Dutch Grammar Basics

dutch grammarDutch, which is also called Flemish among Belgian Dutch speakers and is still spoken in former areas of Dutch influence in the Caribbean and Pacific, is a Germanic language with some connection to Romance languages and to English, and with a stronger connection to modern German than Scandinavian languages have. This online grammar course will help give you a basis in English for learning grammar in a foreign language.

Sentence Structure and Word Order

Like German, Dutch has well-defined rules of how sentences are put together that are flexible in certain types of situations. A typical sentence goes subject, verb, then object, although certain key words that modify the sentence as a whole (such as time indicators, like “tomorrow”) go to the front of the sentence, and the order after that changes to verb, then subject, then object—“Morgen zal ik naar de opslag gaan”, or “tomorrow will I to the store go.”

The verb also goes to the front of the sentence in questions and commands—“gaat u naar de opslag?”, or “go you to the store?” instead of “are you going to the store?” When they come later in the sentence rather than the front, time modifiers generally go before place modifiers.

For sentences with compound verbs, the conjugated part stays in the normal second-position verb slot, and the other part goes to the end of the sentence, making a construction like “I will to the store go” (“Ik zal naar de opslag gaan,” as seen in the example above) instead of the English standard, where both halves of the verb would be kept together, in “I will go to the store.”

Aside from verb clauses, adjectives always go before the noun they modify, as they typically do in English and many other Germanic and Romance languages.

To get a better base of English grammar to better understand these structures and clauses, try this online English grammar course.

Verb Tenses

For past tense, there are two basic types of verbs in Dutch, “weak” and “strong”, although some verbs are weak in some forms and strong in others.

Weak verbs are more common. The basic past tense for this form is created by adding a consonant into the present tense ending. The verb werken—to work—in the first person leads to the present tense werke—I work—and the past tense werkte—I worked—and the past participle gewerkt. The consonant used can be either a d or a t, depending on what letter the verb stem ends with. The letter t is used with voiced consonant sounds—k, f, s, ch, and p, as in the example of werken that we saw used above.

A number of commonly used verbs are strong, meaning that instead of adding a consonant, the verb in the vowel stem changes, so that geven—to give—becomes gaf—I gave—with the past participle gegeven. As can be seen from this example, some common English verbs use the same construction.

Strong verbs have a set of specific patterns for which vowels are changed into others.

  • Verbs with ij change to e or ee—schijnen (to shine) has a past tense of scheen and a past participle of geschenen.
  • Verbs with ie or ui change to o or oo—schieten (to shoot) has a past tense of schoot and a past participle of geschoten, and sluiten (to close) has a past tense of sloot and a past participle of gesloten.
  • Verbs with i or e change to o—drinken (to drink) has a past tense of dronk and a past participle of gedronken, and vechten (to fight) has a past tense of vocht and a past participle of gevochten.
  • Certain other verbs with e can also go to a or aa and o or oo—nemen (to take) has a past tense of nam and a past participle of genomen.
  • The last set of verbs with e, including some with i, change to a or aa and e or ee—lezen (to read) has a past tense of las and a past participle of gelezen, and zitten (to sit) has a past tense of zat and a past participle of gezeten.
  • Verbs with a change to oe and a or aa—dragen (to carry) has a past tense of droeg and a past participle of gedragen.
  • A last set of verbs changes the vowel to i or ie in the past tense but stays the same in the past participle—vallen (to fall) has a past tense of viel and a past participle of gevallen, vangen (to catch) has a past tense of ving and a past participle of gevangen, and roepen (to call) has a past tense of riep and a past participle of geroepen.

The past tense examples given above are all first person singular.

There are also a number of irregular verbs that mix patterns from each of these sets of rules.

Besides these two classes of verbs, there is a third set of “mixed” verbs that use both types. For example, bakken (to bake) has a weak past tense of bakte but a strong past participle of gebakken. In some verbs in this category, an original strong form of the past tense is archaic and has fallen out of use. The reverse can also be true—jagen (to hunt) has a strong past tense of joeg and a weak past participle of gejaagd.

Other irregular verbs, such as zijn (to be) and hebben (to have), tend not to follow predictable patterns and diverge from the patterns already described in a number of ways.

Future tense, on the other hand, is expressed simply, by using the verbs gaan (to go) or zullen (will, or shall) with the infinitive.

Nouns

Dutch does not commonly use case declensions the way some European languages do, and although like German it has three grammatical genders for nouns (masculine, feminine and neuter), typically the masculine and feminine are used in the same way.

Case declensions do survive in a few cases, in fixed phrases like “de dag des oordeels” (Judgment Day), and in purposefully creating more old-fashioned or formal language. The grammatical information that cases give is expressed in modern Dutch by prepositions and word order, like in English.

Plurals add either –en or –s, with a few patterns of which words use which plural. Words pronounced as letters (like CD) or modern words (like radio), especially French or English loan words as both of these examples are, are more likely to use –s. Unless the stem word ends in e, s plurals use an apostrophe. Words ending in an unstressed –el are also more likely to use –s. Single-syllable words typically use –en. The –en ending tends to come across as more archaic or poetic. A few words use –eren as a plural ending, but this is a fairly irregular use with specific examples.

Certain Latin words can also use Latin plurals, such as museum, which can become museum as well as the more standardized Dutch museums, or politicus, which can become politici.

Along with the ending, some plurals go through vowel changes, either in sound or in spelling. Schip (ship) becomes schepen, and stad (city) becomes steden.

Diminutive versions of nouns are used very often in Dutch with a variety of words. The most standard diminutive ending is –tje, with –ke used in some dialects. There are a few changes made for some words. The t is removed when used with a word ending in a fricative or plosive consonant sound (b, c, d, f, g, ch, k, p, q, s, sj, t, v, x, or z), so that brief (letter) becomes briefje. An extra e is added after stressed sonorant syllables, so that kom (bowl) becomes kommetje. The –ke ending, which is similar to the German –chen diminutive, is generally used in the south, with changes according to similar rules.

This online beginner German course can help give you a feel for the use of nouns in a Germanic language.

Adjectives

Adjectives generally go between the article and the noun, and are inflected according to the noun they modify, along with whether the article or other indicator is definite (‘the’ in English) or indefinite (‘a’ or ‘an’ in English). The inflected form of adjective ends in –e, although those ending in –en usually don’t have an inflected form.

There are sometimes uninflected forms used, such as when adjectives are used in predicate phrases, like “de man is klein”, or “the man is small”, rather than “de kleine man”, or “the small man”. Adjectives describing quality or number, or used as part of a fixed expression, are also left uninflected.

These are just the basic principles to help you get started as you learn Dutch vocabulary. You can read here about some basic useful words and phrases, and this online Dutch course can start you on your way to learning the language.