German Prefixes Explained – “um”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 24, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another episode of German Prefixes Explained.
And today we’ll have a look at one that’s rather special



Aww look… all the other prefixes are making sad faces right now. So cute!  Hey, don’t be sad okay, you’re ALL special, of course and everyone loves you. Turn those frowns upside down, okay? Yeah… much better.
So, the um-prefix is one of the small group of prefixes that can be both, separable and inseparable.
And what makes um- special is that not only are there quite a few verbs that use BOTH versions of the prefix – the two versions sometimes seem to have contradictory meanings.
Like here:

  • Ich umfahre den Zaun.
  • Ich fahre den Zaun um.

The first one means that I drive around the fence, the second one means that I drive right into it.
German, amarite :).
So are you ready to jump in? Then let’s go….

The origin of “um”

The word  um is actually quite closely related to the word by. I know it’s hard to believe and many of you will argue “Hmmmmmmm.” which is a legitimate point. I mean, um and by seem to have nothing in common.
And yet, they do come from the same root – the super ancient Indo-European *ambhi. Ambhi expressed the idea of around, surrounding, and in a sense of “from both sides”, it has made it all the way into modern English …

  • “Wow, you can write with your right AND with your left hand??”
    “Yes, I’m ambidextrous.”
  • “I’m an extroverted introvert – sometimes I like to go out and make friends but I also like to stay at home alone and be quiet.”
    “Your ambiversion gets on my nerves.”

But what about um and by? Well, if we put them side by side, we can actually see what happened… umby. That now looks an awful lot like ambi, right?
The Germanic tribes basically had two ways to mumble their ambi, either swallowing the first or the second part, and eventually they split. The bi-part went on to become by and bei and also the infamous prefix be- and it somewhat lost a focused meaning.
And the first half became um in German and it has preserved the original sense of around till today.

  • Die Erde dreht sich um die Sonne.
  • The earth turns around the sun.

And we can even tie in stuff like the um-zu construction here. All we need is to think of um in a broad sense of revolving.

  • Ich gehe ins Fitnessstudio, um zu trainieren.
  • I go to the gym to train.

My going to the gym “revolves” around training.
Meh… okay, I guess it’s a bit far fetched.
But anyway, our focus today is the prefix and for that, the core idea of around works really well.

The prefix “um-” – Two Distinct Ideas

We’ve learned that um can be a separable as wall as a non separable prefix… often for the same basic verb.
From now on the non-separable one shall be in green and the other one in  blue.
As for all prefix verbs, a separable prefix will get the main stress of the word, while a non-separable prefix gets no stress at all.

  • umfahren – (say : umFAAAHren)
  • umfahren – (say: UMMMfahren)

The rhythm and feel is really pretty different and umfahren is actually a great verb to practice with and get a feel for it.  If you struggle, a good approach is to over-exaggerate … do the stresses as extreme as you can and if you think it is ridiculously strong… it probably is just perfect. One is baBAMMMM and the other is BAMMMbam… it’s really pretty different.
And it matters, because the separable and the non-separable um each have their own distinct idea.

The non-separable um pretty consistently is about the idea of around and it often has a notion of avoiding.

  • Ich umfahre den Zaun.
  • I drive around the fence.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

This means that I am driving around the fence, and I do it because I want to get past it, not to do a fence round trip or something like that. But okay, this notion of avoiding is not ALWAYS there. In case of umstellen for instance, the idea is really about literally placing people all around.

  • Die Polizei hat das Haus umstellt.
  • The police has surrounded the building.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now, the separable um is not as intuitive, but also there we can find a common theme – and that theme is a notion of flipping, turning upside down, in some sense. And in contrast to non-separable um-verbs, the separable ones tend to directly affect their object. Like… the non-separable umfahren was about avoiding the fence, so the fence doesn’t even notice our presence.
The separable UMfahren … well… affecting the fence is its entire purpose.

  • Ich fahre den Zaun um.
  • I run the fence over.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And can you see this notion of flipping? The fence was vertical before and its horizontal after. And it’s the same logic for instance for umwerfen (throw over), umkippen  (tip over) or even umfallen (fall over).

  • Mist. Meine Vase ist umgefallen.
  • Crap. My vase fell over.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But um is not limited to changing vertical to horizontal. It’s actually pretty commonly used in a more general sense of “change of position” …. similar to moving around in English.
Like in umstellen for instance. We already had the non-separable version with the meaning of surrounding. And the seperable version can be about rearranging furniture but also resetting the time.

  • Ich habe meinen Tisch umgestellt.
  • I have put my table elsewhere/I have altered the positioning of my table.
  • Am Sonntag werden die Uhren umgestellt.
  • On Sunday, clocks will be switched to daylight savings time (or back).

Another nice and useful one is umschalten, which is about switching the channel or mode in some sense.

  • Diese Sendung ist langweilig. Schalt mal um!
  • This show is boring. Alter the switch-configuration (lit…. kind of) Change the channel.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And of course we need to mention umziehen, which can be about moving from one apartment to another AND changing clothes.

  • Ich bin seit 1 Jahr nicht umgezogen.
  • I have been staying in the same flat for a year now./ I haven’t moved for a year.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich hab’ mich seit 1 Jahr nicht umgezogen.
  • I haven’t changed clothes once in a year.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

By the way, if you want to know more about ziehen and its meaning, you should check out my article about it. I’ll add the link below.
But yeah, I hope you can see the common theme of direct altering that the separable um-verbs share. There’s one notable exception and that is ummachen and umhängen in terms of clothing accessories. Like a purse or a scarf.

  • Ich muss einen Schal ummachen.
  • I have to wear a scarf. (careful: to wear does rarely translate to ummachen !!! :)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But for the most part, the notion of direct altering works fine.
So… non-separable um-verbs are about around and often have a sense of avoiding. Separable verbs are about altering and often talk about some sort of change of position or state.
Here they are again, back to back:

  • Wenn man ein Wort nicht weiß oder es nicht sagen will, kann man es vielleicht umschreiben.
  • If you don’t know a word or you don’t want to say it, maybe you can “talk your way around it“.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wenn ein Kapitel in einem Buch schei… uh nicht ganz so gelungen ist, sollte man es vielleicht umschreiben.
  • If a chapter in a book is shi… uh maybe not the greatest success ever, one probably should rewrite it.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Can you see the different themes in play? The first one is trying to “write around” a certain word, to avoid using it. The second one is about directly altering a wording.
And these themes are stable enough and well anchored in the brains of a native speaker that it’s actually possible to make up new, intuitively understood words.
Let me give you an example… umflirten.

  • “Und? War das ok für dein Date, dass du ein Kind hast?”
    “Hehe… das Thema hab’ ich charmant umflirtet.”
  • “So? Was it all right for your date that you have a kid?”
    “Hehe… I used my charmer and flirted around that topic.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Und? Wie lief dein Date?”
    “Nich’ so gut?”
    “Warum nicht? Du bist doch sooooo charmant….”
    “Ja, zu charmant. Ich hab’ sie quasi umgeflirtet.”
  • “So? How did your date go?”
    “Not too great.”
    “Why not? Come on, you’re soooooo charming…”
    “Yes, too charming. I basically flirted her down.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I am sure Germans would quite immediately understand either dialogue, even though they may have never heard umflirtern before.
Now, we’re almost done, but there’s one question that especially beginners stress out about when they learn about prefixes that can go either way. And that question is:

How do I know which version I’m looking at?

Well, we’ve already mentioned the difference in emphasis, but even if you don’t pick up on that, or you have the words written, there are clues.
Of course, if you see a lonely um at the end of a sentence is MUST be a separable version, because the non-separable one wouldn’t be there by itself.
Another clue is the ge-form, which only gets an actual ge- for separable verbs.

  • Ich habe etwas umgefahren. (I ran over)
  • Ich habe etwas umfahren. (I drove around)

And it’s the same for the zu in zu-constructions.
But even if none of these clues are there, or you miss them for some reason… you can always rely on your intuition to get it right from context.
It’s a common theme for learners to second guess themselves a little too much. Like… often people say something the right way  but then the brain kicks in and recalls some random rule it thinks it heard in class and they start rephrasing it to “correct mistakes” that never were.
Don’t do it… you’re a learner, it’s your job to make mistakes, so lean into your intuition more. Yes, sometimes it’ll be just plain wrong, but that’s when you learn, because you have a big “contrast”, and contrast tends to stick well in our brain.
If you second guess yourself constantly, you never have contrast. You’re just dithering between two options and your brain won’t learn which one was right. It’ll just learn that you’re “not sure”. There… my totally made up theories of how the brain works :).
Seriously, I have no science to back that up, but I think there’s some truth to it.
So where were we actually coming from … uh yeah… so if you’re not sure about an um-verb, trust your gut. It’s probably right.

And that’s it for today, folks. This was our look at the meaning and the use of the prefix um and its ideas.
I’ve definitely not mentioned all the verb worth mentioning, so if you have one that you’re confused about, or if you have any other questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


Further reading: 

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