hineinfahren, hineinsehen and hineingehen

Example: Möchtest du hineingehen oder lieber draußen sitzen? (Would you like to go inside or sit outside?)

Los

This implies either the beginning of something such as losgehen or losfahren, usually said when driving or heading off to something initially. 

Examples: Wir werden um 18 Uhr losgehen, kommst du mit? (We’re going to get going at 6 pm, did you want to come?)

Jetzt geht’s los! (Here we go!)

Mit

This is an easy prefix to remember as it always has one meaning: doing something together, whether mitfahren (driving together), mitmachen, mitsingen (sing along) or mitbringen (bringing something along).

Example: Willst du zum Party mitkommen? (Do you want to come with me to the party?)

Ver

This expresses that a person or thing is changing, or that something is being taken away, either in a positive or negative sense. You can fall in love (verlieben) or fall into doubt (verzweifeln).

Example: Es tut mir Leid, dass wir uns verpasst haben. (I’m sorry we missed each other.)

This couple at the Bodensee look ‘verliebt’. Photo: DPA

Vor

This implies doing something in advance, such as vorgreifen (anticipate), or showing people something, as seen through verbs such as vorstellen (introduce or imagine, depending on the context).

Example: Ich stelle mich mal vor: Mein Name ist Rachel. (I will introduce myself: my name is Rachel.)

Weg

Like other prefixes on this list, it means tossing or moving something away, as seen through wegwerfen or wegschmeißen. A person can also go away (weggehen)

Example: Igitt, diese Dosensuppe ist 17 Jahre alt. Wirf sie weg! (Yuck, this canned soup is 17 years old. Throw it away!)

Zu

This one is easy enough to remember: it means either closing something or moving to a goal. Germans will often colloquially say that something is ‘zu’ to imply it’s closed.

Examples: “Habt ihr schon zu?” (Have you guys closed already?)

Sie schaute mit Begeisterung zu. (She watched with enthusiasm.)

Zer

This is usually a negative word, meaning that something is broken. Take the examples of zerstören (destroy), zerschlagen (shattered), zerreißen (tear). Without this prefix, these would be strong words anyways, but that ‘zer’ gives them an extra punch. 

Example: Der Hund hat ihre Schuhe zerbissen. (The dog bit her shoes in two.)


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