• Wir wären bereit, die Küche zu übernehmen.
  • Wir wären bereit, die Küche überzunehmen.

My head tells me it should be the first version, but is the second correct?

  • Short answer: No, the second is not correct. People would understand what you mean, but they would clearly see it as a grammar mistake. Feb 24 at 9:51

The infinitive construct that incorporates the "zu" is only used for genuinely separable verbs.

Examples for separable verbs in German:

  • weggehen
  • nachlassen
  • weitermachen

These verbs "eat" the "zu" in an infinitive construct into the infinitive:

  • Ich habe ihm verboten, wegzugehen
  • ich habe ihnen aufgetragen, nicht nachzulassen
  • er hat sie gebeten, weiterzumachen

Then there are verbs that look like separable verbs, but aren't. Your example is one of these, that is why your second example is wrong.

Rule: If you separate the verb from its prefix in forms like

  • ich gehe weg
  • ich lasse nach
  • ich mache weiter

then you're facing a separable verb, if not, like in

  • ich nehme über (correct: ich übernehme)

then not.

Some verbs even have drastically different meanings when separable or not. Famous example:

  • ich umfahre die Frau (I drive around her)
  • ich fahre die Frau um (I run her over)
  • 2
    Not to mention: Er hat sie gebeten, damit weiterzumachen, die Hose weiter zu machen Feb 23 at 1:23

The question boils down to the question whether the prefix in übernehmen is separable or not. In this case, it is not separable. That's why only the first sentence is correct.

The prefix über- can sometimes be separable, sometimes not. This also applies to the prefixes

  • durch-,
  • unter-,
  • um-,
  • wider-,
  • wieder-

Here is more information (in German) on this. This link covers the same issue, but contains information in English.

There are even homograph verbs (verbs which are written the same way) which semantically differ in meaning and syntactically differ only in the question whether the preposition is separable or not. In spoken language, this difference is indicated by a different stress: For separable verbs, the stress is on the prefix. This is not the case if the prefix is not separable.

  • 1
    Good answer except for the first sentence of the last paragraph. Sich übernehmen is not separable. It's Er übernimmt sich. not Er nimmt sich über.
    – Olafant
    Feb 22 at 20:58
  • @Olafant Oh, yes, that's right. This was an oversight. Thanks for the alert. I've corrected it. Feb 22 at 21:47

I assume you already know about the difference prefix verbs (commonly called inseparable verbs) and particle verbs (commonly called separable verbs). For the distinction between prefixes and particles, see the German Wikipedia article for Präfix.

Here's a short overview regarding the differences between prefix verbs and particle verbs:

infinitive + stress fronted past participle infinitive with zu
prefix, inseparable ver'halten verhält verhalten zu verhalten
particle, separable 'anhalten hält an angehalten anzuhalten

The set of prefixes includes be-, er-, ent-, ge-, ver-, zer. The set of particles includes many words that are also prepositions, such as ab, an, auf, aus, mit, nach, vor, zu. However, the two sets are not disjoint: There are forms that can either be a prefix or a particle, such as durch(-), unter(-), über(-), um(-), wider(-).

Consequently, dictionaries need to indicate what class a given verb belongs to. Taking into consideration the table given above, there are different ways to do this:

  1. marking stress (ver'halten vs. 'anhalten)
  2. giving the past participle (verhalten vs. angehalten)
  3. showing what happens when the verb is fronted (verhält vs. hält an)

There are even some pairs of verbs that are homographs – i.e. they are spelled the same, but have different meanings and in this case also different pronunciations – with one being a particle verb and the other being a prefix verb. For instance:

'übersetzen "to cross over": sie versuchten, zum anderen Ufer überzusetzen
über'setzen "to translate": sie versuchten, den Text zu übersetzen

In the DWDS entry for übersetzen, all three methods mentioned above are used to distinguish the particle verb form the prefix verb:

  1. stress: ['yːbɐˌzɛʦn̩] versus [ˌyːbɐˈzɛʦn̩]
  2. past participle: übergesetzt versus übersetzt
  3. fronting: setzt über versus übersetzt

Übernehmen is similar to übersetzen in that there is actually a pair of verbs that are homographs. However, to be fair, the particle verb (with the meaning to take something, like a piece of clothing, and place it on your body) is rare; it is definitely not part of my active vocabulary.

The DWDS entry for übernehmen does not indicate stress. However, looking at the desired meaning II., the relevant information that shows that übernehmen is a prefix verb in this context is still there:

Grammatik: Präsens ‘übernimmt’, Präteritum ‘übernahm’, mit Hilfsverb ‘hat’, Partizip II ‘übernommen’

Hence, only your first sentence is correct.

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