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Some local U3A German groups have been told to forget "separable" and "inseparable" and to focus on Verb Particles/Modifiers as independent words; they occupy the end position (or as near to the end as possible) but otherwise function in the same way as 'in', 'on', 'out', 'down', 'up' in English to alter/extend the meaning of basic verbs.

Joining up a Verb Particle/Modifier with the past participle or the infinitive or the verb itself in the end position is a peculiarity of written German. This practice must be followed in order to make the sentence look right, even though it makes no difference to how it sounds, they were told.

I can see several advantages to this alternative view, but am I overlooking potential problems with it?

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    The most obvious problem this approach has is that there is no way to distinguish between seperable and inseparable verbs that have the same infinitive but very distinct meanings, thus no way to distinguish between "Fahr' die Oma um" and "Umfahr' die Oma" (I guess most Grandmas would bother...).
    – tofro
    Aug 12, 2023 at 13:14
  • Right, you still need to know which elements are particles and which elements aren't. So the problem of sorting out the verbs doesn't disappear.
    – Alazon
    Aug 12, 2023 at 17:16
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    Ein Männlein steht im Walde / Ganz still und stumm. / Wenn ich es nicht umfahre, / Dann fahre ich es um. (Robert Gernhardt)
    – RHa
    Aug 12, 2023 at 17:30
  • The answer is surely not to start with the infinitive but a finite form where the particle shows its independent existence and those acting as a prefix do exactly that: ich fange an, steige aus, erkenne an, ziehe um, umarme, wiederhole
    – Bernhard
    Aug 14, 2023 at 17:49

5 Answers 5

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I like Hubert's answer as it gives you a good reason to dimiss the idea of comparing English stranded prepositions and German separated verb prefixes.

I have another reason why you shouldn't do this.

You have to understand that in German, the verb in second position is the odd one out. From the view of any other word order rule, it's not there. It's still at the end of the clause, attached to its separable prefix. That is because the V2 rule is the last word order rule applied.

So it's not the prefix that is broken off the verb and moved to the end but the stem which is broken off its prefix and moved to second position.

This is consistent with any other word order rule in German. The verbs pile up at the end of the clause and only in that corner case of the main clause, where we need the V2 verb to split the topic from the remainder of the clause, we move the stem of the very last verb to second position.

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  • You have to distinguish between stranded prepositions and verbal particles in English. A preposition has a complement (somewhere else, if it is a stranded preposition). A particle does not have a complement of its own. The linguistic literature does identify English and German particle verbs as the same phenomenon, except for the differences in syntax.
    – Alazon
    Aug 12, 2023 at 17:19
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It is correct that English "put on" is a particle verb just as German "anziehen" is one. But the syntax of English and German is different, i.e. the ordering is different. Moreover, German orthography requires verb + particle to be written as one word if they happen to stand together, but that's just an orthographic convention.

It is not a bad idea to view the particle as a "word" of its own, in some sense. You just have to be aware that, at the same time, the particle is a part of the predicate (but German has compound predicates with several words in them anyway). So the particle is very close to the main verb (just as in English).

There are also some aspects of the grammar of particles that make them similar to affixes instead of full words. But that mainly has to do with word formation. The point is that you can derive new words on the basis of particle verbs: "anleiten : Anleit-ung", deriving a noun. Here the particle "an" does not appear to act as a word of its own. As long as you just look at the grammar of the clause, it doesn't interfere, I would say.

If a particle is seen as a word, then you need correct syntax rules... and that's where a lot of confused ideas exist. But you didn't ask syntax questions, so I assume you're ok in this respect... (I am noticing that Janka has addressed this aspect meanwhile).

See https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partikelverb#Trennung_im_Satz and the later section #Richtungsparameter (about the difference between German and English). The article cites linguistic literature in English about the comparison of English and German particle verbs.

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It is true, that German »an« in »Ich ziehe ein Hemd an« is very similar to »on« in »I put on a shirt.« But this changes dramatically when you add a modal verb or an auxiliary verb:

Ich ziehe ein Hemd an.

Ich will ein Hemd anziehen.
Ich werde ein Hemd anziehen.

I put on a shirt.

I want to put on a shirt.
I will put on a shirt.

Now there is no more verb particle in the German sentence, but in the English sentence nothing has changed. Compare this with this sentence:

Ich höre das Lied oft.

Ich will das Lied oft hören.
Ich werde das Lied oft hören.

I hear the song often.

I want to hear the song often.
I will hear the song often.

In English we have the same situation as before: Nothing changes when you add the modal or auxiliary verb. But in German it's now different than before: The two parts do not merge to one word here: »oft« moves to »hören« too, but the two words do not merge into one. »Oft hören« is not one separable verb, but it's two distinct words.

And you also can hear the difference in spoken German:

  • separable verb:

    Ich will damit aufhören.
    I want to stop doing that.

    Here only the first syllable »auf-« is stressed and the rest is unstressed. Especially the syllable »-hö-« is unstressed.

  • no separable verb, but just two different words:

    Ich werde das Lied oft hören.
    I will often hear the song.

    Here the word »oft« is stressed, but also »hö-«, the first syllable of »hören«, is stressed too. And two stressed syllables in sequence is a very strong argument that they belong to two different words.

But an even stronger argument is the semantics:

  • Aufhören is just one idea that can not be subdivided in smaller parts, and in English there is even a one-syllable word for this idea: »stop«. And this idea has absolutely nothing to do with »hören« (to hear).
  • Oft hören are two different ideas. One is to hear, i.e. an action, and the other names a frequency: often

Also anziehen (to put on) is only one idea. And this idea is only very loosely connected to the idea of ziehen (to pull).

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  • Sorry, but it is wrong to say that "there is no particle any more" in the construction with modal verb plus particle verb. If the particle and the verb are both clause-final, they are written together in the orthography, but it is still the same particle as otherwise.
    – Alazon
    Aug 12, 2023 at 16:32
  • It seems very odd to take a verb in the end position as normative and basic when the essential basis of every sentence is the Verb in the second position: ich stehe. Modifiers can stand alone, prefixes cannot: ich stehe auf/an/bei/aus etc; ver-/be-/er-gestehe. Some Modifiers may be used also as Prefixes (many more in English): umarme, umgabe; falle/steige um. Yes, there may be complications and anomalies, but the basic principle is sound: it is about normally freestanding words being written together, not about separating and moving things to different places.
    – Bernhard
    Aug 25, 2023 at 13:43
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I'm thinking it's only an advantage if you already know the difference between a particle verb, as in "Stand by," and a prepositional verb as in "Stand by me." The difference is subtle and I (a native English speaker) sometimes have to refresh my memory. (Fwiw, the difference is that in a prepositional verb the preposition is followed by a noun; in a particle verb there can either be no noun or the noun can come after the particle. You can't say "Stand me by" but you can say "Look it up," so "stand by" is prepositional and "look up" is particle. It's seems silly to learn this jargon for a language you already know when the application to German will be inaccurate at best.

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  • I think the obvious differences between German particles and the likes of 'on', 'out' 'down' used with verbs in English are something of a red herring here. The two are remarkably similar in that they enable verbs to be extended, but do so in a different way from prefixes, which work in exactly the same way in both languages.
    – Bernhard
    Aug 14, 2023 at 17:57
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The terminology is useful, but a particle verb is not just particle + verb.

I really like this terminology because it explains why verbs separate. If you said

umfahren (separable) is "drive and topple" while umfahren (inseparable) is "drive around"

this does not explain why one is separable and one not, if you say that

in the particle verb "umfahren" "um" (toppled) is the result, whereas in the prefixed verb "umfahren" "um" (around) describes where.

it is much harder to mix them up. But

Joining up a Verb Particle/Modifier with the past participle or the infinitive or the verb itself in the end position is a peculiarity of written German. This practice must be followed in order to make the sentence look right, even though it makes no difference to how it sounds, they were told.

is just wrong. It makes a difference. The two parts are (usually) pronounced as a single word, like the other answers detailed. Pronouncing "vorbereitet" as "vor bereitet" is just plain wrong.

You will have to explain more about how and if they join

If you say particle verbs behave just as a resultative particle plus a verb, you will have to explain how those resultative parts behave in the first way. And their behaviour is complicated.

The Duden spelling rules dedicate 10 lengthy rules (D47-56) just for when those combinations are to be written as a single word. And many combinations to be written separately can or must still be pronounced as a single word, like "gefangen genommen".

Sometimes the meaning is not just the sum

If you advocate seeing the two parts as separate words and give to many examples of the transparent "umfahren", "vorbereiten", "anmachen", "abgeben" kind, students may think that the meaning might be just the combination. But there are also many combinations with special meaning, like "zugeben" (admit) and students should regard this as a single vocabulary entry.

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  • Perhaps I should have said "makes no difference to the order of the words" but I am still sceptical about being able to hear the gap between two words on the printed page.
    – Bernhard
    Aug 14, 2023 at 17:40
  • it seems very odd to take a verb in the endposition - as in a sub clause or as an infinitive - as normal and basic when the one essential basis of every sentence is the Verb, the real Verb in the second position: ich stehe.
    – Bernhard
    Aug 25, 2023 at 13:24

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