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Grammar: Separable verbs

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Separable verbs consist of two parts: a prefix and a base verb. As the name implies, these can split up and move to different parts of the sentence. Whether this happens depends on the conjugation and on the word order, as explained below.

While English doesn't have separable verbs, they are somewhat similar to so-called phrasal verbs, such as: stand up, write down, fill in or hang out. Often but not nearly always, a Dutch separable verb can be translated as an English phrasal verb. Using combinations of prepositions and existing verbs, there are an almost unlimited number of separable verbs in Dutch, each with a subtle difference in meaning or connotation.


Finite verb

A finite verb is a verb that is conjugated to match the subject. I am happy, because I have seen a beautiful duck. In this sentence, am and have are finite verbs (they match the subject I), but seen is not (it is a past participle). If a Dutch separable verb is finite, then the verb is split in two and the prefix moves to the back of the sentence. For example, the verb "aanraken" (to touch) becomes:

  • Jij raakt me aan. - You touch me.

Note that while the word "aan" can also be a preposition, in this case it's not. It is a part of the verb!

An exception to the above rule occurs in subordinate clauses (see these grammar notes on word order). There, the finite verb is always moved to the end of the clause, so there is no need to split up the separable verb:

  • Ik wil dat jij me aanraakt. - I want you to touch me.

Infinite verb

The infinite form (or infinitive) of a separable verb is usually written as one word:

  • Jij wil me aanraken. - You want to touch me.

In some cases, the infinitive will also be separated. For example, this happens when it is accompanied by "te", which always comes between the prefix and the base verb.

  • Jij weigert me aan te raken. - You refuse to touch me.

When there are multiple infinitives in the sentence, or when the infinitive is part of a subclause, you can often choose whether to split the separable verb or not.

  • Ik wil jou kunnen aanraken. - I want to be able to touch you.
  • Ik wil jou aan kunnen raken. - I want to be able to touch you.

Past participle

The past participle of a verb is mostly used in the present perfect (one of the past tense forms). In Dutch, this form is constructed with the prefix "ge-". For separable verbs, this prefix comes in between the original prefix and the base verb. It is written as one word:

  • Jij hebt me aangeraakt. - You have touched me.

External sources


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