More to get a feeling of the severity of this error, how bad does it sound when someone makes the mistake of not separating a separable verb?

For example:

  1. "Ich bereite mich auf eine Prüfung vor."

  2. "Ich vorbereite mich auf eine Prüfung."

Now, 1) is correct (I hope!), and 2) is wrong.

But... how wrong? Would a native speaker understand it? Is it irritating to the ears of a native speaker? To what degree?

Greatly appreciated would be an equivalently messed-up and incorrect variant of the English equivalent of 1), which is:

1') I prepare myself for an exam.


How would 2') sound like in (broken) English? To get a feeling of the severity of the mistake.

While this is not maybe truly a question regarding correct German, it is though a question about (broken) German. And the fact is that many beginners struggle with separable verbs (forget to separate, misplace the prefix, or forget that they still have a prefix to place).

Other examples of broken German/broken English equivalents would be greatly appreciated.

  • 20
    About as bad as not using "do" in a question in English ;-) Aug 20, 2021 at 8:26
  • 3
    Which German are you talking about? In Austria, some things are fine to say that are less acceptable in Germany (and vice versa).
    – Thomas
    Aug 20, 2021 at 13:12
  • 1
    @Thomas Do you have any example verbs that are used in an inseparable manner in Austria that are considered separable elsewhere? I'm not aware of any such examples.
    – idmean
    Aug 20, 2021 at 14:47
  • 2
    @Thomas Naja, nur weil Pilnacek das in einer SMS schreibt, heißt das noch lange nichts. In der Antwort wird das ja auch explizit mit dem Telegrammstil erklärt. Für mich als Westösterreicher klingt der Satz auf jeden Fall falsch.
    – idmean
    Aug 20, 2021 at 15:42
  • 3
    Ditto. Mir würde auch kein spezifisch österreichisches Beispiel einfallen; auch wenn es mich nicht überraschen würde, wenn es solche gäbe. Aug 21, 2021 at 8:22

7 Answers 7


There are separable verbs in English, but they don't work exactly like German ones, so I'm going more by similarity of use and the effect of non-separation:

*I upsign my daughter for a class.

*My friend uppicked me at the airport.


*I outfigured the math homework.

I think that both your German and my English examples would be understood by most if not all native speakers. But it would put them off and, especially in spoken language, may distract them from the rest of what you are saying.

So my advice to all learners is to try and master separable verbs, just like any other aspect of German that may be foreign (but not absolutely vital to understanding), like grammatical gender or the use of cases.

  • 6
    Looks a lot like newspeak :D
    – Brondahl
    Aug 20, 2021 at 8:58
  • 4
    Kinda reminds me of the language in Cloud Atlas.
    – MaxD
    Aug 20, 2021 at 10:10
  • 4
    Alternatively, if you say ''I outfigured the homework'' people might just think that you are joking and not realise that it is a mistake.
    – Tom
    Aug 20, 2021 at 12:54
  • 7
    I think this is even one of the stereotypical mistakes of non-native German speakers, also sometimes used in the mocking depiction of minorities in German comedy. As such this mistake may quickly invoke an association with stereotypical "broken German".
    – Falco
    Aug 20, 2021 at 13:02
  • 2
    c.p., Redy000, which part of “How would 2') sound like in (broken) English? To get a feeling of the severity of the mistake.” does this not answer? Redy000, I used wrong English on purpose to illustrate the effect, as requested by the OP. I′m not sure which markup I′m supposed to use for intentionally wrong language, hence the asterisk. Aug 23, 2021 at 0:49

Separable verbs correspond to English phrasal verbs, so I imagine getting the order wrong would sound about as bad as getting the order wrong in a phrasal verb. For English, in most cases the sentence would sound wrong but the meaning would still be clear: "I'm glad you up brought that." But there are cases in both languages where the word order changes the meaning: "load up" vs. "upload" in English, and übersetzen (insep.) vs. übersetzen (sep.) in German. I'm not a native speaker, but I'm pretty sure that (to borrow an example from wiktionary) Einmal täglich übersetzt eine Fähre auf die Insel would be confusing.

I don't think there is an objective measure of "wrongness". At best you would be instantly recognized as a beginner at German and there's a good chance that whoever you're talking to would try switch to English to avoid any future misunderstanding.


While sounding wrong in 99% of all cases, this style can be validly (though exceptionally) used in what is called Telegrammstil, where you don't split prefixes in order to minimize word count. This isn't really necessary nowadays, but has been carried over into text messages of some older people still having grown up with telegrams, appearently, and sounds somewhat stilted. Examples:

Wer vorbereitet Gernot auf seine Vernehmung?

Ankomme Freitag, den 13.

  • Amazing, I wasn't aware it might actually be rightly used. Aug 20, 2021 at 17:06
  • 4
    well, it's entirely a style of abbreviation. Surely there is something similar in English, where most people would say "yes, I know this usage, but it doesn't adhere to the usual rules."
    – JakeDot
    Aug 21, 2021 at 6:32

how wrong? Would a native understand it? Is it irritating the ears of a native speaker? To what degree?

It would sound totally wrong, but we would understand it just fine. It would clearly show that you're a non-native speaker.

Whether it is irritating depends on whether the listener is generally annoyed with non-natives making errors. I have contact with many non-natives, and there are much worse problems (with respect to irritation/trouble understanding) than your example.

An equivalently broken english sentence would be "He has upbrought something" instead of "He brought something up".

  • 3
    So up with it you would put? (PS it's "contact with", not "contact to". You may have been misled by "reden mit" sometimes being translated as "talk to" rather than "talk with".) Aug 21, 2021 at 1:42
  • 1
    Yes, up we would put with it. Thanks for the hint about the "with". ;)
    – AnoE
    Aug 23, 2021 at 6:43
  • Nice equivalent example sentence +1 Aug 31, 2021 at 8:20

As a non-native speaker, I remember my German teacher at school giving us examples of verbs with prefixes where there are both separable and non-separable versions with different meanings.

This is similar to English where we have many words with the same spelling and pronunciation but with different meanings - for example "bears" (carries) and "bears" (big furry animals with teeth and claws). When this happens in English, we need to work out which meaning is intended from context. In German, the grammar of separable verbs means that often it will be clear which meaning is intended (when the prefix is separated), but in some cases (such as with the infinitive form) it won't be.

Sadly it's been 30 years since that lesson, so I can't remember the examples now! :) If any native German speakers could fill in the gaps, I'd be grateful.

I'm sure native German speakers would be able to work out the meaning from context. It's more likely to be amusing for them than annoying or incomprehensible, in the same way as English speakers often find badly-translated signs funny. I remember my first German exchange partner correcting me on the difference between "ins Klo" and "aufs Klo" when I got that wrong. :)

  • 7
    I'd say one example would be umfahren: Ich umfahre dich. - I'm driving around you. vs Ich fahre dich um. - I'm knocking you over.
    – Arsak
    Aug 20, 2021 at 13:10
  • "Sich unterhalten" is one of my favourites. "Sie unterhalten sich." vs. "Sie halten sich unter." Aug 20, 2021 at 16:52
  • 1
    @Arsak That's the one I was thinking of, except I'd misremembered "ueberfahren" which of course was wrong, and I couldn't remember the right one. Thank you!
    – Graham
    Aug 20, 2021 at 21:11

Pretty bad is the answer. A German person once tried to say to me

''Have a good journey back''

but instead they said

''Have a good back journey''

So it sounds something like that basically. People will probably understand from context, but I guess if you are trying to give a good impression that you can speak decent German, committing fairly big grammatical mistakes like that and speaking semi-grammatical German is not the best way to give such an impression.

  • 1
    I don't speak much German but surely that would sound unnatural to start every sentence like that?
    – Tom
    Aug 20, 2021 at 18:27
  • 2
    Is ''Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache'' a common proverb or phrase? That almost sounds like something a child would say.
    – Tom
    Aug 20, 2021 at 21:40
  • 1
    AFAIL, it is indeed a proverb. How common, no idea. Possibly it started among kids at school, during German classes. Aug 21, 2021 at 4:47
  • 2
    @Tom yes, kind of proverb Aug 21, 2021 at 6:53
  • 5
    @Tom it is a common proverb but intentionally mimics a common tonality of non-native speakers
    – eckes
    Aug 21, 2021 at 9:43

A rule of thumb is that we humans pick up patterns and when some patterns that we are not fimiliar with crop up in conversation, we know something is wrong immediately. This immediately makes you someone who is 'not fluent enough' immediately. This may be only a prick in your thumb or it might be a hammer on your head kind of feeling.

It's like in English when you say 'look over the fence' but if you shuffle them a bit such as 'look the fence over' it may mean the same but you get the feeling 'something just ain't right' or 'thats wrong but i get it'. But this may become a disaster sometimes. An example would be 'look after our children' but if you shuffle them even a bit, it becomes hard to understand. Such as 'look our children after'.

  • 1
    ''Look the fence over'' definitely doesn't have the same meaning as ''look over the fence''!
    – Tom
    Aug 24, 2021 at 12:56

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