The German Prefix “um-” Explained

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. (And for those of you using night mode… I know it’s hard to read, this article was from before I had night mode and I haven’t found a system yet to change the blue without changing every single entry. )
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
  • Ich hab’ mich seit 1 Jahr nicht umgezogen.
  • I haven’t changed clothes once in a year.

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 !!! :)

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“.
  • 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.

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.”
  • “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.”

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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Aruna Jabari
Aruna Jabari
8 days ago

How to use um to mean because of ( um das Wetter) and for as in ( ich bitte Sie um Geduld)

7 months ago

Hello! Long time reader first time commenter.
The double meaning makes some sense to me – in the unseperable ones the um is being applied to the verb and in the separable ones the um is being applied to the noun/thing being acted upon.
So – in “ich umfahre den Zaun” the “um” applies to the verb and we drive around.
But in “ich fahre den Zaun um” the “um” applies to the fence and the fence moves around (is knocked over).
This feels not too different than in English where I can move the “around” to say what it is applied to.
“I drive around the fence” – around is by the verb so is applied to it. My driving is changed by the “around”.
“I drive the fence around” – around is by the noun so is applied to it. I don’t drive over it, but I do move the fence (presumably in my car).
I hope this idea is interesting and not completely wrong :)
Thanks for the article.

1 year ago

 “ambhi … just eaten from different ends“
LOL, a vivid image in my head

2 years ago

Hallo Emmanuel
Ein sehr toller und aufschlußreicher Blog von dir! Das Präfix um ist sehr frustrierend zu beherrschen, und dein Blog trägt viel dabei.
Vielen Dank!

4 years ago

I just found your blog through searching about umkümmern. Wonderful style. I especially liked how you umschriebt “shi..” in the example for scheiben…um.

5 years ago

According to this:
Herumreichen = to hand sth. around, should be a non-seprabale verb. But the LEO dictionary actually says the opposite and says it is a separable verb. Am I getting this wrong or what?

5 years ago

How would I say “to plan around something”?
Also, ich will sagen dass es ein Termin gibt und “um diesen Termin” habe ich meine ganze Reise geplant. Geht das an?

6 years ago

Hi Emanuel! I suggest you a very nice verb:

umarmen – to hug

If I got it well, I like the idea of “get your arms around something” :)

8 years ago

Hmm, das, was ich da zu sagen versucht habe, ist kein spezifisches Wort, sondern eine Idee.

Parallelgesellschaften tragen sich zu, wenn bestimmte Gruppen jeglichen Kontakt mit den anderen Bewohnern einer Stadt umgehen- vielleicht wegen physikalischem oder kulturellem Distanz. In gewisser Hinsicht befinden sich diese Leute technisch oder abstrakt aus dem Stadtkreis. Sie umwohnen(?) oder umresidieren(?) die Stadt, auf die sie keine direkte Wirkung haben. (Umgehung durch das Wohnen)

Wenn bestimmte Gruppen jedoch der Stadt eine Änderung durch Interaktionen beibringen, haben wir das Schmelztiegel-Beispiel, das man in vielen US-Städten bemerken kann. Also würden diese Leute in diesem Fall die Stadt umgewohnt(?) oder umresidiert(?) haben. (Änderung durch das Wohnen)

So I do not know if my explanation in German made any sense, but I`m afraid I cannot do a much better job in English (perhaps except for fewer grammatical errors) because I do not have the words for what I`m experimenting to describe.

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Vielen Dank fürs Feedback! Deine Vorschläge finde ich sehr gut. Sie können sich außerdem als extrem nützlich erweisen, falls sie mir im mündlichen Teil meiner bald kommenden C1-Prüfung Fragen rund um die Themen Integration, Außenbezirke oder Single-Haushalt stellen würden.

Nochmals vielen dank für deine freundlichen Worte. Außerhalb des Klassenraums des Goethe-Instituts habe ich wenigere Möglichkeiten, die deutsche Sprache zu “erwerben” und was den Erwerb von Deutsch geht, betrachte ich dein Blog als die Heilige Schrift :d (Ich hoffe, dass der letzte Ausdruck da doch mal Sinn macht. Der hat übrigens, wie der Ausdruck das A(lpha) und O(mega), nichts direktes mit der Religion zu tun)

8 years ago
Reply to  Mehmet


8 years ago
Reply to  Mehmet

Hallo Emanuel. Ich wollte dir nur Bescheid geben, dass ich die Prüfung bestanden habe (ich habe sie letzte Woche gemacht). Die Themen der mündlichen Aufgaben waren die Förderung von Lesen unter den Jugendlichen und die Universitätsstädte. Vielen Dank noch einmal- dein Blog macht echt Spaß!

8 years ago

Vielen Dank, das war sehr deskriptiv! Here`s how I now make sense of the two different ums and herum:

Die Minderheit X umbevölkert die Stadt Y = Parallelgesellschaft

Die Minderheit X bevölkert die Stadt Y um = Schmelztiegel

Die Minderheit X bevölkert die Welt herum = Diaspora

Geht das?

9 years ago

Hello, dude!
First, I’d like to tell you it was an awesome work. I read this text when you posted it and I’m reading it again today just to fix the concepts. It turns out that I have a doubt about the UMschreiben. As you said, it implies a change, and this change is a ‘making-it-again’ change. So, I could say something like: “Dies Buch ist sehr gut! Deshalb möchte ich es umlesen.”? If I can do it, how do I differentiate between ‘read it again’ and ‘continue to read it’. Should I use in the last example “wieder lesen”? If it’s not how it works, so when should I use ‘um’ and when should I use ‘wieder’?

Thank you!

9 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Well, now I realize the mistakes in my thought. Thanks for explaining me!

9 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Hey there; just found out about your lovely blog. I started learning German two months ago (using ASSIMIL) and I love all those crazy details; the humor you add certainly is of a great help to keep away from depression though! So thanks a lot for your time. Also, UMlesen probably makes sense in quantum mechanics, where reading the state of a qbit (or electron) collapses its probabilistic state to a deterministic one, hence dramatically changes the thing being read. :-)

Oh, and I came here to find out about “um etwas bitten” — I couldn’t understand what was the meaning of that “um” in a sentence a German friend of mine translated: “Ich glaube dass du nicht getan hast um was ich dich gebeten habe”/”Ich glaube dass du dass worum ich dich gebeten habe nicht getan hast”, the um/worum really perplexed me. I’m still in the dark, but will patiently wait for a forthcoming article about that :-).

9 years ago

Nice article, I’m living since 2 years in Germany, and even had some courses, and can speak a bit, but I had no idea about the um :)
So I will continue reading.

Surprisingly, umziehen is quiet similar in Hungarian, clothes sense = öltözni, moving = költözni (one letter difference)

9 years ago

Yes i think it makes sense, Played around with the Vase to change the flower arrangement or some thing like that..

9 years ago

Ist das Wort umspielen trennbares oder nein? z.b. Wir umspielen etwas oder Wir spielen etwas um?

9 years ago

ohh, haha, remove these comments, I just saw that you added that at the end of your comment:)

9 years ago

so herum is the same as rum???

9 years ago

One verb that always seemed a bit strange to me is umbringen (to kill). Is there a rationale for the meaning of this word?

Also, love the site.

9 years ago

Great article. Have you done any explanations of “uebrigens” and/or “allerdings?” These two words confuse the heck out of me and you hear them all the time. Danke!

9 years ago

I just found your blog today. I’ve been learning German since March, and I’m getting to the point where I needed some insightful explanation. I think I’m really going to like this. Thank you!

9 years ago

Would that mean… umSCHLAAAAFen means to sleep around? ;)

Maria hat mit andere Männer umschlafen.

Just joking. Wonderful article as always!