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I am confused as to the proper use (and specific translation) of the separable prefix "mit" with verbs such as mitnehmen or mitkommen. I had always thought this would be translated as "along" but I have recently seen several examples of sentences where it is not translated at all, and where "along" wouldn't be correct translation anyway. It is very possible that I might be trying to be too literal in English, but I am not sure.

An example: I was given the following sentence to translate:
"Can someone take Anna to Berlin." I translated this as "Kann jemand Anna nach Berlin nehmen." The context was not asking if someone was already going to Berlin and could they take Anna along, it was simply could someone take Anna there. My answer was marked wrong, and the accepted solution was "Kann jemand Anna nach Berlin mitnehmen." My previous understanding was that that approved sentence would be translated into English as "Can someone take along Anna to Berlin"--that is, someone who was already going to Berlin take her along. I realize this is a minor nuance, but I'd really like to get it correct in German.
So when should one use "mitnehmen" and when just "nehmen". Thank you.

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  • Out of curiosity: What's the difference in English? In what situations would you say you "take" Anna to Berlin without going yourself?
    – DonHolgo
    Jan 29, 2023 at 21:54
  • You are correct that you would never "take" Anna unless you were going there yourself. The distinction in English depends on whether you were going there anyway. If you were planning to go anyway then you would "take Anna along." If you weren't going anyway, and would be making a special trip to get Anna to Berlin, then you would "take Anna." Hope that clarifies?" Jan 30, 2023 at 13:54
  • A prefix such as mit- does not have a fixed meaning in the sense that it modifies each verb in the same way - it's a bit different for each verb. So I think it's not possible to answer your question as it's stated. Generally, in German often a verb with a prefix is used where English uses a verb without a prefix. German 'nehmen' cannot be used with the meaning of 'to take someone to somewhere' except maybe in sloppy language. Here, 'mitnehmen has to be used.
    – RHa
    Jan 30, 2023 at 21:24

3 Answers 3

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In English "to take so. to somewhere" has perhaps a broader meaning as the equivalent in German.

If you are not going to Berlin anyway and would schedule a travel specifically to bring Anna there, then

Kann jemand Anna nach Berlin bringen?

would be adequate, similar to English, where I also used "to bring" when I paraphrased your sentence.

If, in contrast, people are going to Berlin anyway and could take Anna with them, then mitnehmen and not nehmen is correct.

In English one might ask basically the same question like this:

Could you take Anna with you (when you go to Berlin)?

This "with" is what the German "mit-" in "mitnehmen" is the equivalent of here. "Mit" has indeed the base meaning of "with", but this base meaning will often be used in a metaphorical, abstracted or derived way. Languages often differ in how they use words metaphorically to express meaning, therefore "mitkommen" is "tag along" or "come along" but "mitfahren" is "to hitch a ride", "mitfühlen" is "to commiserate" or "to sympathize" (notice: English here uses two different words depending on which feelings are shared, whereas German has one word for the general principle of sharing a feeling).

But in all these examples the basic "with" is the common element: you go with someone in "mitfahren", someone takes something/somebody with him in "mitnehmen", you feel with someone in "mitfühlen", etc..

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The context was not asking if someone was already going to Berlin and could they take Anna along,

In this instance one could argue that the suggested solutions is formally wrong, albeit permissable in colloquial speech. The subliminal suggestion may be understood as if it isn't too much of a problem for you.

That depends on discourse semantics and could be easily understood the wrong way.

I had always thought this would be translated as "along" but I have recently seen several examples of sentences where it is not translated at all, and where "along" wouldn't be correct translation anyway

The simplest way to understand this is as a phrasal verb jmd. nach irgendwohin mitnehmen. One might consider nach to be redundant, so they only translate mitnehmen for "Can someone take Anna to Berlin."

The fact that the verb parallels English take is coincidence to a degree and shouldn't confuse you. Consequently, comparison to the phrasal verb to take sb. along is not warranted.

Which means, if the particular verb is not what you were aiming for, a different verb should be considered, like jmd. irgendwohin bringen, or fahren, chauffieren, transportieren, nach irgendwo überführen or else is required. For reference, fahren would be related to a fair, and by one hypothesis also to bringen.

I am confused as to the proper use (and specific translation) of the separable prefix "mit" ...

A general prescription for the use of mit cannot be given and might be misleading.*

In cases such as Mitbewohner, you would not consider your parents as roomies, though you probably have shared a dwelling. This also goes for Mitarbeiter, which denotes subordinates. So it's not equivent to co- as in colleagues.

The more colloquial question is simply 1sg Kann ich mit?, since it is perceived as ellipsis, quite pragmatically availing the recipient of the choice of verb.

More formally, a 2nd person subjunctive might express some sense of distance, Könntest du Anna nach Berlin fahren?.

Eventually, mit translates directly to with, since it has replaced older mið for most intents and purposes. So, eg. come with? (kommste mit) is not unheard of in English, though relatively rarely.

I had always thought this would be translated as "along" ...

Sure, To bring somebody along and respectively to tag along are examples of phrasal verbs in restricted context, which can translate mit-bringen and mit-kommen.

I guess that your conception results from the fact that Can I come along with you is a bit unwieldy in translation. Bei euch / dir may be preferable instead of a not-unusual mit dir / euch.


*) In this particular instance it may be noticable that to take patterns with taxi just as mit as in Mitfahrgelegenheit "hike" and Mitbewohner "roommate" resembles Miete "rent", which should be coincidence since neither is related to the other, theoretically, though at least tax as in taxi is conceptually close to Miete. This is lost to history after mit has been thoroughly ironed out and grammaticalised as an adverb. Why mit- is spelled as a prefix, now, I don't know, but it could make a difference in the original intonation as for eg. bei and be-, implying that normal-grade mīt is a correct assumption, and that Miete has escaped diphtongisation. Incidently, the polite bitte has a similar relation with to bid, Angebot, etc whereas long as in along can similarly express wishes, viz. to long for, and verlangen resembles a more demanding aspect of the polite bitte.

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You have to learn that to take to is mitnehmen in German. There's no room for guesswork.

The reason is that in English this action is expressed with a phrasal verb, but in German, it's expressed with a prefixed verb. They are not the same. Phrasal verbs include the preposition as both part of the phrase and part of the adverbial. Prefixed verbs do not.

Let's compare an action that is expressed with a phrasal verb both in German and English:

Er wartet auf den Bus.

He waits for the bus.

The preposition is different but the idea is the same. Now let's compare an action that is expressed with a prefixed verb both in German and English:

Sie vergibt ihm.

She forgives him.

Same idea. Actually the same prefix. But it doesn't work when there's no 1:1 relation in both languages.

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