Monday, June 18, 2007


Separable verbs

German has a concept of “separable verbs”, something that often puzzles me — not conceptually, but certainly in practice. For instance, they have the verb “abfahren”, to drive off/away (as in a car). When it's used by itself, as in “Let's drive off!”, it's likely to stay that way: “Wir abfahren!” But in something more involved, it's separated: “Wir fahren in den Sonnenuntergang ab.” (We're driving off into the sunset.) It's possible for the bit in the middle to become arbitratily long and complicated, and yet one still has to remember to stick the part that got separated (the “ab”, here) on at the end of the phrase. There are lots of these verbs in German: ankommen, ausgehen, and so on.

But here's the thing: we have some in English too, only we don't think about them much. Except when we get something like this headline in yesterday's New York Times: “Abbas Swears In Emergency Cabinet

Now, I don't know about you, and maybe it just says something about where my mind is, but I first read that to mean that Mr Abbas went to the emergency cabinet meeting and said a bunch of bad words.

Really, of course, “to swear in” is a separable verb, and when it's used in this context we should separate it. We don't say, “Mr Abbas swears in the cabinet,” but instead, “Mr Abbas swears the cabinet in.” And that is unambiguous and clear.

Of course, using another separable verb, it could have happened that he'd cursed the cabinet out. But that's a different thing entirely.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Absolutely. English has permanently separated the separable prefix.

You can tell it used to be a prefix though if the pronoun object has to precede it - your "swear it in" or "turn it on" which are very different from "swear in it" or "turn on it". And there are others, like "up", that only work as 'prefixes': put up it? bind up it? They're not even possible with any meaning.

Where we get in trouble is insisting that these things are prepositions and that you can't end a sentence with them. They aren't prepositions, they just look like them. "Come in!" is perfectly valid - we just don't call the infinitive "incomen" any longer.

The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - noun subjects can go either place (before the prefix or after it). Before eliminates the ambiguity.

Isn't it funny how so many Indo-European languages treat pronoun and noun objects differently?