Dutch/Lesson 19

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Advanced level: cycle 5

Les 19 ~ Lesson 19

Onscheidbare werkwoorden~ Inseparable verbs

Syntax: separability types



There are three basic kinds of verbs in Dutch in terms of separability

  1. Basic verbs (current database at nl.wiktionary)
    Basic verbs form their past participle with ge-
    Either they simply consist of a stem: lopen - gelopen
    Or they may have prefixes that are treated as part of the stem; this is the case for all prefixes of Latin origin: degenereren -gedegenereerd
  2. Separable verbs (current database at nl.wiktionary)
    Separable verbs have a prefix that is separated in some of the tenses, reunited in others
    They form their past participle by inserting -ge- between the prefix and the stem: doorlopen - doorgelopen
  3. Inseparable verbs (current database at nl.wiktionary)
    Inseparable verbs have a prefix before the stem that does not separate
    The prefix suppresses the ge- prefix of the past participle - onthalen - onthaald


There is a difference in stress between the separable and inseparable prefixes:

separable prefixes carry stress
inseparable prefixes never carry stress: the stress is on the stem of the verb

Dual prefixesEdit


Verbs can have more than one prefix. Usually a separable one precedes an inseparable one: e.g. in afbetalen, where af- is separable and be- is inseparable. In such a case the af- prefix will follow the rules for separation:

afbetalen infinitive united
hij besloot af te betalen the te-form of the infinitive separates
hij betaalde af finite forms in main clauses separates
ik geloof dat hij afbetaalt finite form in subject clauses reunite

But the be- prefix will still suppress the ge- prefix in the past participle:

hij heeft afbetaald (not: *afgebetaald)


The inseparable prefix "her-" is still somewhat productive and can appear before verbs that already have another inseparable prefix like "be-", as in herbeginnen. Such a verb behaves entirely as an inseparable verb


In a few cases with a reverse order of separability a conflict may arise, e.g. if the inseparable "her-" is put before a separable "in-" as in "herinrichten". Such verbs tend to be incomplete: not all forms are used. One may see a form like "heringericht", but speakers may avoid phrases like "ik richt herin".

(current database at nl.wiktionary)

Inseparable prefixesEdit

The number of truly inseparable prefixes that can only be used as inseparable, is relatively small in Dutch. A few prepositional adverbs like door-, onder- can be used either as separable of as inseparable and were already reviewed in chapter 17.


Much like in English the prefix be- 'pins' the action of a verb 'down onto' an object. If the prefix is added to an intransitive verb it often becomes transitive and thus the verb can be used in the passive voice:

slapen - to sleep
beslapen - to sleep on something
het bed is niet beslapen - the bed has not been slept on
gaan - to go
begaan - to set foot on, to perpetrate
onbegaanbaar - inpassible (impossible to set foot on)


This prefix has been largely supplanted in English by a prefix of Latin origin de-

dooien - to thaw
ontdooien - to defrost

The prefix mostly indicates an irreversible change or movement away from a previous state

slapen - to sleep
ontslapen - to die, to pass away
zien - to see
ontzien - to spare someone, to look the other way

It can have the flavor of an antonym at times

komen - to come
ontkomen - to escape
zich kleden - to get dressed
zich ontkleden - to get undressed


This prefix has been supplanted by the Latin prefix re- in English. It means a renewal or a repeated action:

stellen - to put, to make stand
herstellen - to repair, to heal
denken - to think
herdenken - to commemorate
kiezen - to choose
herkiezen - to reelect


This prefix denotes a variety of meaning, some of which correspond to the English prefixes for- and fore-

In general it denotes a change.

taal - language
vertalen - to translate
kort - short
verkorten - to shorten
verjongen - to rejuvenate

It can have the connotation of "change for the worse":

gaan - to go
vergaan - to perish
worden - to become
verworden - to degenerate, to decay

Some verbs only occur with this prefix:

vergeten - to forget
(krijgen, worden) - to get

There is a second prefix ver- with a different pronunciation: a stress carrying /vɛr/ rather than an unstressed /vər/. It is separable and has the meaning of English "far".

vérspringen - vérgesprongen: to make a long jump
verspríngen - verspróngen: to tick away, to suddenly change position


In Old Dutch this prefix was used as a general intensifier. Only later did it become a marker for the perfect tenses. English has had a similar development but lost the marker in the past participle. There are a few remnants in English like:

to rise - to arise

In Dutch the remnants are a bit more numerous.

denken - to think
gedenken - to ponder, to consider solemnly
bieden - to offer, to bid
gebieden - to command
dragen - to carry, to wear
zich gedragen - to comport onseself, to behave
loven - to praise
geloven - to believe
beloven - to promise

Notice that a word like "geboden" could either be the past participle of bieden or of gebieden. It can also be a noun, meaning commandments.


This prefix can convey the meaning of "again" (re-):

galmen - to sound, to resonate
weergalmen - to reverberate, to echo
spiegelen - to mirror
weerspiegelen - to reflect

However, it can also represent the with- of withstand:

weerstaan - to withstand
weerhouden - to withhold, to thwart