Dutch Separable Verbs

These notes discuss what are usually called Dutch separable verbs.

What are separable verbs?

Put simply, separable verbs are verbs where one part of the verb separates in the sentence. An example of a separable verb is be ‘aankomen’ (to arrive). In the present tense it is:

  • ik kom aan = I arrive
  • jij komt aan (Kom je aan?) = You arrive (speaking to one person informally)
  • hij/zij komt aan = He/She arrives
  • u komt aan = You arrive (speaking formally to one or more people)
  • wij komen aan = We arrive
  • jullie komen aan = You arrive (speaking informally to two or more people)
  • zij komen aan = They arrive

You will see that the ‘aan’ part separates from the verb in the Present Tense. It also does so in many (but not all) other tenses. This is not discussed further here.

Let’s contrast this with the verb komen (To come), which is a not a separable verb. In the present tense it is as follows:

  • ik kom = I come
  • jij komt (kom je) = You come (speaking to one person informally)
  • hij/zij komt = He/She comes
  • u komt = You come (speaking to one or more people formally)
  • wij komen = We come
  • jullie komen = You come (speaking to more than one person informally)
  • zij komen = They come

How often will I come across separable verbs?

In Dutch the majority of verbs in are non-separable. The rules set out on this page are therefore irrelevant for the majority of verbs.

Having said that there are a number of important Dutch separable verbs that are regularly used. Even driving you will see signs using separating verbs, such as ones saying ‘Let op!’ meaning ‘Pay attention!’. That comes from the separable verb ‘opletten’ which means ‘To pay attention’.

In practice it is very difficult to avoid using these verbs, as they are commonly used. They often change the meaning of the main verb, which they are used with, for example:

  • betalen = To pay (= non-separable verb)
  • BUT afbetalen = To pay off (= separable verb)
  • gaan = To go (= non-separable verb)
  • BUT weggaan = To go away (= separable verb)

You will see from the above that the separable verbs in the above examples add extra details to the main verb.

Comparing separable and non-separable verbs

Now compare the non-separable verb komen with the separable verb aankomen (both above this).

Hopefully you will see Dutch separable verbs and non-separable verbs have the same verb endings. The only difference between the two is for the separable verbs you put the separable part (i.e. aan) after the verb, for example:

  • ik kom (= I come) = Non-separable verb i.e. the verb komen (To come)
  • ik kom aan (= I arrive) = Separable verb i.e the verb aankomen (To arrive)

What about word order?

When you use a separable verb, in the present tense, the separable part of the verb normally goes to the end of the sentence, for example:

  • Hij komt morgen aan = He arrives tomorrow.

There are however unfortunately some exceptions where the word order is changed, for example after the word dat (meaning ‘that’) when it affects word order, for example:

  • Ik denk dat hij morgen aankomt = I think that he arrives tomorrow.

If you are confused after seeing the above example, do not panic. The word dat changes the normal word order and moves the verb to the end of the sentence.

Can I avoid using Dutch Separable Verbs?

Theoretically you could avoid using these verbs by using alternative non-separable ones. However, this is not really practical. Many very useful verbs are separable.

How will I know whether a verb is separable or not?

Most verbs are non-separable. Having said that when you learn a new verb, you should really learn whether or not it is. If you have a good Dutch dictionary, it should tell in one way or another whether a verb separates.

Having said this, common separable verbs have the following stems at the start of the infinitive. If the verb has one of these prefixes you really should be on alert that the verb you are learning is likely to be separable:

  • aan (e.g. aankomen = To arrive)
  • achter (e.g. achterblijven = To stay behind)
  • af (e.g. afbetalen = To pay off)
  • binnen (e.g. binnengaan = To go in/To enter)
  • door (e.g. doorgaan = To keep walking/To keep going/To continue)
  • in (e.g. inkomen = To come in/To enter)
  • mee (e.g. meebrengen = To bring along)
  • na (e.g. napraten = To repeat)
  • neer (e.g. neerzetten = To put down)
  • om (e.g. omgaan = To go around)
  • onder (e.g. onderbrengen = To house/To accomodate)
  • op (e.g. oplossen = To solve)
  • over (e.g. overgaan = To go over/To cross)
  • samen (e.g. samenwonen = To live together/To cohabit)
  • toe (e.g. toelaten = To allow)
  • uit (e.g. uitgaan = To go out)
  • voor (e.g. voorgaan = To go before/To precede)
  • weer (e.g. weerzien = To see again)
  • weg (e.g. weggaan = To go away/To leave)

The list above contains some of the most common stems (known as prefixes) for separable verbs together with some examples.

There are other more obscure separable verb prefixes not listed above.

Be warned however that while many verbs with these prefixes are separable, not all of them are. For example:

  • ondernemen (To undertake) is not separable
  • BUT onderbrengen (To house/To accomodate) is separable

Strangely, some verbs may also be separable if they have one meaning, but not if they have another! This is much less common, but I thought it would be useful to know.

How do I deal with separable verbs as a second verb?

This small section is more advanced learners of Dutch, so if you are a complete beginner in Dutch maybe skip this small section.

In Dutch when a second verb has the meaning of ‘to eat’, ‘to sleep’, etc. it is usually not changed and keeps the ‘en‘ in Dutch. This is usually the dictionary form of the verb known as the infinitive, for example:

  • Ik wil eten (= I want to eat)

When the second verb is a separable verb, usually just the dictionary form of the verb is used:

  • Ik wil uitgaan (= I want to go out)
  • Here uitgaan is separable, but does not separate as an infinitive.

As an infinitive, the separable verb however does separate when te* needs to be inserted, for example:

  • Zij proberen samen te leven = They are trying to live together.
  • Note: samenleven (To cohabit/To live together) is a separable verb

*The word ‘te’ needs to be inserted when the first verb is not a modal verb and it is followed by the infinitive (e.g. ‘to go’, ‘to live’ etc.). These points will be discussed further in a future post.

What about separable verbs in the Perfect Tense?

On another note, in the Perfect Tense when a separable verb is used the separable prefix is usually followed by ge before the rest of the past participle. An example of this is:

  • Hij is aangekomen (He has arrived)
  • Note: The verb used here is aankomen and is separable.

I will write more about the Perfect Tense in the future.

Final words of advice

The best piece of advice I have for you is learn your separable verbs as you go along. If you know the most common ones and can recognise others, you will be mostly ok.

Some of the theory by its very nature is a little bit complicated. If the notes, particularly the more complicated points, confused you in any way feel free to contact me for further information.

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