German Language Blog

Misleading German Verbs Posted by on Apr 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

Guten Tag! A while ago a blog reader called Michael sent this comment in: “an idea for a post… My knowledge of simple vocabulary sometimes lets me guess correctly at more complicated words. Halten/hold. Erhalten/receive. But sometimes knowing the basic word leads you down the wrong path. Erfahren is not about “to drive,” nor aufhören about listening. MIght be interesting to explore when the build-up of basic vocabulary leads to obvious or surprising places.”

I am sure we are all aware of the ‘false friends’ we have between German and English, such as the German word rot meaning red when an English speaker would assume it means to rot (decay). Or the German word die Lust (enthusiasm) which, although it has the same spelling, does not have the same meaning as the English word lust (sexual passion). But what about this alternative kind of ‘false friend’ Michael mentions, where German words that look as though they’re related have completely different meanings? This most often happens when prefixes are added to German verbs. I’ve tried to find as many as possible to list here, but if you know of any more, let me know in the comments and I will add them to this post!

For more on German prefixes, click here and here.

For more on German/English false friends, click here and here.




brauchen – to need
missbrauchen – to abuse/misuse

Ich brauche meine Jacke – I need my jacket
Er missbraucht sie – He abuses her



brechen – to break
erbrechen – to vomit

Wer wird dein Herz brechen? – Who will break your heart?
Ich muss erbrechen – I need to vomit

Broken Heart Grunge

Use the verb brechen (to break) to describe a broken heart … But add ‘er’ onto that verb to make ‘erbrechen’, and you’re talking about something else altogether! Photo by Nicolas Raymond on under a CC license (CC BY 2.0)


bringen – to bring
umbringen – to kill

Ich bringe meine Tasche – I’ll bring my bag
Ich bringe sie um – I’ll kill her


fahren – to drive
erfahren – to experience

Wir fahren nach London – We’re driving to London
Ich habe so viel erfahren – I experienced so much


fehlen – to miss/lack
empfehlen – to recommend

sie fehlen mir – I miss them
Kannst du mir etwas empfehlen? – Could you recommend something to me?


geben – to give
zugeben – to admit/confess

Kannst du mir es geben? – Can you give me it?
Du musst zugeben, dass ich gut aussehe! – You have to admit, I look good!

hören – to hear
aufhören – to stop

Ich kann es nicht hören – I can’t hear it
Ich kann es nicht aufhören – I can’t stop (doing) it


kaufen – to buy
verkaufen – to sell

Ich muss es kaufen – I must buy it
Ich muss es verkaufen – I must sell it
(Be very careful with these two! 😉 )


kommen – to come
bekommen – to receive/get

Wir kommen bald – We’re coming soon
Was hast du zu Weihnachten bekommen? – What did you get (receive) for Christmas?


lassen – to leave (alone)
zulassen – to allow/authorise

Lass mich in ruhe – Leave me in peace
Dass kann ich nicht zulassen – I can’t allow/authorise that.



reisen – to travel
zerreißen – to rip up

Ich will reisen – I want to travel
Ich will es zerreißen – I want to tear it up
(One letter difference with the ß – double s – rather than single s, but could still confuse)


sagen – to say
versagen – to fail/malfunction

Sie sagt immer, was sie denkt – She always says what she thinks
‘Versuchen ist der erste Schritt zum Versagen’ – ‘Trying is the first step to failure’ (funny saying; note Versagen is capitalised because it is a noun here)


sprechen – to speak
versprechen – to promise

Wir sprechen Deutsch – We speak German
Ich verspreche dir – I promise you


tragen – to carry
vertragen – to tolerate

Kannst du die Tasche bitte tragen? – Can you please carry the bag?
Ich kann dieses Verhalten nicht vertragen! – I cannot tolerate this behaviour!


Bis bald – and Michael, if you’re reading, I hope this helps you!


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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.


  1. Allan Mahnke:

    How about ertrinken/betrinken, for some reason usually used in the past participle?


      @Allan Mahnke what about


      Zahlen bezahlen erzählen

      Bringen umbringen

      Schade scheide

      Stehen verstehen

  2. Michael Quinlan:

    Yes, helpful. Thanks. As my vocabuary increases, I find I often get to the point with certain verbs where the ver-, ent-, auf-, aus-, ab- etc. can get confused in my mind, and I become uncertain about words I once knew. — Michael.

    • Constanze:

      @Michael Quinlan So glad you saw the post! The prefixes definitely make things trickier. I’ve added links to previous posts on prefixes to help you out, but maybe I’ll write some new posts on them as a refresher, or cover things Sandra didn’t cover in hers. x

  3. Andrew J.:

    Many thanks, Constanze
    This post was very helpful. I oftentimes get confused with verbs like the ones explained above and have to stop reading and look them up.

    • Constanze:

      @Andrew J. Really pleased you found it helpful, Andrew! 🙂

  4. Dot:

    Really useful – thanks! Just enough verbs to learn, and some very important differences!

    • Constanze:

      @Dot Glad you find it helpful, Dot!

  5. Evan:

    Or my favorite.
    Bringen – to bring
    Umbringen – to kill

    • Constanze:

      @Evan This is a fantastic one, Evan! I’ll add it to the post.