Prefix Verbs Explained – “aussehen”

joke aussehenHello everyone,

another day in quarantene. Hooray!
Well, actually, we don’t really have quarantene in Germany. Thank God. What we have is a “Kontaktverbot”. That means we have to keep 6 feet apart, and are not allowed to form groups larger than two people. Not so bad, actually. Much better than a curfew, for sure.
Anyway guys, welcome to our German Word of the Day and this time we will look at the meaning of:



And to start this of, let’s do a little guessing game.
How many different concepts or meaning does aussehen have? 1, 3 or 6? What would you say?
Keep in mind… it’s a German prefix verb.
The correct answer is…

Yes, one.
Most German prefix verbs have two or more meanings, but this only has one.
Still, it’s a really really useful verb, because it means to look. But actually just one aspect of to look.

  • Maria looks right.

This can actually mean two things. It can mean that Maria directs her gaze to the right. And it can mean that Maria’s apperance seems right.
Aussehen is ONLY to look in sense of apperance, while the idea of directing your gaze is usually expressed by gucken or (in the South) schauen

  • Maria guckt nach rechts. (direction of gaze)
  • Maria sieht richtig aus. (apperance)

So, aussehen is to look in sense of looks.
Not too difficult in theory, but in practice, the verb actually makes more problems than you’d think. The prefix aus is separable, so we have to move it to the end of the phrase. And many learners, even more advanced ones, just simply forget to add it. But that’s actually quite confusing to a German native speaker.

This actually means that Maria has a very good eyesight.

THIS means that Maria is very good looking. And even if the sentence is really long and the context makes it clear like in this example…

  •  Maria sieht nach der langen Autofahrt von München, wo sie beruflich zu tun hatte, nach Berlin zu ihrem Freund Markus, mit dem sie, sobald sie einen Job in Berlin bekommt, zusammenziehen will,  sehr müde und erschöpft aus
  • After her long drive from Munich, where she had job related stuff to do, to Berlin to her boyfriend Marcus, with whom she wants to move together as soon as she gets a job in Berlin, Maria looks very tired and exhausted.

… without the aus it sounds really incomplete to a German native speaker.
I know you’re now like “This sentence is not really anything Germans would say, right?”
Well… yes, it was a bit over the top maybe, but it’s not too far fetched. And before you complain… 200 years ago it was WAY WORSE… try to read Kleist. He just does not know how to finish a sentence. Anyway… back to aussehen.

So aussehen means to look in sense of to (physical) appearance.
But how to use it in a sentence?
One way is of course to just add the look to it directly.

  • Thomas looks bored.
  • Thomas sieht gelangweilt aus.

But you can’t only look [adjective]. In English, you can look  like something or as if you do something.
And in German, there are three possibilities for that: wie , als ob and and nach.
If you look like something or someone the German word to use for that comparison is wie.

And here, we can see something particular with regards to sentence structure. As beginners, we learn that the prefix has to go to the end of the sentence. And in the very long sentence we had earlier, it also had to be at the end. For sentences with wie,  however, it’s a bit different.
The wie-part, especially if it is longer, “feels” like a phrase of its own… like a weil-phrase or dass-phrase. That’s why you can put the aus before it. I have talked more about this in the article on comparisons, so I’ll add a link to that below.
Anyway, so you… the wie-part can come after the prefix. In the first example above, both version are equally fine. In the second example, I would prefer the first versions – the one where the aus comes before the rest. But grammatically, both are correct.
Now, in English, like is also used if you want to say, that someone looks like they’re DOING something. So if the comparison involves a verb.

  • You look like you could use a glass of soy milk.

This was a premiere, by the way. I don’t think anyway has ever said this sentence before. Like… I know how someone looks who needs a beer. I see that every morning in the mirror. But soy milk.
Anyway, unlike in English, where you can use like, in German wie alone does NOT work for these phrasings. People might understand, but it sound really bad.
Instead, what you use is als ob  (as if) or another variation with als.

There are no real big differences between all these versions so you can just pick one and go with it.
And oh… those of you who are a little more advanced might be wondering about the difference between using the present (here: kannst) and the conditional (here:könntest). And this is not very strict in German… at least not in spoken German. If you just use als or als wenn then conditional is the better pick but don’t worry too much there.

All right.
Last but not least, we have the phrasing aussehen nach.
Just like wie, this is used with nouns and it translates to like, but it has a bit of a special vibe. I think “clue” or “hinting at” is the best way to say it.
Yeah… that wasn’t clear at all, but maybe the examples help.
The one that comes to my mind is connected to weather.

The translation is still “look like”, but the sense is a bit difference than before. This does not mean that “it” literally looks LIKE rain in the sense that it has the same apperance as rain. Instead, the sentence means that “its” looks suggest there will be rain.
Here’s another example

We could also use wie here, but the nach makes it sound less like a comparison and more like a prediction.
Here’s one last example.

Now, we are almost done for today, but there’s a couple more things I want to address before we wrap up.
First of, there’s the past tense.
If you’ve read my series on past tense in German, you’ll know that most verbs use what we call the spoken past in daily life. Aussehen however is one of the verbs for which the real past (preterit) is the idiomatic choice even in spoken German.

The second translation is definitely the better choice here. I mean… the spoken past is not really wrong, but it sounds odd.
As you can see the real past stem is
sah aus so the conjugation would be:

  • Ich sah müde aus.
  • Du sahst müde aus.
  • Er sah müde aus.

And then, last but not least, a quick look at the related words. The noun das Aussehen is the direct counterpart to the verb and means the appearance or the looks. And the d-form aussehend is the word for looking.


  • Who is that good looking guy there?
  • Wer ist dieser gut aussehend Typ dort?

But then, there’s also the noun die Aussicht. And that is kind a bit further from the verb, because it means view or perspective or outlook.

  • Die Aussicht vom Balkon war großartig.
  • The view from the balcony was terrific.
  • Die Aussichten für die Wirtschaft sind wegen Corona nicht so gut.
  • The outlook for the economy is not that great because of corona.

And that’s it :). This was our look at the meaning and use of aussehen. Which means to look in the sense of … well… looks.
If you want to check how much you remember, and if you know how to use it, you can 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.

further reading:

Comparisons in German
The meaning and use of “als”
German Past Tense 1 – An Overview

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