Thinking about Non-Separable Prefixes

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the third and final part of our general look at prefix verbs.
In part one (which you can find here) we found out that the concept of adding a syllable to the beginning of a verb goes all the way back to Indo-European and we’ve learned that the grand theme of prefixes across most European languages is adding a sense of goal or destination.
In the second part (which you can find here), we then talked about the infamous German separable prefix verbs and learned about their close relations to English phrasal verbs.
And today, we’ll focus on

Non-Separable Prefixes

In part two, we actually already mentioned a few non-separable prefix verbs like understand, overcome or bypass, where the prefix is basically a preopistion that got stuck to the verb.
But unless you’re a complete beginner in German, you’ll know that there’s another kind of prefixes, which we could call pure prefixes. I’m talking of course about ver- and be- and the like; the ones that are not a word on their own.
That’s where we’ll start our journey today.
And just to make sure… it’s really a journey. Because as usual in this series, it’s meant as a nice little stroll through the fascinating world of language in general. We’ll get off the path here and there and enjoy the (in)sights.
It’s not a straight to the point practical prefix survival guide. Just felt like mentioning that so you don’t have wrong expectations :).
Anway, so let’s start our journey with the German “pure prefixes” and their big secret, which is…

… they actually were words on their own.
Yeah… many of you probably suspected this :).
Those prefixes were words, too, but generations of speakers have washed over them like water over a rock and smoothed them out.
That’s a natural process in language.
You see, speaking is actually quite complex and exhausting. We have all felt it when drunk or while trying to say something in a foreign language. The amount of muscle coordination in mouth and throat is pretty insane actually. We’re really really trained in out mother tongue, but still we try to make it as efficient as possible and whenever we can get away with halfassing it we’ll do it.
This happens in every language, but it’s especially strong in languages that have a strong difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.
Each word has a “main” syllable that carries the main stress. This emphasis can be achieved by pitch, loudness or length or a combination of them.
And what matters is that the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables, especially within a word, is pretty strong in German and English. Much stronger than in Spanish or Italian for instance.
I don’t have any data on this but my guess would be that the stressed syllables account for like two thirds of the recognition with context pitching in another 10-15%. The unstressed syllables really don’t matter all that much and often their contribution is rhythm.

  • I ate a baNAna.

Go ahead and try to say bunanor instead of banana. As long as the na-part has the main emphasis, you will most likely be understood.
And because in languages with a strong word accent, the unstressed syllables don’t matter all that much, speakers can save a LOT of effort on those – be it by slight modifications that make them easier to pronounce.
That’s how English got rid of most of the verb and case endings it once had, and we can actually kind of observe the same in German.

  • Ich habe einen Kaffee getrunken. (how it’s spelled)
  • Ich hab’ ein’n Kaffee getrunk’ng. (how I say it)

And now we get right back to non-separable prefixes. If you look at verbs like overcome or understand, you can see that the main emphasis is NOT on the prefix. And thus, it’s exposed to the same “force of lazy” as the endings. And the perfect example in English is the verb to forgive.
It is spelled with an “o”, and if someone enunciates really clearly, it does sound like an “o”, too. But in normal everyday speech it trends more toward this “ə” sound (like in men for example)because that’s just easier to say. For “o” we’d have to get off the couch and actually round our lips, while for “ə” we just have to open our mouth enough to put some more chips inside.
And that’s pretty much how ver-, be-, ent-, zer- and er- came about.
They’ve been fixed prefixes for a looong time and they got smoothed so much that they’re not recognizable anymore.
Here’s a little overview with there non-modified counterparts/origins

  • ver- : vor, für, pro, per
  • ent- : anti, in
  • be-   : bei
  • er-   : ur (which relates to out)
  • zer- : zwei+ur

Old English actually had a few of those, too, but it did away with them, just as it did with most of its endings. English is efficient like that. One of them has survived though:  be-. It’s by far not as common as the German version, but there are plenty of examples to be found, among them several really common ones like behave, begin, behold or become.
Now, looking at these four examples, it’s almost impossible to find a common theme for the prefix or connect it to its origin by. That’s simply because those prefix verbs have been around for a LONG time and the meanings have drifted.
And it’s no different in German. If you look at various verbs for ver- for instance, there seems to be no consistency, no theme to them.
Yet, there is. If you look at the little overview again, you can see that they all carry a directional quality – forth/forward, inward, against/toward, by/around, outward and … well… “in two”-ward.
The key is to understand in what abstract way(s) that this vague directional idea got twisted. Which is what we’ll do in separate articles and in the book I am working on. Because yes, we need to do quite an intense amount of mind yoga for some of the verbs.
But if you think these German prefixes are the pinnacle of twisted and difficult, then you’re wrong.
There’s worse.

Prefixes in Slavic languages

Slavic languages like Russian, Bulgarian or Polish also belong to the Indo-European family, and like all members they do have prefixes.
Russian has 16 to be exact. They’re different from the German ones and they look a bit more divers. There’s na- and po- and iz- and raz- and ob-, for instance. But they’re all non-separable and about 10 of them are  “pure prefixes”, meaning that they’re NOT also a word on their own.
And what do they express?
Well, they fit right in with the grand theme of prefixes. They all lend a sense of direction or goal to the verb and that can be super literal but it can also be super twisted and abstract.
Let’s look at a couple examples, actually. I’m gonna use Bulgarian here, because I know that a little better than Russian. Which isn’t saying much… I mean… I’m really a beginner.
Anyway.. take the noun izhod for example. It’s the word for der Ausgang, the exit. The prefix iz- expresses a notion of outward, leaving and the stem -hod means going. Perfectly literal, makes perfect sense.
The verb izhoshdam however, actually means to assume, to presume. Which makes NO sense to an English speaker. But it might make sense to a German learner because German has ausgehen von.
There’s a figurative point from which you go on your mental adventure, if you will.
Or take kazvam, which means to say.
Combined with the raz-prefix, which expresses the idea of “in various directions“, we get the verb razkazvam, which means to tell a story.
This one doesn’t have a direct German counterpart, but I hope you can see that in essence you’re dealing with the exact same stuff. You have a base verb, modified by a prefix and that modification can be super logical or super twisted.
And it’s actually worse in Slavic languages, because many of them really care about a thing called aspect.
Do you remember the distinction we talked about in part one, between actions that have an inherent end-point and actions that don’t?
Well, aspect is kind of sort of about that. And Slavic verbs often come in pairs.
I just told you that the verb kazvam means to say in Bulgarian. But that’s only half of the pair. The other half is kazha and it depends on what you’re saying.

  • I say something.               – (Az) kazvam neshto.
  • I want to say something. – (Az) iskam da kazha neshto.

The first one is perfective, so it has a built-in end, the second one is imperfective and just refers to the action in general.
If you don’t really understand that, don’t worry. I don’t fully get it either, because German doesn’t care much about aspect.
The reason I brought it up is that Bulgarian and other Slavic languages often use certain prefixes to create these pairs. The perfect example is pravjanapravja which mean to make. And the prefix na- here means… nothing. It’s just a grammar thing that you have to add in certain contexts.
Na- is not the only prefix used that way, so there’s more confusion.
And in other combos, na- CAN actually mean something, which makes for even more confusion.
And there is even more more more confusion because there are verbs like pischa (to write) where the na-version napisvam (which also means to write) is NOT just the perfective counter to pischa, but instead has its own counter  napischaWhich also means to write.


So yeah, in comparison to this German prefixes are actually not that bad.
I’m actually curious how speakers of Slavic languages feel about the German prefix verbs. Do you find them particularly difficult or are they rather familiar, just with different notions. Please leave a comment below, I’d really love to hear your thoughts.
Now, we’ve talked about prefixes in German and also about prefixes in Slavic languages.
What we haven’t talked about yet are prefixes in the other big important branch of the languages of Europe – the languages that are based on Latin. And we don’t have to look at Spanish or French to do that.
We can turn right to English.

Non-Separable prefixes in English

We’ve already seen some examples for English prefix verbs like to understand, to overcome or to behave.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
English is at its core a Germanic language. But what’s now England and Wales was once part of the Roman empire. And a thousand years later, it was ruled by French dukes and counts for hundreds of years. And so a lot of its vocabulary is based on Latin. Latin was a HUGE fan of prefix verbs and many of them are an integral part of everyday English.
Here are some examples…

  • induce, produce, conduct, reduce, abduct, obduct, deduce, seduce
  • inject, subject, object, eject, rejectproject
  • insist, desist, assist, persist, exist, consist

There are many more such examples. And it’s not just verbs either.

  • envious, obvious, pervious, previous, devious

Have you ever though of those as prefix versions of one base? I bet, you haven’t.
The reason why prefixes don’t really seem to be a thing in English or Spanish or French is the simple fact that we don’t recognize a base anymore.
You see, in German we have stellen, which has a meaning, and then we see bestellen and verstellen and ausstellen and all the others with all their various meanings and we’re like “What is going on with these verbs and these prefixes… it’s so confusing?”

But that doesn’t happen in English.  ject or duce or sist mean nothing to us and we can’t connect them to anything. And so even if we notice the similarity between subject and project, we don’t think much about it.
But as soon as you know the meaning of the base, you realize that these are EXACTLY like German non-separable prefix verbs. A base verb with a prefix that adds a sense of direction… and then twisted beyond belief.
It’s actually quite fun to do that, so let’s do one example together. We’ll take the base ject.
Ject comes from the Latin verb iacere which meant to throw.
And now let’s see what we can do if we don’t get too hung up on the whole and think of it as placing/put instead:

  • inject    – “place inward” a liquid/substance
  • reject    – “place back” something that’s offered
  • project  – “place forth” an idea
  • object   – “place near” a verb, a beholder
  • subject – “place below” a debate or paper or king

Now you might be like “Dude, these barely make any sense.” but that’s exactly my point.
We have to do just as much mind yoga for those, as we have to do for, say, bestellen, verstellen, anstellen and abstellen because in essence it’s just like Buddha said:

It’s all the same stuff!

And that was kind of the main purpose of this mini-series. I wanted to show you that prefix verbs are more familiar to you than you think. I wanted to show you, that they all work the same, more or less – a base verb  with a directional idea, in all levels of twisted.
And there’s actually a great power in them that you can harness. If you put in the work to build a good, BLURRY idea of the directional quality a prefix has and how it’s being bent, you can create a mental image for many of the meanings you’ll encounter.
Take to reject. If you were to learn English, you could think of someone throwing a present back at someone else.

Often, books and teachers tell you that for many prefix verbs you just have to learn them, because there’s no logic. Or they give you a list of four or five things that a prefix can express. But if you actually put in the time and effort to understand what’s at the core of these four or five things, to understand the directional quality that’s at the core and how it got modified, then you’ll slowly become able to sort of “swim” within prefix verbs with ease.
No, you won’t always be able to guess them and no, not every verb will make sense. But you won’t feel lost and confused.

And that’s pretty much it. This was out little mini series on prefix verbs in general and I really hope you enjoyed our little tour through the languages of Europe. If you’re pumped now, and you want to find out more about German prefixes, you can read one of the articles I’ll link below. Or you wait, till I finish the book about them. This mini series will be part of the introduction (with edits of course) and not only will we discuss all pure prefixes in detail, we’ll also go over like 300 of the most important verbs and words with them and see if there is some logic.
I don’t know how long it’ll take but as you can see here… I am working on it :). I really want this finished, it’s more than time.
Anyway, I really hope you liked this series.  Let me know all your feedback and questions in the comments. Has your perspective on prefixes changed now? Are they a little less intimidating? Can’t wait to read your thoughts.
Have a great week and bis zum nächsten Mal.

further reading:

German Prefixes Explained – “ver-“
German Prefixes Explained – “be-“
German Prefixes Explained – “um-“

German Prepositions Explained – “auf”
German Prepositions Explained – “vor”

for members :)

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Jeter = French to throw
The French kindly invaded England in 1066 and hung around for a century or three
Injecting their latin based French into the English language
We thanked them by claiming part of France
Until the English were thrown out

Now the stupid English (of whom I am deeply ashamed to be one) have left Europe
How could we reject such a wonderful continent with all its culture?
My deepest apology. I am dejected.


I am too!!!! By contributing to ensuring Brexit would effectively happen, the Welsh (of whom I am now deeply ashamed to be one) have now made me a non-EU citizen :((((((((((((((((((((((((


Really we’re still living under Norman occupation, as they never left. Of course “the French” were really Vikings who were probably closely related to the Anglo Saxons anyway and it’s all horribly incestuous. One of the lies of Brexiteers is that our history is separate from mainland Europe… no it isn’t!

This Engländer moved to Germany, and thanks to the final extension I arrived as an EU citizen, even though I’m not one anymore. ;-(


I totally agree. I’ve lived in Switzerland for most of my life but am still a Brit, but one who’s also ashamed since 31. January


Not as ashamed as American Citizens with Trump as President:(


Not that you don’t already know, but English cares a lot more about aspect than German does too. :)

It obviously works differently, but there’s at least an analogy to the “kazvam/kazha” distinction:

– I am saying something.
– I want to say something.

The infinitive with “to” definitely feels (I think I’m right to say) perfective, like it refers to a complete action of saying. You could absolutely also say “I want to be saying something” – but it would mean something different from “want to say.”

By the way, the schwa in “forgive” is actually the dictionary pronunciation. “Fore-give” is just not correct – you might say it that way to help somebody spell it or recognize the word, but “fer-GIVE” is the actual pronunciation. I think that’s one of the big challenges for native English speakers in learning good German pronunciation; our mouths really, really want to turn almost any non-stressed vowel into a schwa, but German does that way less.

For example, I always struggle to say “Organisation” in German, because you really have to say “or-gah-nee-zah-TSYOHN.” As opposed to AE, where it’s “or-g’-n’-ZAY-shn.” Maybe “or-g’-nye-ZAY-shn” if you’re really making an effort.


Let’s correct some typos:
“whereever” (wherever, but actually whenever would be a better choice)
“just as it did with most of its ending” (endings; Non-plural February?)
“they look at bit more divers” (a bit more diverse – is that what you were trying to say?)
“Well, fit right in” (Well, they fit right in)
“built in end” (built-in)
“or is it rather familiar, just with different notions” (or are they rather familiar, just with different notions?)
“Buddah” (Buddha)
“mini series” (mini-series or miniseries, both work – you have this one a few times throughout the article)
“you could of someone throwing” (you could think of someone throwing)
“and how it gt modified” (gets modified)

Thanks for these articles! My perspective on prefixes has indeed changed and yes, they now seem less intimidating. I believe now than once I understand the general meaning of prefixes (and I’m really counting on your book to help me), most prefix verbs will be easier to grasp, which will will definitely shorten the task of getting their meanings. That’s a lot easier than trying to memorise them all (that will be left for the much smaller list of prefix verbs that got sooooo twisted they’re completely impossible to recognise or understand anymore, i.e. where it’s more about mind contortionism than mind yoga).

One question though: does the prefix “ueber” fall into this category (as in, for instance, uebergeben or uebersetzen)?

Thank you again and bis bald!


German prefix verbs are huge source of fun. Bless them.

Some of them are dead-on literal counterparts of the Russian prefix verbs (and their substantive derivatives, too).
stellen=stavit, vor=pred, vor-stellen — pred-stavit.
aus=vy. aus-stellen=vy-stavit, Aus-stellung=vy-stavka.
Wanna add some reflexiveness? Just do it: sich — sebe, -sya. Sich vorstellen — predstavit sebe (imagine)/ predstavit-sya (introduce oneself).

Of those beginners’ friends some are word part-by-word part translations from German, some are just the coincidental result of the similar word formation (Wort-bild-ung/Slovo-obraz-ovanie), and some are translated from Latin, while Germans did the same translation: the Latin “President” is literally “in-front-sit-ting”, both Russians and Germans tried to translate it, getting Vor-sitz-end(er) and Pred-sed-atel, but in the end both borrowed the ‘president’ as well.

Of course, lots of German prefix verbs have no Russian counterparts and vice versa. But would it really be fun if they were all the same?


Jetzt habe ich weniger Angst aus Präfixe und trennbaren Verbs!!
Bis zum nächsten Mal.


Sehr erleuchtend, ich habe nie die Ähnlichkeiten zwischen der deutschen und der lateinischen Vorsilbe bemerkt!


Great Article.

One slip though.


Non-Separable prefixes in English Section has this written in it.

There are many more such examples. And it’s not just verbs either.

envious, obvious, pervious, previous, devious

You wrote Pervious twice.

Cannot wait for what’s to come

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri

I really enjoyed reading the last three articles about prefixes, especially the last one.
I have never thought that ver with zwei and ent with anti/dis /de are related ! I’m now a bit more vertraut with inseperables prefixes . But I haven’t the same feeling about seperable prefixes .
Vielen dank .
You explained the aspect in Slavic languages by using differents inseparables prefixes . It seems to be a
universal trend in Indo- Europeen languages . They tend to act for an end results. ( Telic or Atelics )
I take an example in French verbs :
Dormir :to sleep It’s a static aspect as an infinitive .
Endormir: start to sleep someone . It’s an ichoatif aspect
S’endormir: start to sleep oneself
It’s the same modal aspects in Persian language . Take an example
Raftan: رفتن ، to go
Forouraftan: فرورفتن ، eingehen , hier forou is a prefixes.
You see the last sylable is like EN in German verbs or EIN in Greek verbs.
Voilà. That ‘s it .


The en in enjoy isn’t a verb prefix as there is no verb “to joy.“ Now, it is a prefix wrt enjoin, entangle, ensnare, etc.

In enjoy the en is a prefix that turns a noun into a verb. We also add ize or ise suffixes to turn nouns into verbs.

Enverben or verbize.


Joy can be used as a verb meaning to take pleasure or delight in something. For example, you could joy in the knowledge that a loved one is marrying their soulmate. That’s a fairly archaic use, but it’s grammatically correct and might still be used in certain types of literature.

Enjoy and rejoice are closely related. The ‘en’ has a sense of bringing in or making, thus the definition of taking pleasure or delight in – same as ‘joy’ (which, when used as a verb, would always come as a phrase ‘joy in’). The ‘re’ of course means ‘again,’ so rejoice is essentially doubling down on the joy. So it’s the strongest of the 3 words, but also somewhat archaic. I’m a literature nerd though, so it’s interesting to see the different meanings of these words in Shakespeare and the like.


Habakkuk 3:18 KJV. :)


Yep! I’m fairly new to this site but I’ve been catching up on older articles. I’ve seen your name here and there in the comments and I always find yours interesting :)


The link to the prefix ‘auf’ comes up as ‘vor’. You may have put the ‘vor’ prefix article under ‘auf’ as well as ‘vor’ by mistake, unless my laptop is playing funny games.
Just joined up and yes, great insight and quite fascinating! Some very creative comments too!


Shame because post WW2 France and Germany reconciled after centuries of hostility setting the stage for decades of peaceful cooperation among so many EU countries … UK governments failed that test with half-hearted support at best and finally betrayed the cause of peace by leaving Europe. The referendum appealed to base motives … in many cases to anti immigrant racism and anti European sentiments. Members of my own family and many friends embraced British “superiority”. I am ashamed of that.

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri

Hello Roger
Que je suis heureux que vous êtes parmis nous .
Quand à Brexit et Brexitiers, on n’est pas à la fin d’histoire .
Bojo et acolytes ne serons pas toujours là. La paix et la solidarité gagnerons de nouveau . Rira bien celui qui rira le dernier .
Keep hope alive.

Speak Like Yohdah
Speak Like Yohdah

My shortcut for “ver”: I think of it as “to become”.

Since kaufen = to buy, verkaufen= to become bought, i.e. to sell.
Likewise lieben = to love, verlieben = to become loved, i.e. to fall in love.
It’s not foolproof but it gets me “halb Miete” [halfway there] many times when I am forced to guess the meaning.

This series of prefixes has helped me a LOT, thank you for writing it. I’m starting to get an intuitive feeling for many of the separable verbs.

P.S. the above link to “German Prefixes Explained: “auf” ” is mistakenly linking to the “vor” explanation.


As a native Russian speaker (and a quite fluent English one) I personally find it sometimes rather confusing how the meaning of the root in German changes because of the prefix. Some words are easier to remember (‘cuz they have quite the literal translation to Russian, for example, even with the similar prefix), others are just a pure pain. Take, for example, “nehmen” – original “to take”, then you have “Aufnahme” – “recording” (oookay?..), “Ausnahme” – “exception”, and, all of a sudden, “Annahme” with the meaning of “assumption” (and yes, in Russian it would be four different words as well). *sounds of burning brain cells*

Russian has a hell of a grammar (I would say, not even all the native speakers can speak or write it absolutely correctly), but somehow I can’t that easily remember an example of such a mind-blowing word formation. Or maybe I’ve just naturally got used to it. :)

Speak Like Yohdah
Speak Like Yohdah

Lisio, I get tripped up on those “nehmen” and “Nahme” variations, too, and I have lots of strange ways of remembering them.

I think of “auf” as “up” or “upward”. For aufnehmen, literally “upward + to take”, I think about being a big fan of a hobby, knitting for example. In English we sometimes say, “I m ‘taking up’ knitting,” meaning I am choosing knitting as my new hobby. And because I’m so excited about knitting, I want to learn as much as possible about it, so I will record any television show I can find about it. So there’s the “to record” aspect, albeit at quite a stretch… but whatever works to get it into my brain, right?? And the spelling of nehmen with an “a” creates the noun form of the word, hence “die Aufnahme.”

Also, on signs outside of German hospitals, there are signs for “Notaufnahme”, or “emergency reception,” in other words the “A&E” or “Emergency Room” section of the building. The reception desk [or intake and admittance] process in person evolves in my mind to reception on my television or radio, which can also be stretched to recording an image [hence, a photograph] and/or recording some sound or video. That helps the wider meanings of “die Aufname” stay clear in my mind.

For “die Ausnahme”: I go to the verb form “ausnehmen” and see it literally as “outward + to take.” I think of many movies I have watched, where the funny mistakes [also known as ‘bloopers’ or ‘out-takes’] are shown only during the credits. So an “out-take” is an “exception.”

For “die Annahme”: I go to the verb form “annehmen” and see it literally as “next to me + to take.” An idea of somebody or something moving close to me and staying there. Hence ‘adoption’, to take a child next to me and make them part of my family. And ‘assumption’, to take my ideas of the world and hold them tight to me. ‘Acceptance’ and ‘receiving”: willingly taking a person or thing into my group or environment.

Yes, I promised my methods were strange… but whatever works to get the concepts into your own brain is the right way to memorize it!

I’m fairly new to this blogsite, so some of these ideas might already be discussed elsewhere.


Could you make a list of noun suffixes from verb roots? Such as kommen – Kunft, liegen – Lage, schreiben – Schrift? I couldn’t find such a list anywhere in the web and someone could really use it.


AT , you can enter wildcard for a prefix slot – for example*nehmen


A Russian native learning German on top of English here. Well, I perceive German prefixes as totally equivalent to what we have in Russian, apart from the separation story which still feels a bit weird but I become more and more able to get the yet-unsaid prefix before it is actually said. Double prefixes are pretty natural for me too, like, for example, in the word “подвыгореть”, where “под” prefix adds the sense of incompleteness.


Hi Emanuel, the team and members – thank you so much for granting my access to the membership. I am truly appreciated by your kindness!! Viele Grüße aus Vietnam – Trung


Hi, I’m a highschool student from Turkey, I just want to thank Emanuel and all the people who’ve provided me this sponsored membership by heart. I wouldn’t afford it because foreign currency is really really high here. So I sent an e-mail and then he offered me a one-year membership. This was truly beyond my expectations, I really thank you. And I’d like to do the same when I can to the ones who cannot.

JC Gadler
JC Gadler

Looking forward for your book. thanks.


Hey, ich liebe deinen Blog. Ich komme aus Bulgarien. Mir gefällt es besonders hier, dass du mit Bulgarisch verglichen hast. Dein Blog hilft mir mein Deutsch zu verbessern und gleichzeitig mein Englisch nicht zu verlernen. Weiter so!


Prefix verbs don‘t really bother me – I don‘t see the problem if one learns them like vocab. Then they just become part of my language.

This being said, I found it impossible to know what prefix to use to change the meaning of the same verb stem. The more German I study, the more German books I read, the easier that becomes – one gets a „feeling“
for the prefixes. That is not to say I always choose the right prefix, bit seriously, I see prefix verbs just as vocab now.

WHAT DOES DRIVE ME NUTS, is not knowing which of the separable prefixes are non-separable.

Fahren über.
Setze über

Ok, perhaps we all know that translate is never late trans, but you get the picture. I really need to find a way to know when a separable prefix stays attached.