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Is there a way to tell when a verb used with an adjective or similar word is really a separable verb? For example, I ran across the following two sentences in DWDS's wonderful usage database:

Die Eltern dürfen die anderen drei Kinder behalten, weil sie sich bereit erklärten, ihnen unter anderem Milch zu geben. (Der Tagesspiegel, 18.11.2004)

Weil er sich als einziger bereiterklärte, mit den ermittelnden Armee-Instanzen zusammenzuarbeiten. (Der Tagesspiegel, 17.05.2004)

In the first example there are two words bereit and erklären and in the second example there is a single compound word bereiterklären which takes the form of a seperable verb. You can tell the difference in these sentences because the word/phrase is used in a subordinate clause. But if it's in a main clause then there doesn't seem to be a way to tell which one is meant. For example.

Dafür erklärten sie sich bereit, möglichst früh in Rente zu gehen. (Der Tagesspiegel, 22.01.2005)

If the prefix is a preposition then it's easy to tell when it's part of a verb, because prepositions go in front of something else unless they're being used as a verb prefix. For adjectives that trick doesn't work. Is there a grammatical way to tell or does it not matter since both grammatical interpretations have the same meaning? It does seem to make it more difficult to look up the verb in the dictionary though; is it under erklären or bereiterklären, or does it still not matter because the compound is just the combination of its parts?

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    In this case: both forms are correct. The separated one is recommended. The general answer is: you have to know it whether a verb is separable or not. – mic Oct 19 '20 at 12:24
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If you look up "bereiterklären" on duden.de, you can see that "bereiterklären" and "bereit erklären" are just two different ways to write the same compound verb.

Prior to 1997, these kinds of compound verbs that are built with an adjective/adverb or noun were often written in one word (bereiterklären, bewußtmachen, haltmachen ...). The Rechtschreibreform separated a lot of these, but it failed in doing it consequently or defining a good set of rules, and in many cases, as with bereiterklären, both variants are now correct.

In some cases, like "bewußtmachen" (now "bewusst machen") this even introduced new ambiguities. You can make someone else aware about something (bewusst machen as a compound verb), or you can do something deliberately (bewusst machen as adverb + verb).

I don't think there's a way to discern the two, apart from understanding the meaning in context and then just knowing the compound verb.

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  • Ah, I like bewusst machen as an example; in English either "make known" or "make knowingly". I assume the "make known" meaning is more common because it's an expression. So in short, no, there is no way of telling from grammar, and yes, it can make sentences that are semantically as well as syntactically ambiguous, in which case you have to use context or common sense to figure out the meaning. – RDBury Oct 20 '20 at 3:24

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