In this chapter, we’ll teach you the basics of Dutch grammar.
But don’t worry: We’ll keep it as short and informative as possible, and we’re going to show you only the things you really need for a quick start into the Dutch language.
This lesson is part of the chapter “Learning Dutch“.
- Nouns and Articles
- The plural
- Personal Pronouns
- Possessive Pronouns
- Interrogative Pronouns
- Reflexive Pronouns
- Adjectives and Adverbs
- Irregular and Strong Verbs: Zijn and Hebben
- Regular Verbs
- Hebben or zijn?
- Negating a verb
- Word Order: the position of the verb
Dutch belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, and in particular to the West Germanic branch.
This means that it’s quite an easy language to learn for English and German speakers, since they’re closely related. It won’t be very hard either for speakers of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, but since those belong to the North Germanic branch, they’re not as close to Dutch.
Don’t think it twice and join us in this ride, you won’t regret it! Always remember that while you have to study the grammar to know the rules of the game, it’s no use if you don’t play it!
Nouns and Articles
First of all, remember that nouns are the words that give a name to people and things. Just like in English, nouns can have a plural form that tells us how much of a certain thing there is and they don’t have a grammatical gender, that is, we know if someone is masculine or feminine because of context, the words themselves don’t give us that information.
Now, there are several ways to form the plural:
Adding -en: This is by far the most common, it’s as simple as adding -en at the end of the word. However, there are some spelling rules to keep in mind:
- After a short vowel, we double the consonant. Example: fles – lessen (bottle – bottles).
- When we have a double vowel at the end of the syllable or the word only has one syllable, we write only one in the plural. Example: peer – peren (pear – pears); fotograaf – fotografen (photographer – photographers).
- If a noun ends in a (unvoiced) f or s, we replace them with a v or z, respectively. Example: brief – brieven (letter – letters); neus – neuzen (nose – noses).
Adding -s: Like in English, many words form the plural by ending an s:
- Those that end in an unstressed -e, -el, -em, -en, -aar, -er or -erd. Example: tafel – tafels (table – tables); studente – studentes (female student – female students).
- All diminutives, formed by adding -je at the end. Example: huisje – huisjes (little house – little houses).
- Many words of foreign origin that end in a vowel. We use an apostrophe when that vowel is a, i, o, u or y. Examples: taxi – taxi’s; hotel – hotels.
Irregular plurals: These are those that do not follow the rules we previously mentioned.
- In some words, a short vowel becomes long, as marked by a single consonant that follows it. Example: dag – dager (day – days).
- Others form the plural by adding -eren. Examples: ei – eieren (egg – eggs).
- Academic or words related to art form their plural adding -a or -i, similar to Latin. Example: musicus – musici (musician – musicians).
- Words ending in -heid form the plural with -heiden. Example: gelegenheid – gelegenheden (opportunity – opportunities)
We can know whether we are talking about a certain person or thing, or just about persons or things in general thanks to the articles, and so, depending on that we can have definite and indefinite articles, respectively. You’ll understand instantly when you see the equivalents in English. Now, the problem is that there are two different articles and no clear rule to tell which one goes with each noun, de is the most common article and goes with masculine and feminine nouns, het is the other one and goes with neuter nouns, but unfortunately, there’s no real way to tell them apart because gender is not important anymore in Dutch, the only way is to just learn the articles with the nouns. We can keep in mind that all plurals go with de and all diminutives go with het.
The equivalent to the English article “a” is een. Example: een man – a man.
The demonstrative pronouns are words that come before nouns and give us information about them, in a way that we get an idea of how close or far away they are, they are used specially in spoken language because we can point at the object, but they’re also used in writing. We use them like we use the articles, and just like them, there are demonstratives that agree with het and others agree with de.
|Close to speaker||Far from the speaker|
|de-nouns||deze (this)||deze (these)||die (that)||die (those)|
|het-nouns||dit (this)||deze (these)||dat (that)||die (those)|
In Dutch, we can leave out the noun in some cases and use the demonstrative alone, this is similar to how we use them in English as well. For example: dat is groot – that (something) is big.
Pronouns are words that replace nouns. The difference between English and Dutch is that in Dutch there can be stressed and unstressed forms of the pronouns. We use the stressed form when writing and when we want to emphasize the person or thing we are talking about when speaking, and we use the unstressed form when speaking normally and almost never in writing. If you’re confused about which of them you should use, simply choose the stressed form, since it’s always correct to use it, unlike the unstressed form. Pronouns are very useful because they make sentences less repetitive, let’s go through the most importantones!
They are used to represent people and things. They can be:
They replace the subject (the person doing an action or the thing being described) of the sentence.
|u||–||you (formal)||u||–||you (formal)|
They replace an object of the sentence.
|haar||‘r/d’r||her||deze, die||ze||them (objects)|
They tell us to whom something belongs. We use them just like we would in English. Remember to never confuse them with possessive adjectives! These are the equivalents of mine, yours, his, hers, etc.There are two ways to form them:
- Formal: We add -eto the possessive adjective and place a definite article at the start of the sentence. Example: Dat is haar vader – Dat is de hare (That is her father – That is hers).
- Informal: We use this mainly in spoken language. What we have to do is add van before the object pronoun like in the following example: Hier is mijn krant – Die van jou is daar (Here is my newspaper – Yours is there).
We use them to ask questions, they are used just like in English, you’ll understand inmediately once you see the translation:
|wat||wat||Wat is dat? (What is that?)|
|welk (we add an –e if it’s a het-noun)||which/what||Welke dag is het vandaag? (What day is it today?)|
|wie||who||Wie is dat? (Who is that?)|
There are other kinds of words we use to make questions, like interrogative adverbs.
We use reflexive pronouns when something or someone performs an action to itself or oneself, this means that the subject and the object are the same. There are stressed and unstressed forms as well, but the stressed ones are not often used.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Adjectives are used to describe nouns and pronouns, they way we use them in Dutch is very similar to English we put them in front of the noun, or alone after a verb. But in Dutch, adjectives can take several forms depending on their position in the sentence and the article that the noun goes with. This can be a little confusing, so let’s break it down:
An adjective before a noun always has to end in -e, except if it’s a het-noun that’s using the article -e. Let’s see some examples:
- The word auto (car) is a de-noun, hence we say “de mooie auto” (the beautiful car) and “een mooie auto” (a beautiful car).
- Boek (book) on the other hand, is a het-noun, so we say “het mooie boek” (the beautiful book) and “een mooi boek” (a beautiful book). We can also say “mooi boek” (beautiful book) without the article.
- Remember that all plurals are de-nouns, and so we have to add the -e at the end.
- When the adjective comes after a verb, we do not add -e.
- Adjectives that end in -en remain unchanged as well. These adjectives usually describe the material an object is made from.Example: leren schoenen (leather shoes).
- Adjectives from foreign origin are also an exception, like plastic or aluminium.
- We add an -s to the adjective if it comes after the words iets, wat or niets.
- The comparative form, used when we are comparing things, is formed by adding -er. Example: groter – bigger
- The superlative form, used when we want to describe something as the best, is formed by adding -st. Example:grootst – biggest
We use possessive adjectives to indicate who or what owns something, the difference between Dutch and English possessive adjectives is, again, that they use stressed and unstressed forms:
- Jouw is used to give emphasis and it’s not usual, even in written Dutch, je is the most usual form.
- We use ons with singular het-nouns only, and onze otherwise.
Adverbs and adjectives are different, but they are often confused. The truth is that both of them describe something, after all, the difference being that the adverb describes the action of the verb, while the adjective describes a person, animal or thing. They do not get an ending, and an adjective can act as an adverb. Example: Hij zingt goed – He sings well.
Just like interrogative pronouns, we use them to ask questions and get information, let’s go through them:
|waar?||where?||Waar is mijn auto? (Where is my car?)|
|wanneer?||when?||Wanneer is je examen? (When is your exam?)|
|hoe?||how?||Hoe weet jij dat? (How do you know that?)|
|waarom? (It’s a pronominal adverb, formed by combining om and wat)||why?||Waarom vraag je dat? (Why do you ask?)|
Verbs are the words that express action, mental action or state of being. Dutch has two very important tenses, and another six that are formed by following the rules of those two, they are the present and the past tenses. We can also have both weak and strong verbs, weak verbs are regular, that is, they follow the rules, while strong verbs are irregular, which means that there’s no specific way to form their tenses, we have to learn them by heart. This can be intimidating at first, but we’ll go through each tense with examples so that you see that it’s not very hard.
Irregular and Strong Verbs: Zijn and Hebben
Most Dutch verbs are not fully irregular, even then some of their tenses follow a rule, this is why we call those kind of verbs strong, on the other hand, there are some fully irregular verbs, the two most common ones being zijn and hebben. They are also essential to form most tenses of regular verbs, so let’s see how to conjugate them:
The irregular verb zijn means “to be”, these are the present and past tense conjugations:
|Present tense||Past tense|
When hebben goes alone, it means “to have”. The present tense of this verb is not as irregular as zijn, you’ll see that it’s similar to how regular verbs are formed:
|Present tense||Past tense|
Like we mentioned earlier, regular verbs are easy to learn because they follow certain rules when it comes to conjugation. All we have to do is add the ending that goes with each tense and person, basically. What we want to do first is identify the stem, how do we do this? Most verbs end in –en, so we just have to take that off and add the ending we need, it’s that simple. You have to know that an stem can’t end in double consonant, z or v, and that the stem of a verb that ends in –iën ends in –ie, basically we have to take the –n only. Also keep in mind that you have to respect the long vowels. You also have to know that when we use the pronoun u, the verb is always singular. Let’s see the tenses, the changes you have to make to the verbs will be in bold.
The Present Simple
The present simple is the tense we use to talk about an action that is happening in the present, let’s see the conjugation of the verb “to make”(maken, the stem is maak):
|The Present Simple|
|u||maakt||you make (formal)|
The Past Simple
We use the past simple to talk about an event that took place in the past and has already ended. What you need to know is that it can be formed by adding either –te and –ten or –de and –den. To learn the difference you have to practice, but naturally, verbs that end in –ten are usually the ones that take –te/-ten, this is not always the case so be careful!
|The Past Simple|
|u||maakte||you made (formal)|
The Present Perfect
The difference between the present perfect and the past simple is that, while both are used to talk about the past, the action in the present perfect is still ongoing or finished just recently. To form this we have to keep in mind what we saw with the past simple about t and d and combine the verbs zijnorhebben with the past participle of the verb. What is the past participle? Simple, it’s what we get when we add ge- at the start of the word and t or d at the end (depending on the verb), take a look at it and you will understand:
|The Present Perfect|
|ik||heb gemaakt||I made|
|je||hebt gemaakt||you made|
|hij/zij/het||heeft gemaakt||he/she/it made|
|u||heeft gemaakt||you made (formal)|
|wij||hebben gemaakt||we made|
|jullie||hebben gemaakt||you made|
|zij||hebben gemaakt||they made|
There are two main ways of expressing the future in Dutch, the most common way is to simply use the present tense, we will know that we are talking about the future because of the context. The other way is more formal, we use the verb zullen (which means will) followed by the infinitive, like this:
|ik||zal maken||I will make|
|je||zult maken||you will make|
|hij/zij/het||zal maken||he/she/it will make|
|u||zult maken||you will make (formal)|
|wij||zullen maken||we will make|
|jullie||zullen maken||you will make|
|zij||zullen maken||they will make|
The conditional is used to talk about hypothetical situations, we use the verb zullen with this tense too, but instead of using the present tense like before, we use its past tense:
|ik||zoumaken||I would make|
|je||zoumaken||you would make|
|hij/zij/het||zoumaken||he/she/it would make|
|u||zoumaken||you would make (formal)|
|wij||zoudenmaken||we would make|
|jullie||zoudenmaken||you would make|
|zij||zoudenmaken||they would make|
The Past Perfect
The past perfect is used to talk about an action that happened before another action in the past. The way we form this tense is very similar to the present perfect, except that we use the past form of hebben or zijn:
|The Past Perfect|
|ik||had gemaakt||I made|
|je||had gemaakt||you made|
|hij/zij/het||had gemaakt||he/she/it made|
|u||had gemaakt||you made (formal)|
|wij||hadden gemaakt||we made|
|jullie||hadden gemaakt||you made|
|zij||hadden gemaakt||they made|
The Future Perfect
This is quite an unusual tense, it expresses an action that will have happened in the future, the Dutch usually use the present perfect instead to express this idea. To conjugate this verb we combine the future and the present perfect:
|The Future Perfect|
|ik||zal gemaakt hebben||I will have made|
|je||zult gemaakt hebben||you will have made|
|hij/zij/het||zal gemaakt hebben||he/she/it will have made|
|u||zult gemaakt hebben||you will have made (formal)|
|wij||zullen gemaakt hebben||we will have made|
|jullie||zullen gemaakt hebben||you will have made|
|zij||zullen gemaakt hebben||they will have made|
The Conditional Perfect
The conditional perfect is used when we want to talk about an action that would have happened in the past. The conjugation of this tense is exactly like the future perfect, except that we putt he verb zullen in the past tense:
|The Conditional Perfect|
|ik||zou gemaakt hebben||I would have made|
|je||zou gemaakt hebben||you would have made|
|hij/zij/het||zou gemaakt hebben||he/she/it would have made|
|u||zou gemaakt hebben||you would have made (formal)|
|wij||zouden gemaakt hebben||we would have made|
|jullie||zouden gemaakt hebben||you would have made|
|zij||zouden gemaakt hebben||they would have made|
Hebben or zijn?
By now you may be asking yourselves, “Ok, but how do we know when to use zijn instead of hebben?” Well, hebben is most common of the two, but the following kinds of verbs take zijn:
- Intransitive verbs that indicate a change of place or state. An intransitive verb does not take an object.
- Verbs that indicate some kind of movement, if the destination is specified (or implied), otherwise we use hebben.
- Almost all the verbs that take zijn are strong.
- There are some verbs that take zijnthat don’t indicate movements of changes, you’ll just have to learn them when they appear since there are no specific rules.
Negating a verb
In English we use “do + not” before the verb when we want to negate a verb or sentence, this is not the case in Dutch, but it’s actually easier because we just have to add the adverb niet after the verb or the object. Example: Hij helpt niet – He doesn’t help.
Word Order: the position of the verb
In Dutch, the verb usually stand in the second possition, just after the subject (or some other element), and then goes the rest of the predicate, this is exactly the same as in English. But when we have a verbal group, which means that we have forms formed by two or more verbs, like the present perfect, we have to place the main verb at the end of the sentence and the auxiliary verb (hebben, zijn or zullen) goes in second position, meaning that the objects and complements go in between the auxiliary and the main verb, see the following example: Ik (subject) ben (auxiliary) naar huis (object) gewandeld (main verb) – I have walked home.
The only things that can go after the main verb in these cases is a prepositional clause or a subordinate clause.
Phew, that was a lot. But always remember: Leaning a language is mainly about understanding and being understood (at least in the beginning). Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, it’s a natural part of the learning process. The more you practice and talk to other Dutch speakers, the more familiar you’ll get to the language and its specialities.