Prefix Verbs Explained – “abziehen”

Hello everyone,

2020 is slowly dragging toward an end, but other messes are here to stay. Like for instance the series Prefix Verbs Explained, the series that’ll never ever end.
Today, it’s time for a new episode, in which we’ll take a look at the meaning of



Those of you who have thoroughly studied the archives here might know that I have an article on ziehen itself and in it, we do talk about all the prefix versions of ziehen. But there are so many that we didn’t really do them justice and also, the article is quite long. And by the way… do you know what else is quite long, at least in the eyes of my girlfriend.
My hair. I need to cut it.
Yup…  German teaching in 2020, guys. Fresh, like we never left the school yard.
Anyway, let’s jump right in.

If you’ve read a few episodes of this series you might know that usually, the prefixes have two somewhat distinct meanings they can add to a verb. In case of ab, that is the idea of separation, going away and the idea of downward.  For a mind yoga master like me, it’s of course a piece of cake to find a connection between the two, but I’ll save that for when we look at ab in more detail. But if you want to try your mind yoga and make a guess… comment section is all yours :).
Now, in case of abziehen, or all prefix versions of ziehen for that matter, not only the prefix has two meanings. Also ziehen itself has two distinct ideas.  The first one is pulling, and the second one is moving in the sense of migrating.

  • Das Einhorn zieht das Katapult auf den Hügel.
  • The unicorn pulls the catapult onto the hill.
  • Die Vögel ziehen nach Süden.
  • The birds are moving/migrating south.

So two meanings for the prefix, two meanings for the verb. If my math is correct, that means there 13.5 possible combined meanings.
The mainstream math (#fakemath)  says it’s 4, but it doesn’t really matter because in case of abziehen, we’re looking at two core ideas. Well, two and a half.
The first one is a combination of the notion of going away and the notion of moving. Sounds like it could be a very handy word, but in reality it’s only idiomatic in very few contexts. One is for armies or troops retreating or being pulled from an area

  • Nach der Niederlage gegen die Zwerge zieht die Einhornarmee aus den Bergen ab.
  • After the defeat against the dwarfs, the unicorn army retreats/pull out from the mountains.

And the other is for clouds, gases or fumes “clearing” or leaving an area.

  • Der Rauch des Feuers zieht durch eine kleine Öffnung im Tipi ab.
  • The smoke of the fire escapes through a small opening in the Tee-Pee.
  • Ich brauche unbedingt eine Dunstabzugshaube in der Küche.
  • I absolutely need a fume hood in the kitchen.

What a word.

“Dunstabzugshaube” ® (made in German)
Because  sometimes
perfection is not long enough.

Anyway, so that was the first idea of abziehen and overall it’s not all that useful.
That’s different for the second one.
And that’s the idea of taking something off of something.
There are a bunch of contexts in which there is an actual physical pulling involved.

  • Das Einhorn zieht dem Schaf das Fell ab.
  • The unicorn flays the sheep.
    lit.: “pulls off the fur”
  • Thomas hat eine komische Faszination dafür, Pflaster langsam abzuziehen.
  • Thomas has a wicked fascination for pulling off band-aids slowly.
  • Kannst du bitte das Bett abziehen? Ich will waschen.
  • Can you please strip the sheets off the bed? I want to do laundry.

But the more important use is a figurative one… to subtract. German also has subtrahieren, its own version of subtract, but that’s used primarily in context of actual math. In daily life, abziehen is the word you need.

  • Die Fahrtkosten muss du aber abziehen.
  • You have to subtract the travel costs.
  • 1 Million abzüglich Steuern sind 999,250.00.
  • One million minus taxes are 999,250.00.
  • “Und was ist mit Überstunden?”
    “Die werden vom Gehalt abgezogen.”
    “Ah alles kl… äh… Moment mal!”
  • “And what about overtime?”
    “That’s being subtracted/deducted from the salary.”
    “Ah I got it… uh… wait a minute!”

And subtract is actually closer than you might think. Why? Because it is one of those many many “hidden” prefix verbs that English and other languages inherited from Latin. The prefix is sub, which expresses a notion of down and the base verb was trahere, which was Latin for… drumroll.. to pull. That’s also where train is from, by the way, which in German is der Zug. And there are lots more cool relations and connections to be found in that family. But that’s definitely too much for today.

Now,  I think most of you are familiar with the phrasing to pull something off in the metaphorical sense of achieving something, getting something done. And I’m sure some of you are wondering if abziehen can be a translation for that as well.
The answer is a clear NO! That would be super confusing, actually. Instead, in German you use the verbs schaffen or hinkriegen .

  • How did you pull that off?
  • Wie hast du das geschafft/hingekriegt?

But even though it is NOT a translation, abziehen still does have some relation to this sense of to pull off. Because it’s colloquially used in a sense of doing something. The big difference is that abziehen is NOT positive and mostly used in sense of running some sort of scheme.

  • Du wirst nicht glauben, was mein Internet-Provider mit mir abgezogen hat.
  • You won’t believe what (kind of shit) my internet service provider pulled on/did to me.
  • Unglaublich, was mein Mitbewohner für eine Show abzieht, nur weil er mal das Bad putzen muss.
  • Incredible, what a show my roommate is putting on, just because he has to clean the bathroom for once.

It’s a bit hard to tell when this is idiomatic, so I recommend you add it to your passive vocabulary, but it’s good to know it.
Now, we’ve already seen the noun Abzug in graceful, elegant Dunstabzugshaube and you can also use it in context of subtraction.
But there are a couple of uses that seem a little odd. The first one is for a copy/print of a photo. I can’t tell you exactly, what the logic is but it probably goes back to when photos were taken on plates and you’d develop them with some chemicals.

  • Die Fotografin macht einen Abzug von ihrem Foto.
  • The photographer makes a print of her photo.

And the second surprising meaning of der Abzug is trigger, in the sense of a fire arm. And that one actually does make sense because you do pull the trigger toward you with the finger.
Oddly enough though, the act of pulling the trigger is called drücken, though.

  • Das Einhorn drückt den Abzug.
  • The unicorn pulls the trigger.

So in German you essentially “push” the “puller”. We could call it silly.
Or we could see it for what it is… an expression of Hegel’s dialectic and symbol for opposing forces and the destruction they can bring.
Yeah, my vote goes to silly.
Anyway, so now we have a good overview over the uses of abziehen. But of course an episode of Prefix Verbs Explained wouldn’t be complete without a suspenseful cliffhanger to keep you hooked. Oh and the r-version of course. That’s also really important.

The r-version

And for verbs with ab-, there actually only is a full blown her-version. So there is no rabziehen but just herabziehen. Like virtually all r-versions, it captures the very literal, “locational” meaning of the combination. So technically, herabziehen means to pull down(ward).
However, it sounds quite theatrical and it is barely ever used at all. Instead, the idiomatic word unterziehen. And that one can be used in a lit

  • Das Wetter zieht mich voll runter.
  • The weather really bums me out/makes me down.
  • Maria hat Thomas bei der Party vor allen Leuten die Hose runtergezogen.
  • Maria pulled down Thomas’s pants in front of everyone, at the party.

And you won’t believe what happened next (#EPIC).

That… that was the cliffhanger, by the way.
Because yes, we’re done for today :).
This was our little look at the meanings of abziehen.
As usual, if you want a quick recap or check how much you remember, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you. And of course if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


** vocab **

abziehen = subtract, deduct; retreat (for armies); to do (something scammy, colloquial); pull off (band-aid); escape, move away (fume, gases)
abzüglich = minus (in sentences, not euqations)
der Abzug = the trigger; the copy (in context of photos, not paper copies); the outlet (for gases); the process of retreat (for armies)
die Dunstabzugshaube = the fume hood
runterziehen = to pull down (also in a figurative sense of dragging down someone’s mood)




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