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Some prefixes (e.g., be-, ver-…) can simply make intransitive verbs transitive. However I’m not sure whether there is a difference in meaning or an obvious usage preference of some verbs over the others either in written or spoken German? Unfortunately I couldn’t find the answer in dictionaries or grammar books.

Examples:

jmdm. dienen – jmdn. bedienen

jmdm. folgen – jmdn. verfolgen

über jmdn. lächeln – jmdn. belächeln

auf eine Frage antworten – eine Frage beantworten

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You need to recheck your dictionary or find another one: You should always assume that the prefix changes the meaning of a verb or at least give a subtle shift.

For your examples:

jmdm. dienen – jmdn. bedienen
-> to serve someone (as a servant) - wait on someone

jmdm. folgen – jmdn. verfolgen
-> follow s.o., in a physical or ideological sense - follow s.o. physically, trail s.o.

über jmdn. lächeln – jmdn. belächeln
-> the latter is condescending, the former not

auf eine Frage antworten – eine Frage beantworten
-> that’s actually rather close.

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  • Also note verdienen, befolgen, verantworten also exist and mean a completely different thing.
    – Janka
    Oct 11, 2018 at 14:56
  • Thank you a lot. That was really helpful. Some verbs do really have different meanings but they could share a meaning, as in my second example both verbs can convey the idea of physical following as you said, and in my last example both verbs have really close meanings. In this case, is there a preferance for some verbs in spoken or written German? As for my 3rd example, in dictionaries both verbs are defined separately 'sich lustig machen' without comparing them so I couldn't tell that one verb is more condescending than the other.
    – Abdullah
    Oct 11, 2018 at 15:25
  • Dieser Hebel auf der Lok dient zum Bremsen. — Der Lokführer bedient den Hebel zum Bremsen. In this example, dienen tells what the lever is good for, while bedienen means someone uses the lever for some action which may be only an example in your mind. In general, one can say the verbs taking a dative object are more abstract – even if you use them with a prepositional object.
    – Janka
    Oct 11, 2018 at 19:14
  • About lächeln vs. belächeln, it's again about the level of abstraction. Ich lächelte über das Missgeschick. calls for an additional hinweg which means I ignored the mishap with a smile. while Ich belächelte das Missgeschick means exactly the opposite. Because belächeln is focusing on its object.
    – Janka
    Oct 11, 2018 at 19:22
  • @Janka Thank you. I found these sentences on the internet: Der Kellner dient dem Gast- Der Gast wird von dem Kellner bedient. I think folgen and verfolgen can be used to express physical following, is it a matter of style? Which is more common?
    – Abdullah
    Oct 11, 2018 at 19:30

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