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I learned that some verb prefixes are always separable from the main verb, e.g. anfangen, ankommen.

I also learned that some verb prefixes are never separable, e.g. verbleiben, verbringen.

But according to an answer to this question:

The word »überragen« (to be taller/higher) is a not-separable verb like »überholen« (to overtake) [or] »überkochen« (to boil over).

Why is that? Are there any other prefixes that have both separable and inseparable verb versions?

  • The list of "other prefixes that have both separable and inseparable verb versions" can be found here: german.about.com/library/verbs/blverb_pre03.htm – Eugene Str. Sep 23 '16 at 5:24
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    @EugeneStr., bad examples, though, do not trust that site. – Carsten S Sep 23 '16 at 6:28
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    Well, überragen can be separated! Example: Fahr nicht zu dicht auf den LKW auf. Seine Ladung ragt über!. Auch überholen used to be a separable verb. For example, a ferryman would have been called Hey! Hol über! in the sense of take use to the other side. – Thorsten Dittmar Sep 23 '16 at 7:34
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    @AdInfinitum: No. "Ich umfahre das Hindernis" (inseparable) means "I drive around the obstacle". "Ich fahre das Hindernis um" (separable) means "I knock over the obstacle". Maybe you thought of "ich fahre um das Hindernis", but that sentence does not use the verb "umfahren" but the verb "fahren" and the prepositional phrase "um das Hindernis". – celtschk Sep 23 '16 at 8:21
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    I’m pretty sure that there is a pretty great answer somewhere that explains the difference pretty well. Alas, I can’t find it … – Jan Sep 23 '16 at 17:04
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Yes, there are a number of verbs like this, e.g. "umfahren". One variant means "drive around", the other "knock down with your car". (Lots of potential for goofy humor, obviously.)

The general rule is that if the prefix bears the stress, it is sometimes (not always) separated from the base verb. If the stem bears the stress, they are never separated.

Unfortunately, this doesn't help you if you have only written text to work with, since German doesn't write stress indicators. This is one reason why spoken language resources are important for proper learning.

As for why things work like this... it's difficult to say. AKAIK there are somewhat comparable rules in other languages (e.g. "Get out the vote!" vs. "Get the mustard out!"), but I couldn't say whether the connection between stress and verb syntax is a larger principle.

  • Like "We saw through him." versus "We saw him through." – Michael Hardy Dec 14 '18 at 1:15
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You asked: »Why is that?«
Short answer: »It has no special reason.«

Long answer:

Rules for natural languages are not constructed. There is no committee that defines grammar rules. Grammar rules do not define how languages have to be used.

Languages change and evolve. From the factual usage of languages you can derive rules that describe how languages are used.

Remember: Grammar rules do not define how a languages has to be used. Grammar rules try to describe how languages are used in real life.

Grammar rules (i.e. descriptions of the factual usage) can help students and non-native-speakers to learn a language. And think of this: Toddlers learn a language without learning any rule. They even don't know what rules are. They just use the language. And this is why even people can communicate who never attended any school.

This is how languages develop:

One single person begins to use one aspect of a language in a slightly different way than everybody else. In most cases this happens unwittingly and without any intention. In more than 99% of all cases this new way of speaking will be ignored by other speakers. But in rare cases other speakers also begin to use the same peculiarity, and this group can grow. And again: This happens unwittingly and without any intention. Then you have two groups of speakers: A majority that speaks in the old way, an a minority that uses the new way of speaking.

And sometimes this new way of speaking spreads over the whole group of speakers. When this happens, then the languages was changed. This is why living languages are called »living«. They are changing continuously. This happens to all living languages, and it happens all the time.

But the point is: There are absolutely NO RULES that guide that process of development. This leads to illogical and inconsistent rules in all natural languages.

So, when ever you get aware of an illogic or inconsistent grammar rule in any language, and then ask: »Why is that?« then you know, that it just happened by accident, for no special reason.

  • I think this answer oversimplifies things in three crucial points: (1) "Toddlers learn a language without learning any rule." - maybe not knowingly so, but of course, at least grammatically inclined parents will take care to use grammatically correct (as per the rules) language when talking to their children and they will correct the occasional grammar mistakes of their children based upon their knowledge about grammar rules. This continues later on, when some children and youths refine their language use based upon what they learn about grammar. ... – O. R. Mapper Sep 25 '16 at 13:16
  • ... (2) "this is why even people can communicate who never attended any school" - that is definitely the case, but at the same time, these people might be missing some possible aspects of communication in their language. It is the same as with vocabulary; people may well be able to communicate without ever attending a school, but they may still be unable to understand or correctly interpret texts that feature some particular vocabulary, or that rely on the listener's knowledge about the precise meaning of certain words. ... – O. R. Mapper Sep 25 '16 at 13:17
  • ... (3) "when ever you (...) ask: »Why is that?« then you know, that it just happened by accident, for no special reason" - while you are correct that the development of a natural language is usually not a controlled process, claiming that there is no reason why a change has happened is simply not true in most cases. There is almost always a reason for changes, even if it is merely simplicity or the influence of a fashionable foreign language at the time of the change. – O. R. Mapper Sep 25 '16 at 13:17
  • -1 since the assumption your whole answer is based on - that the questioner is looking for a rule-setting instance as answer on his "Why?" - is just insinuation and your answer misses to address the interest of the questioner and thus gets off-topic. The questioner does not ask for any rule-setting instance at all. You state correctly that languags evolve. So an answer to "Why are some verbs separable, others not?" should be an explanation of the evolution of this process and its determining factors. – jonathan.scholbach Feb 22 '17 at 11:48

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