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Dutch grammar

This page outlines the grammar of the Dutch language.

Word order

Structurally, Dutch is a V2 language, which means that the inflected verb is raised to the second position in the main clause. Word order is SVO in main clauses and SOV in subordinate clauses. Research has led to the general assumption that Dutch has an underlying SOV word order

Jan vertelde dat hij zijn moeder wilde gaan helpen
Jan told that he his mother wanted go.INF help.INF
`Jan said that he wanted to go help his mother.´

Inversion of the subject and verb is used in interrogative sentences:

Jij ging naar de winkel
You went to the store
`You went to the store´

Ging jij naar de winkel?
went you to the store
`Did you go to the store?´

It also occurs when the first phrase in a sentence is not its subject.

Here are some rules about where to place the words in a Dutch sentence:

rode appels - red apples

  • In statements, the subject always comes first or third and the auxiliary verb comes second. If there is no auxiliary verb, the main verb comes second. If there is a separable prefix, the prefix goes on the end of the sentence, as does the main verb (with separable prefix on the beginning of the verb) if there is an auxiliary verb.
  • In yes/no questions, the verb usually comes first and the subject comes second. If there is an auxiliary verb or separable prefix, it follows the same rules as the previous one outlined for putting parts on the end. If the subject comes before the verb, this often implies disbelief, like in English: "The prisoner escaped?" vs. "Did the prisoner escape?".
  • In a command, the verb comes first.
  • Time modifiers usually come before place modifiers:

Ik ben dit jaar naar Frankrijk geweest
I am this year to France been
`I went to France this year.´

Nouns

In Dutch, nouns generally describe persons, places, things, and abstract ideas, and are treated as grammatically distinct from verbs. Nouns are marked for number and size.

In standard Dutch (formerly known as Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands; General Civilized Dutch) there are three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. However in large parts of the Netherlands there is no grammatical distinction between what were originally masculine and feminine genders, these nowadays being adjectivally inflected in the same manner. In certain Belgian Dutch dialectal forms of standard Dutch however, the distinction between masculine and feminine noun genders survives with the use of pronouns. The gender of a word determines the articles used with it and the pronouns referring to it. Masculine and feminine nouns are usually collectively called de-words, and neuter nouns are called het-words, in accordance with the definite article used with them. Traditionally, pronouns used for masculine nouns are hij/hem/zijn, feminine zij/haar, neuter het/zijn. In the Netherlands, awareness of the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns disappeared in the 1600s, and using only masculine and neuter pronouns has become the standard in speech and writing. A few very commonly used nouns, such as "earth" and "sun" still take feminine gender in writing, but rather than this being a grammatical function, it is usually analyzed as a poetic function, in a similar way that English refers to "ship" with the pronoun "she". This goes so far that in the Netherlands a referent such as a cow is often referred to with he, even though the animal is biologically feminine.

For nouns ending in a strong syllable (including all monosyllabic words), the plural is formed by addition of -en. Exception to this rule are kinship terms broer ("brother") and oom ("uncle"). Several other rule-based changes in the word may take place at the same time: if a double vowel occurs in the final syllable of a word, it will become a single vowel as a result of the closed syllable becoming open (boot → boten), the sound itself is still the same: because the syllable becomes open, it is no longer necessary to write the vowel double; final consonants are often duplicated to preserve the short vowel sound (schil → schillen), and for words that end in /z/ and /v/ underlyingly, final -s and -f sounds are changed into -z- and -v- (huis → huizen, hoef → hoeven). A remnant of this pattern exists in English: dief - "thief", dieven, - "thieves". The usage of -s and -f in the orthography of the singular forms reflects final devoicing, which is not applicable in the plural forms. For nouns ending in a weak syllable, the plural is usually formed by addition of -s (or -'s, if the noun ends in a long vowel), with some exceptions. For a number of nouns of Latin origin, the Latin plural may be used (museum → musea, politicus → politici). Words ending in -heid get a plural in -heden. Some nouns, such as stad → steden and schip → schepen, have irregular plurals.

For proper nouns (names), possessive forms can be formed by addition of -s, or if the pronunciation is affected, by addition of -'s.

Genitive noun forms are essentially archaic and not part of common usage anymore. The only common exceptions of this are certain fixed expressions (e.g. "De dag des oordeels", "Judgement day"), and sometimes plural genitives in combination with the genitive form of the definite article, "der". In common usage of language, genitive forms are formed by usage of the word "van," in essentially the same way that "of" is used in English.

The adjective still forms a partive genitive after words that indicate a quantity, like wat,iets,veel:

veel liefs (a lot of love)
iets zoets (something sweet)

Archaic genitive forms may still appear in writing, where they are usually employed to make an article sound more "bookish" or academic. However, many writers are totally unaware of the historical distinction between masculine and neuter nouns in the genitive case (where the article is "des", the noun declines by taking an "-s" ending, and adjectives inflect by taking "-en" endings); and between feminine and plural nouns (where the article is der, nouns take zero endings and adjectives inflect by taking "-e" endings). Because of this, grammatically incorrect constructions can appear and using the genitive for this purpose is discouraged and generally seen as somewhat pompous.

For example, one might see a title such as:

De Geschiedenis Der Nederlandse Film
(The History GEN FEM-Dutch GEN FEM-Film)
The History of Dutch Film
‘Modern’ Dutch: De Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Film

where "Film" is declined as a feminine gender noun, and "Nederlandse" inflected likewise.

Written correctly, it should read:

De Geschiedenis Des Nederlandsen Films
(The History GEN MAS-Dutch GEN MAS-Film)
The History of Dutch Film
‘Modern’ Dutch: De Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Film

as "film" in Dutch is historically a masculine noun. Notwithstanding however, this formal use of the Genitive case, associated with bookishness and higher learning, probably persists as one tends to encounter it in institutions of higher learning. For example, all the faculties of the University of Leiden have names which are declined in the Genitive case.

Articles

Definite article

When referring to one particular person or item, the definite article is used, being de for masculine and feminine words and het for neuter words. A shortened, informal form for het is 't. In current usage, definite articles are unchangeable except in a few frozen combinations.

  • de man (the man)
  • de vrouw (the woman)
  • het huis (the house)

In plural forms the article de is used for all genders.

  • de mannen (the men)
  • de vrouwen (the women)
  • de huizen (the houses)

Indefinite article

The indefinite article is een for all genders, which has a shortened informal 'n. In plural, like in English, there is no indefinite article and the indefinite forms consist of nouns unaccompanied by any article. Except in a few frozen combinations the indefinite article is unchangeable for case.

  • een huis (a house)
  • huizen (houses)

Dutch has a negative indefinite article geen (no, not a, not any):

  • Ik heb geen bezwaar ("I have no objection")
  • Dit is geen huis ("This is not a house")
  • Er zijn geen huizen in deze straat ("There aren't any houses in this street")

Adjectives

Within the Dutch noun phrase, adjectives are placed in front of the noun and after the article (if present). In this position, most adjectives have a basic form (e.g. wit "white", rood "red", zwart "black") and an inflected form, made by adding the suffix -e and making other orthographic adjustments as necessary (e.g. witte, rode, zwarte).

The inflected adjective is used before plural nouns of all genders, singular de-words (masculine and feminine nouns), and singular het-words (neuter nouns) preceded by a definite determiner. This means that the uninflected form is used before singular neuter nouns preceded by an indefinite determiner, or no determiner. For example:

  • de-word:
    • de rode appel ("the red apple")
    • een rode appel ("a red apple")
    • rode appels ("red apples")
  • het-word
    • het rode huis ("the red house", singular het-word with definite article)
    • een rood huis ("a red house", singular het-word with indefinite article)
    • rode huizen ("red houses", plural het-word)

This general rule is not absolute, however, and uninflected adjectives are in fact found in many other contexts. For example, if the adjective describes an inherent property of the (singular) noun, rather than a specification of it, the ending -e is dropped. The noun may be preceded by a definite article or no article.

  • openbaar vervoer ("public transport (in general)")
  • het openbaar vervoer ("the public transport (in general)")
  • lijdend voorwerp ("grammatical object", literally suffering object)
  • het lijdend voorwerp ("the grammatical object")

In contrast:

  • het openbare vervoer van Amsterdam ("public transport of Amsterdam (specifically)")

Adjectives describing people often remain uninflected, for instance if they express an admirable quality:

  • een groot man ("a great man"), but een grote man ("a big/tall man")
  • een talentvol schrijver ("a talented writer")

Most adjectives ending in -en, for example material adjectives, have no inflected forms.

  • een houten stoel ("a wooden chair")
  • het stenen huis ("the brick house")
  • metalen lampen ("metal lamps")

Finally, adjectives in predicative position (e.g. after a copular verb) are uninflected:

  • Die appel is rood/*rode. ("That apple is red.")
  • Dit huis is rood/*rode. ("This house is red.")

Verbs

Verbs in Dutch can be classified as weak, strong, and irregular.

Weak verbs

Weak verbs form their past tenses by addition of a dental, -d- or -t-. The rule Dutch children are taught is the " 't kofschip (the merchant ship) rule", that is, if the verb stem ends with the consonants of 't kofschip (-t, -k, -f, -s, -ch or -p), the past tense dental is a -t-; otherwise it is a -d-. Linguists put it more simply: an unvoiced consonant at the end of the stem takes an unvoiced dental suffix; a voiced consonant takes a voiced dental:

  • werken, ik werkte, gewerkt (to work) - worked (pronounced /kt/)
  • leren, ik leerde, geleerd (to learn/teach) - learned (pronounced /nd/)

The perfect participle (cf. worked in 'I have worked') is formed by adding 'ge-' in front of the past tense form and removing the end '-e'. If it's used adjectivally, an end '-e' is used like that of adjectives:

  • ik heb gefietst (I have biked)
  • de gefietste route (The biked route)

Strong verbs

Strong verbs form their past tenses by ablaut. For strong verbs one needs to learn three principal parts: the infinitive, the preterite, and the past participle. Typical of strong verbs is the vowel change. Examples:

  • binden, bond, gebonden (to tie / to bind)
  • lopen, liep, gelopen (to walk)
  • doen, deed, gedaan (to do)

The system of strong verbs is similar to that of the irregulars in English but has retained more of its regularity. In both languages you need to learn three forms and the most common irregular verbs in English are strong in Dutch, but not all irregular verbs in English are strong in Dutch and vice-versa. There are about 150 strong roots giving rise to about 800 strong verbs in total if all derived verbs with separable and inseparable prefixes are included.

Strong verbs of the classes 4 and 5 also distinguish between a short a in the preterite singular and a long ā in the preterite plural. This is a remnant of the old preterite singular grade of ablaut. For a fuller explanation of strong verbs, see the article Germanic strong verb.

Mixed Verbs

Verbs are called mixed verbs if some tenses are weak and others are strong.

  • lachen, ik lachte, ik heb gelachen
  • zouten, ik zoutte, ik heb gezouten
  • kunnen, ik kon, ik heb gekund

A number of weak verbs such as denken show the irregularity associated with Rückumlaut: see the article on umlaut:

  • denken, ik dacht (to think)

Usually these words are considered 'strong', since one cannot deduce its preterite (past tense) form regularly. Often they are called mixed verbs because their past participle ends on t instead of en. The perfect participle of the words can be deduced regularly from its preterite form:

  • denken, ik dacht, gedacht

Irregular verbs

Some of the most used verbs in the Dutch language have irregular declensions. Examples are zijn, hebben, and the four modals kunnen, mogen, willen, and zullen. In pairs for the singular second person such as zal/zult, the second carries a somewhat more formal connotation. In formal registers, u (the formal pronoun for the second person) can be combined with both forms depending on the region. The second form of the pair hebt/heeft cannot be combined with je/jij (the informal pronoun). The verb "zijn" has two special forms that go exclusively with the personal pronoun "gij": in the present tense, "gij zijt" (you are), and in the past tense, "gij waart" (you were). The same goes for the verb "mogen", though only in the present tense: "gij moogt" (you are allowed). The verbs "hebben", "zullen", "kunnen" en "willen" have special forms for "gij" in the past tense: "gij hadt", "gij zoudt", "gij kondt" and "gij woudt" ("gij wilde(t)"). The strong declension of "willen" is almost only found in spoken language; certainly the plural form "wouden" should not be used in formal cases.
infinitive
(meaning)
present past perfect
singular plural singular plural participle
zijn (to be) ben, bent, is zijn was waren geweest
hebben (to have) heb, hebt/heeft, heeft hebben had hadden gehad
zullen (will, shall) zal, zal/zult, zal zullen zou zouden -
kunnen (can, to be able) kan, kan/kunt, kan kunnen kon konden gekund
mogen (to be allowed) mag, mag, mag mogen mocht mochten gemogen
willen (to want) wil, wil(t), wil willen wou (wilde) wouden (wilden) gewild

Pronouns

Personal and possessive pronouns

Just like with nouns and adjectives, most aspects of the old Germanic noun case system have been lost in the personal pronouns in modern Dutch. As in English, the main remaining distinction is that between subject and object, while the old dative and accusative forms have merged into one object form. The only exception to this is the third person plural, which retains separate forms for direct objects and indirect objects, though even native speakers often fail to make the distinction (see below).

On the other hand, Dutch preserves relics of the old Germanic noun case system in its pronouns. A full list of pronoun forms is listed below, with unstressed "weak" (or clitic) forms given in parentheses.

personal and possessive pronouns
person subject object possessive pronoun
1 singular ik ('k) mij (me) mijn (m'n)
2 singular jij (je), gij (ge), u jou (je), u jouw (je), uw
3 sing (masc)
(fem)
(neut)
hij (-ie)
zij (ze)
het ('t)
hem ('m)
haar ('r, d'r, ze)
het ('t)
zijn (z'n)
haar (d'r)
zijn (z'n)
1 plural wij (we) ons ons/onze
2 plural jullie, gij (ge), u jullie, u jullie (je), uw
3 plural zij (ze) hen (ze) (direct obj.)
hun (ze) (indirect obj.)
hun

In spoken language, the third person plural forms hen and hun are interchanged (usually in favor of hun). The distinction between the two was artificially introduced in the 17th century, and it remains an area of uncertainty for many Dutch speakers. In most contexts, both forms are tolerated; the shared unstressed form ze is also a useful avoidance strategy. For non-human plural referents, only the unstressed pronoun ze is allowed (the strong form hun is replaced by the demonstratives deze and die). The use of hun as a subject pronoun (e.g. Hun zijn weggegaan. "They have gone away.") is non-standard. The shortened form "d'r" for "haar" is almost exclusively used in the Netherlands. The unstressed object form "ze" for "haar" is heard in southern Dutch language varieties and not considered standard.

The 2nd person pronouns have different degrees of politeness, depending on dialect:

  • in the Netherlands: jij (je) and jullie is informal and u is polite, while gij (ge), is only used in very formal or poetic contexts (for instance when addressing God in prayers).
  • in Belgium: jij (je) is also informal but in spoken language, the older gij (ge) is used as well, just like in the South of the Netherlands, and u is polite. Note that "gij" has "u" and "uw" as respectively object and possessive forms.

The form onze is the inflected form of the possessive pronoun ons, which is inflected in the same way as the adjectives.

Demonstrative pronouns

Like English, Dutch has two kinds of demonstrative pronouns: one kind (dit, deze) corresponds to the English this or these, and is used for nearby objects; the other kind (dat, die) corresponds to the English that or those and is used for objects at a further distance. The exact forms to use can be derived from the following scheme.

demonstrative pronouns
  singular plural
masc/fem deze/die deze/die
neutral dit/dat deze/die

When the demonstrative pronoun is used as a part of speech of its own, the forms dit and dat are always used. E.g.: Dit is een mooie auto ("This is a beautiful car") vs. Deze auto is mooi ("This car is beautiful").

The singular demonstrative pronouns can take plural verbs in certain contexts:

  • Dat zijn nieuwe huizen (Those are new houses)
  • Dit zijn mijn boeken (These are my books)

Pronominal adverbs

Pronouns in Dutch work differently depending on whether or not they appear with a preposition. When they are used as the subject or object of a verb (without a preposition), they are chosen according to the grammatical gender of the noun they replace—i.e. hij/hem/'m for masculine (or common gender) nouns, zij/haar/d'r for feminine nouns, and het/'t for neuter nouns (the reduced forms are preferred when referring to inanimate objects):

  • Zie je [de stoel]/[de deur]/[het broodje]? ("Do you see the chair/the door/the sandwich?")
  • Ik zie 'm/(d'r)/'t. (lit. "I see him/her/it.")

In combination with a preposition, however, pronouns are chosen according to natural gender: hem for males, haar for females, and neuter forms for inanimate entities. An additional complication, however, is that the ordinary series of neuter pronouns (het, dat, wat, etc.) cannot normally appear after a preposition, and they are instead replaced by the corresponding "r-pronoun":

regular pronoun het dit dat wat iets niets alles
r-pronoun er hier daar waar ergens nergens overal
pronoun meaning it this that what something nothing everything
adverb meaning there here there where somewhere nowhere everywhere
As indicated in the table, the r-pronouns (so-called because they all contain the letter r) are used in other contexts as locative adverbs. When used with a preposition, these r-pronouns usually do not appear after the preposition, but before it. Thus for example:

  • Ik reken [op je steun]. ("I count on your support.")
  • Ik reken [op hem] (can only mean "I count on him (a person).")
  • *Ik reken [op het]. *Ik reken [op er]. (both incorrect)
  • Ik reken erop/daarop/hierop (correct, "I count on it/on that/on this.")

The r-pronoun and the preposition should be written as one word (except with ergens, nergens, and overal), and the resulting form is called a "pronominal adverb" (Dutch: voornaamwoordelijk bijwoord) in Dutch grammar. These forms are similar to words like hereupon, whereupon in English or darauf, worauf in German, but Dutch shows two particularities:

  • Two prepositions change their form: metermee ("therewith/with it"), totertoe ("thereto/to it").
    • Hij stemt [met alle voorstellen] in. ("He agrees with all proposals.")
    • Hij stemt [overal mee] in. ("He agrees with everything.")
  • The r-pronoun and the preposition can be separated from each other:
    • Daar reken ik op. ("That, I am counting on.")
    • Waar reken je op? ("What are you counting on?")
    • Ik reken er niet op. ("I am not counting on it.", lit. "I count there not on")

Numeral system

Dutch uses a decimal numeral system, without octal or vigesimal traces like many other European languages. The base numbers, from which all cardinal numerals can be constructed, are:

0 nul        
1 een 11 elf 10 tien
2 twee 12 twaalf 20 twintig
3 drie 13 dertien 30 dertig
4 vier 14 veertien 40 veertig
5 vijf 15 vijftien 50 vijftig
6 zes 16 zestien 60 zestig
7 zeven 17 zeventien 70 zeventig
8 acht 18 achttien 80 tachtig
9 negen 19 negentien 90 negentig

Note that "een" is the same word as the indefinite article in the written language; as such, when confusion is possible, the number is often written as "één" to distinguish it from the article. They are always pronounced distinctly.

The cardinal numerals from 21 to 99 (apart from the tens) are constructed in a regular way, by adding en (=and) and the name of the appropriate multiple of ten to the name of the units position. (As in German, the last written digit is actually pronounced first):

  • 28 achtentwintig (literally "eight and twenty")
  • 83 drieëntachtig (trema to mark diaeresis, to avoid colliding into ee)
  • 99 negenennegentig

100 is honderd, 200 tweehonderd, 300 driehonderd and so on.

Numerals between 101 and 999 are constructed as follows:

  • 112 honderdtwaalf or honderdentwaalf
  • 698 zeshonderdachtennegentig

The same system used for naming the hundreds applies to the higher base numbers that are powers of ten. Dutch always uses the long scale system.

The cardinal numerals of numbers greater than 1000 are grouped in "multiples of 1000":

  • 2 348 is tweeduizend driehonderdachtenveertig
  • 117 401 067 is honderdzeventien miljoen vierhonderdeenduizend zevenenzestig

Notes

References

  • Audring, Jenny. (2006) Pronominal Gender in Spoken Dutch. Amsterdam: Journal of Germanic Linguistics 18.2 (2006):85-116
  • Donaldson, Bruce. (1997) Dutch: A Comprehensive Grammar. Oxford: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15419-7.
  • van Riemsdijk, Henk (ed). (1999) Clitics in the Languages of Europe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-015751-9
  • van Riemsdijk, Henk. (1978) A Case Study in Syntactic Markedness: The Binding Nature of Prepositional Phrases. Dordrecht: Foris.

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