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I am learning German, and I am interested to understand the grammatical function of the prefixes ein, be, ver, aus, ab, etc. that are used before a verb and what are they supposed to do with the verb. For example, in a discussion with a friend he told me that somehow be- is supposed to transform a verb referring to one object into a verb referring to two objects. For example:

greifen = grab/keep something
be-greifen = understand = grab something and put it somewhere (into my mind)

I would be very very pleased if someone gave me a link of a small pdf, a reference to book chapter or something to begin with. Because in this way the vast amount of verbs with these prefixes in front, would roughly break down into some categories and a priori would be more understandable.

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    They are not prepositions (i.e. distinct words) but prefixes (syllables that are a part of the word) – Hubert Schölnast Dec 29 '17 at 9:29
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  • If you have luck, also your first language has such prefixes. In this case, you may find significant parallelism between that and German, and you have to learn only the difference. If not, then I think you could learn these Verbs (which is the majority of the actually said verbs) with their prefixes together. – peterh - Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '17 at 11:42
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    Not a duplicate of the question Hubert mentions because the languages are different! – Jan Dec 30 '17 at 16:19
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grammatical function

There are two classes of such prefixes:

  • Vorsilben
    • befallen

      Der Parasit wird den Wirt befallen.
      Der Parasit befällt den Wirt.

    • entfallen

      Das ist mir entfallen.
      Das entfällt mir.

    • missfallen

      Dein Verhalten hat mir missfallen.
      Dein Verhalten missfällt mir.

    • verfallen

      Diese Burg ist verfallen.
      Diese Burg verfällt.

    • zerfallen

      Das Puzzle wird bald in seine Einzelteile zerfallen.
      Das Puzzle zerfällt in seine Einzelteile.

  • Verbzusätze
    • auffallen

      Ihr Kleid wird dir auffallen.
      Ihr Kleid fällt dir auf.

    • einfallen

      Das wird mir schon noch einfallen.
      Das fällt mir ein.

    • anfallen

      Der Hund wird den Briefträger anfallen.
      Der Hund fällt den Briefträger an.

The most important difference:

If it is a Vorsilbe, then it is part of the word, that always is there. It never leaves the core of the word.

If it is a Verbzusatz, then it is sometimes a prefix and sometimes a distinct word. Verbs that have such Verbzusätze are called »trennbare Verben« (separable verbs)


semantic function

It is not so easy to generalize the semantic function (i.e. meaning) of those Vorsilben and Verbzusätze. I already discussed this in an answer to another question, based on the example »ver-«.

The best way is not to focus on those suffixes. Try to understand missfallen, verfallen, umfallen, einfallen, ... as distinct verbs, that have no connection, and learn them separately. Also try to learn verfallen, verlieren, verschreiben, ... as separate verbs without any semantic connection.

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    Die Empfehlung, keinerlei Zusammenhang zwischen ein-, be-, ver-, aus- sowie abgreifen und greifen zu sehen, geht viel zu weit, um mit diesem Beitrag ein Plus abgreifen zu lassen. Eine derart widersinnige Empfehlung ist nicht zu begreifen. – user unknown Dec 31 '17 at 3:52
  • @userunknown: Dann bitte ich dich, in weniger als 20 Worten auf verständliche und nachvollziehbare Weise die Gemeinsamkeit von gefallen und verfallen z.B. in »Das Haus gefällt mir, schade, dass es verfällt.« zu beschreiben. Mit demselben Wortstamm werden ja auch Nomen gebildet, vielleicht gelingt es dir, auch Zufall und Beifall in deine Beschreibung einfließen zu lassen. – Hubert Schölnast Dec 31 '17 at 11:21
  • Ist es denn der selbe Wortstamm oder ist es nur eine Zeichenkettenkongruenz? Entweder sie haben eine Verbindung oder nicht - Du widersprichst Dir da gerade selbst. Und nein, ich habe die Fragestellung nicht aufgeworfen, also bin ich nicht in der Bringpflicht, zumal nicht in weniger als 20 Wörtern - das soll wohl ein Witz sein? Du schreibst ja selbst selten weniger als 4 Bildschirmseiten. – user unknown Dec 31 '17 at 18:19
  • The best way is not to focus on those suffixes: hier wohl eher prefixes oder allgemein affixes – amadeusamadeus May 25 at 11:13
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Yes, prefixes such "aus", "be", "ver", etc. modify the meaning of verbs they precede in somewhat predictable ways.

However as a beginner the most important distinction to know is when a prefix indicates a phrasal verb or not.

Phrasal verbs are split, meaning the prefix is separated from the verb:

Ich stehe normalerweise um 6 Uhr auf.

With non-phrasal verbs the prefix stays attached to the verb.

Here is a worksheet that provides a very good introduction to separable and inseparable prefixes. It also explains what each prefix means and how it influences the meaning of the verb it's attached to.

Verb prefixes worksheet

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The previous answers were focusing on separable vs. inseparable prefixes, which don’t think was what the question was getting at, which was whether there is a consistent way of finding the meaning of a verb from the prefix and the stem. In my experience there are three possible situations:

  1. The verb and the prefix+verb have virtually the same meaning and only a native speaker can really understand the shades of meaning or differences in usage to know which to use in a given situation; certainly there appears to be no difference in the dictionary meanings. An example is bewahren vs. aufbewahren which both, according to Wiktionary, mean to keep, to preserve. Google translate gives the same translation to “Ich bewahre meine Kleidung im Schrank auf” and “Ich bewahre meine Kleidung im Schrank”, namely “I keep my clothes in the closet”. Maybe one of those two choices seems odd or awkward to a native speaker, but for practical purposes if you’re trying to understand the sentence they are pretty much the same.

  2. The verb and the prefix+verb have meanings that are substantially different can’t be inferred from one another. An example of this case is bauen vs. anbauen which mean, respectively, to build and to plant. (There is another meaning for anbauen, to build onto, but I’m ignoring that for the moment.) There’s no way to derive to plant from to onbuild so this is a case where you just have to memorize the different meanings individually.

  3. The meaning of the prefix+verb can be derived, or at least with some imagination be linked, to the meanings of the prefix and the verb. An example of this case is hören, to hear and anhören, to listen. With some mental gymnastics one can imagine how to at-hear might be interpreted as to listen, and this might be useful as either a mnemonic or as an aid to finding the meaning of the word with some additional context. Sometimes different prefixes have the same effect by the dictionary meanings, for example anhören and zuhören both mean to listen, so again there are subtleties that a student is bound to miss.

So I’d say instead of looking for a simple chart that will explain everything on one page, just be sure to check the etymology whenever you look up a word, and for online dictionaries see if there are links for related or derived words; it’s always nice to learn three or four words for the price of one. Just make sure to use the same caution you’d use with cognates; they can be shortcuts but they can also be false friends that will steer you the the wrong direction.

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  • Welcome to German.SE. I disagree to take google translate as a reference for a translation (example). While many humans are used to train the algorithm it is still an algorithm. And as your answer points out: there is not much algorithm to be used here. – Shegit Brahm May 25 at 5:59
  • @Shegit Brahm It's true Google translate doesn't replace a human translator since (for one thing) it misses many of the subtleties of natural language. I wasn't using it as a reference though, but as an example of how the two sentences seem to mean the same thing if you're not a native speaker or very fluent in the language. To me one of the most difficult aspects of studying a foreign language is knowing which of several synonymous words to use in a given situation. Google translate doesn't really help with that. – RDBury May 25 at 18:11
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be-

"be- makes a verb transitive"

This is the general rule. The examle "greifen" can show what is meant. It is a complicated, but typical case.

? Ich greife einen Stein.

Duden has this first example, under the first meaning which is "1. ergreifen". I did not even know you can use it transitively...but it is rare. Duden's next example is reflexive "sich greifen." All these uses are more common with pure "greifen":

Ich greife mir einen Stein.   (to get equipped with) 
Ich greife nach einem Stein.  (to reach for) 
Ich ergreife einen Stein.     (to pick up)

"greifen nach etw." is not the same as "etw. ergreifen", both grammatically and semantically.

While the 3 modifications above keep the original meaning, the be- is used to make a semantic shift - from things to ideas, from hand to mind.

Now you can say:

Das begreife ich.
Das habe ich begriffen.

Transitive (but not with hands!), and it does not even matter if present or past tense.

The constant - what you get for free - is the "-griffen", the grammtical form.

Similar patterns ban be formed with:

kommen - bekommen (Der Sommer kommt / Wir bekommen Sommer...i.e. if something comes to you, you recieve it. See re-capere. Also be-come.)
gehen  - begehen  (begehen = "officially" walk (on) or celebrate, or commit) 
halten - behalten 
nehmen - sich benehmen (s. benehmen = to be-have)
rühren - berühren (move/stir vs. touch)
stehen - bestehen (stand vs. exist)

be- can also turn nouns and adjectives into verbs:

schön - etw. beschönigen (to pretty up sth.) 
Gnade - jmdn. begnadigen 

So why should an English speaker say:

Com-pris in French means under-stood, I com-prehend. But what does ver-standen mean?

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