Word of the Day – “trennen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
This time, we’ll take a look at the meaning of


And most if not all of you know this from the infamous German “trennbare Präfixverben”… which sounds incredibly German, by the way.
No wonder Rammstein has made a song about them…


The English Separable Prefix Verbs on the other hand is more like an Eminem song…


Anyways, so yeah… trennbar is separable and so trennen, or trennen (von) to be precise, of course means to separate (from).

  • Nur eine Minute trennt das Team vom Titel.
  • Only one minute separate the team from winning the title.
  • “Können wir zahlen?”
    “Zusammen oder getrennt?”
  • “Can we pay?”
    “Together or separately?”
  • Trennst du Müll?
  • Do you sort trash?
    (German says “separate trash” because we think of it as separating the types from one another)

And it can also express the idea of parting or letting go or splitting up. Then, it’s used with a self reference in Accusative – sich trennen.

  • Die Hose ist echt alt, aber ich kann mich nicht von ihr trennen.
  • These pants are really old but I can’t let go of it/part with it.
  • “Thomas und Maria haben sich getrennt.
    “Schon wieder?”
    “Ja, ist schon Februar.”
  • “Thomas and Maria split up.
    “Yeah, it’s already February.”

So you kind of literally “separate yourself“.
Pretty intuitive so far, I’d say. And the direct relatives don’t need much explaining either.

  • Thomas hat seit der Trennung 5 Kilo zugenommen.
  • Thomas has gained 5 kilograms since the breakup.
  • Der Paartherapeut befragt Thomas und Maria getrennt von einander.
  • The couple’s therapist questions Thomas and Maria separately (from one another).
  • Das Präfix ver- ist untrennbar/nicht trennbar.
  • The prefix ver- is inseparable.
  • Thomas und seine alte Hose sind unzertrennlich.
  • Thomas and his old pair of pants are inseparable.

If you’re wondering about the last two examples… unzertrennlich is ONLY used on the context of personal relationships. That can be two people, or just one person and a pet or even a beloved object, but unzertrennlich does imply an emotional bond.

So trennen and to separate seem to line up pretty well overall.
But there is one difference between them and that has to do with force.

You see, the verb to separate comes from a Latin verb that essentially meant something like to make, just like to prepare and to repair by the way. So to separate basically means “to make apart” or and there’s no implied “force”. That’s why to separate can also be used in contexts that are merely about making a distinction, which is basically about “setting apart”.

  1. It’s hard to separate facts from factoids.
  2. Taste ist what separates/distinguishes your soup from my soup.

In contexts like these, the better choice in German is unterscheiden.

  1. Es ist schwer, Fakten und Halbwahrheiten zu unterscheiden.
  2. Geschmack ist was deine Suppe von meiner Suppe unterscheidet.

trennen is not really wrong, and definitely understandable, but especially in the second example, it sounds odd, because trennen DOES imply somewhat of a force.
Like… there is a sense of severing a connection.
And that makes perfect sense once you know the English relative of trennen… which is to tear.

The family of “trennen”

The origin of the family is the mind-numbingly ancient Indo-European root *der-.  The core idea of this root was “flaying, tearing off” and it’s not only the origin of tear and trennen, but also of words like epidermis or dermatologist, which come from derma  – the old Greek word for skin and leather….

Uh… yeah, great, thanks Eminem.
For real though… pulling the skin off of animals was an integral part of life for many hunter gatherers, so the connection makes a lot of sense.

Anyway, trennen has gradually shifted toward the result of tearing and became about splitting and separation.
But it’s not the only German word in that family.
One of them is zerren which is basically rather forceful continued pulling.

  • Das Einhorn zerrt seine Beute in die Höhle.
  • The unicorn drags/pulls the prey into its cave.
    (VERY forceful)

Now, even though it sounds somewhat similar, it’s not really a good match with to tear.  Reißen, which is more sudden than zerren, is usually the better match because it implies destruction, while zerren is more about the motion.
But at least if you do sports and you don’t warm up properly, you have a good chance of doing some zerren sooner or later.

  • “Welchen Muskel hast du dir beim Crossfit gezerrt?”
  • “Which muscle did you strain/pull at crossfit?”
    “All of them!”
  • “Warum warst du gestern nicht beim Deutschkurs?”
    “Ich habe eine Gehirnzerrung…. wahrscheinlich von zu viel Training.”
    “Das Gehirn ist kein Musk…”
    “Dein Gehirn ist wie ein Muskel… hier steht auf meiner App”
  • “Why weren’t you at German class yesterday?”
    “I have a pulled/strained brain… too much exercise, probably.”
    “The brain is not a musc…”
    “The brain is like a muscle… here, it’s written on my app.”

And you’ll most certainly see verzerren in some context, which is in essence about “pulling” something out of shape.

  • Mit verzerrtem Gesicht kostet Maria Chads Suppe.
  • With a distorted face, Maria tries Chad’s soup.
    (she pulls her face into a grimace because the soup is not very good. The abs, though… the abs.)
  • Doping verzerrt den Wettbewerb.
  • Doping skews/distorts the competition.
  • Die Medien geben oft Dinge verzerrt wieder.
  • The media often represents things in a skewed/twisted/distorted way.

Another member of the family that you might see sooner or later is der Zorn, which means anger. Like… very similar to English torn when you think about it, just that you channel the suffering into anger. Or actually, let’s call it wrath, because it sounds a bit more momentous than die Wut.

  • Marias Zorn ist wie ein Sommergewitter – heftig aber schnell vorbei.
  • Maria’s wrath/anger is like a summer storm – intense but over quickly.

Another word that might be related (though that is not entirely sure) is zart, which is German for tender.
And weirdly enough the word tender does itself come from a root that is about pulling and is connected to tendon and tension.
Just think of pulled pork, if you need a mental connection.

  • Das Fleisch ist sehr zart.
  • The meat is very tender.

And that brings us right over to the weirdest member of the family… the verb zehren.
Because zehren means something like… to feed on, to consume nutrition.
The verb itself is SUPER rare and you pretty much only see it in a few fairly fixed figurative phrasings…

  • Gegen Ende des Winters zehre ich von meinen Gute-Laune-Reserven.
  • Toward the end of winter, I feed on my good mood reserves.
  • “Wie gefällt dir die Oper?”
    “Es ist okay. Aber der Gesang zehrt an meinen Nerven.”
  • “How you like the opera?”
    “It’s okay, but the singing is “eating away at” my nerves.
    (some German use “zerrt” here, and that also makes sense… ripping on nerves)

But what you might hear is the verb verzehren, which is an overly technical term for eating and drinking.

  • Ich verzehre meine Pizza und gucke Netflix.
  • I eat my pizza and watch Netflix.
    (sounds funny/ironic… people only talk like that as a joke)

And what you will definitely see sooner or later, at least if you’re in German and you read signs and labels, is the noun der Verzehr, which is the consumption of food and drinks. And German doesn’t really have another option for that, at least not one that covers both eating AND drinking.

  • Der Verzehr von mitgebrachten Speisen und Getränken ist nicht erlaubt.
  • The consumption of brought in food and drinks is not allowed.
  • Der Rinde des Käses ist nicht für den Verzehr geeignet.
  • The rind of the cheese is not suited for consumption.

And now the big question is of course… what does that have to do with any of the other words?
Well… just think of the tender pulled pork again, where you tear apart the meat to make it easier to eat. Or think of someone eating chicken wings… they’re literally tearing the meat from the bone.
Gee, that sounds quite savage actually.
But yeah… back a few thousand years, that was the normal way of eating and that’s how zehren got its meaning.

And I’m not sure if I feel hungry right now or not, but either way, that’s it for today :)
This was our look at the meaning of trennen and its surprising family members.
As usual, if you want to recap and test yourself, 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 **

trennen – to separate, to split
sich trennen von – to separate from, to split up with
die Trennung – the separation, the breakup
trennbar – separable
untrennbar – inseparable
unzertrennlich – inseparable (only for emotional bonds or similar connections)

zerren – to pull, to yank (implies a heavy object and a lot of force); to sprain (for muscles – “sich+Dat etwas zerren”)
die Zerrung – the sprained muscle
verzerren  – to distort, to skew, to deform
verzehren – to consume (A formal word for food and drinks only)
der Verzehr – the consumption (Sounds stiff but is practical because it covers food and drink in one word)
zart – tender, gentle
der Zorn – the anger, the wrath

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4 months ago

Hello. I am probably your most backward student but these posts tell me that I am actually making progress. I can read them without checking the translation!!! I have specific learning disabilities that make language study a real challenge, so this is encouraging. Love your teaching methods.

4 months ago

Hello! I am able to type this comment thanks to the generous members of this great community who paid extra to help the people who can’t pay. You guys are the best! I hope that I can be in your position and help this community one day. Thank you very much!

Last edited 4 months ago by safage
5 months ago

Emmanuel! Du musst eine Vollversion von den beiden Songs erstellen! Ich würde sie auf jeden Fall auf Spotify kaufen, It’s so catchy! (Btw does einprägsam work in place of catchy?)

5 months ago

Hi! Just wanted to say big, massive thanks to the administrators and the community for letting people without money learn German! It’s very generous and really helps! Thank you all for membership!

Mark L. Wakefield
Mark L. Wakefield
5 months ago

Eine kleine Korrektur –

“And most if not all of you know this…” 

Oder sogar “And most (if not all) of you know this…” 

anstatt “And most of not all of you know this…”

(Kann auch ein Tippfehler sein; “i” und “o” liegen aneinander)

Yours in mutual improvement!


5 months ago

Only a few typos trennen this article from perfection :)
“which sounds incredibly German, the way” (which sounds incredibly German, by the way)
In English, people sort trash… separate sounds wierd; recycle is right but more formal :)
“contexts that are mere about” (contexts that are merely about)
grimace (with a c, and that’s not an AE/BE issue)
“tearing the meat of the bone” (tearing the meat from the bone)

Ok, some of our friends here on the blog have already commented on paying separately and Thomas and Maria’s session…

Never thought trennen had so many “relatives” :)

Could you please explain the sentence “Die Medien geben oft Dinge verzerrt wieder”?
Why not verzerrte Dinge? If not, why not wieder verzerrt? The structure of this sentence is really confusing me…

Bis bald

5 months ago
Reply to  Elsa

On verzerrt, you’re getting thrown off by the lack of differentiation between adjectives and adverbs. In that sentence, it’s an adverb: the media “geben oft Dinge verzerrtly wieder” – does that make sense? So it’s not the things themselves that are distorted, it’s how they’re being presented or communicated.

Oh, and wiedergeben is one verb there, that’s why the wieder wouldn’t be placed differently – it’s the prefix.

5 months ago

I think, all you need is the adverb form in translations. E.g.when asking whether people are paying together or separately or when people are asked something separately from each other.

5 months ago
Reply to  Anna

People come together at a restaurant, but each will pay for his or her dish at the end: this is called “going Dutch”, if I allow myself to refer to it.

5 months ago

Oh wow. Dieses Artikel ist so cool. Meinen Freund und mich haben uns getrennt heute und ich könnte es kaum glauben, dass German is Easy hat so ein passendes Thema für den Tag!

5 months ago

Es tut mir leid, aber dieser Satz ist ein bisschen unsinnig: The couple’s therapist questions Thomas and Maria separate from one another.
Vielleicht, The couple’s therapist questions (whether/if/that) Thomas and Maria (should?) separate from one another.
Ich denke, wenn Sie question als Verb verwenden, brauchen Sie eine Art – ?Konjunktion? – wenn der Satz ein anderes Verb enthält. Mit das Wort should, es klingt einfach besser. Ich weiß nicht warum.

Abseits des Themas- I just came across blöd/stupid, and I was wondering if blöd had anything to do with the Britishism bloody. It seems to be used in a similar manner.

Genießen Sie Ihr tolles Wetter!

5 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Just “separately” in that case – the “from one another” is kind of built-in.

5 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Maria and Thomas spoken to separately. That is how I read it. However, the context does add confusion since they might be ‘separating’ themselves. Perhaps a better example would be if the police questioned the two subjects separately.

5 months ago
Reply to  RuthE

Doch, es geht auch in Englisch. Eine Googlesuche nach “questioned the suspect” ergibt 636,000 Ergebnisse.

5 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ahh, alles klar. To me your sentence read as intended, so I didn’t understand she was understanding “separate” as a verb. Sorry!!

5 months ago

Hallo Emanuel und Menschen,

Vielen Dank, dass Sie mir bei den Mitgliedsbeiträgen helfen. Ich werde jetzt viel Deutsch lernen können. Ich kann nicht warten!


Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
5 months ago

Hello Lieber Emanuel,
Herzlichen Dank für diesen hilfreichen Artikel über das Verb trennen .
Ich habe es viel über etymologie der Wörtern gelernt ins Deutsche als auch ins Englische !
Bis Bald

ozyy ozzy
ozyy ozzy
5 months ago
Reply to  Ahmad Mazaheri

danke schön füf Ihre hilfe , gott sei dank ,es gibt noch gute menschen