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I’ve learned that in zu phrases only separable verbs separate and the zu goes in between.

Ich muss zur Schule gehen, um die Lehrer zu besuchen. (inseparable)
Ich muss zur Schule gehen, um die Kinder abzuholen. (separable)

According to other users and the Duden website, überreagieren (to overreact) is not a separable verb. However, in the infinitive it’s like a separable verb:

Es ist wichtig, nicht überzureagieren.

Why is this?

A similar question deals with other verbs that have prefixes that seem like they form separable verbs but don’t. I think this question is not a duplicate because it explicitly asks about the usage of zu and the infinitive in this specific grammatical case.

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The distinction between separable and inseparable verbs is sometimes less clear than one would think. Über- belongs to a group of prefixes (with durch-, um-, unter-, wider-, and to some degree hinter-) that can form both separable and inseparable verbs, sometimes from the same base verb.

It happens that such separable/inseparable pairs develop into completely different directions and become independent words with their own meaning (e.g. übersetzen when separable is ‘ferry over’, but when inseparable is ‘translate’). In some cases, however, usage is more fluctuant and both the separable and the inseparable form are preferred by some speakers. Regional, demographic or other factors may play a role here.

In such cases, even the same speaker may sometimes treat a verb as separable and sometimes as inseparable, either in the form of free variation (speaker alternates between er überreagiert and er reagiert über) or depending on how it is used (speaker always uses er überreagiert in the present tense, but überzureagieren in the extended infinitive). It appears that the überzureagieren form of the extended infinitive is far more common, but Google Books does find some evidence of zu überreagieren, too:

Zumindest aber können wir alle Zwänge relativieren und somit eine würdige innere Reaktion erhalten, anstatt zu überreagieren und zu viel Kraft zu investieren. (Andreas Gömmel, Das Glück zu leben!, n.p., 2002)
Eine andere Möglichkeit wäre, aggressiv zu werden – die andere Person anzugreifen, zu überreagieren oder gemeine Dinge zu sagen. (Karina Weichold/Rainer K. Silbereisen, Suchtprävention in der Schule, Göttingen, 2014)

Other examples of verbs that may be considered separable or inseparable include anerkennen (Warum wird „anerkennen“ teils als untrennbar betrachtet?) and überführen in the sense of ‘transport’ (Ihr Leichnam wurde in ihren Heimatort überführt/übergeführt), as well as the special case sandstrahlen (Warum schreibt man nicht »Sand strahlen«?).

  • This does sort of contradict my previous opinion of German. It seems like a language with so many rules that the presence of a gray area seems almost absurd. Is this "optional separability" also the grammar behind Wohin gehst du and Wo gehst du hin? Which is more common? Separating a verb that isn't technically separable or keeping them together? – Arc676 Aug 27 '15 at 9:33
  • @Arc676: Oh, but there is much, much variation in German, in particular over different regions. In your example of wohin and wo … hin, the latter is mostly used in northern Germany. There is also disagreement about which auxiliary (sein or haben) to use for the perfect tense of certain verbs, or how to pronounce Spaß (long or short a), or whether to call the Saturday Samstag or Sonnabend or even Satertag, or how to form the imperative of strongly inflected verbs, or what the dative of Autor is. – Of course people establish rules, but other people follow them or not. – chirlu Aug 27 '15 at 16:53
  • And which is more common in Hochdeutsch? I understand that every region has a dialect, but surely Hochdeutsch has everything worked out right? (I hope). – Arc676 Aug 28 '15 at 8:47
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    @Arc676: No, there is not a single Hochdeutsch. There are different variants of Standardsprache. – chirlu Aug 28 '15 at 8:56
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    So essentially whether or not these verbs get separated is completely up to the speaker and his/her background. – Arc676 Aug 28 '15 at 10:29

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