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Get to know these 5 Key Grammatical Differences between the Dutch and the English Language

By Esther, published on 07/11/2018 Blog > Languages > Dutch > What Are the Main Differences between English and Dutch Grammar?

Did you know that Dutch and English are actually very close relatives? Since Dutch and English are both West Germanic languages, the two have many (grammatical) similarities. It is even said that Dutch is the easiest foreign language to learn for English speakers because of the big resemblance between the two.

Were you aware, for example, that many English words actually have been adopted from the Dutch language? And similarly, the Dutch use a lot of English words in their day-to-day conversations, many of which have even been included in the Dutch dictionary. Click here to learn more on English words with a Dutch origin.

So even if Dutch is not your native language, you haven’t studied it and you haven’t even been to the Netherlands yet, you might speak more Dutch than you think. Just have a look at some of these words: appel, peer, tomaat, banaan, koekje, schoen, blauw, groen, bruin, rood. Can you guess what they are?

A tower of Dutch cookies ‘Koekje erbij?’ Photo via visualhunt.com.

And what is more, if you find yourself really struggling to get your point across in Dutch, it is perfectly acceptable to just throw in a couple of English terms, the Dutch do this themselves all the time anyway.

Of course, as with any two languages, there are also many differences between the two. Fairly obvious ones are of course differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, phrases, expressions, etc. And although the basic grammar of both of these languages is similar, there are certainly differences there, too.

If you speak English and want to learn Dutch, it might be a good idea to study some of the main differences between English and Dutch grammar. And you’re in luck because that happens to be the main focus of this article. So, let’s get on with it, shall we?

1. Word order – one of the biggest grammatical differences between Dutch and English

One of the most significant differences between English and Dutch grammar is word order. Both Dutch and English use the SVO pattern (subject – verb – object) as a basic sentence structure. Still, the word order that is used in the two languages does not always follow the same pattern.

Finite and non-finite verbs

One of the main differences in word order is that in Dutch the finite verb is separated from the non-finite verb. The two are separated by adverbials. To make this a bit more clear, let’s use an example: ‘Kees gaat morgen winkelen in Rotterdam’.

Following the Dutch word order, this would be translated into ‘Kees is going tomorrow shopping in Rotterdam’. Of course, using correct English, you would keep the finite and non-finite verb together (‘Kees is going shopping in Rotterdam tomorrow’). Although this sentence is an exception, in most cases the finite verb is placed at the end of the sentence in Dutch.

Sentences that don’t start with a subject

Another difference in word order occurs when sentences don’t start with the sentence’s subject. So, for example, you can say ‘on Friday we eat Belgian fries’ (which was actually one of few traditions in my childhood home). In Dutch, this would translate to ‘op vrijdag eten we Belgische frietjes’. If you know how to speak a bit of Dutch, you would have noticed that the subject ‘we’ and the verb ‘eat’ have swapped places here.

Beautiful golden brown Belgian fries Belgian fries on Friday. Photo via visualhunt.com.

Sentences that start with subordinate clauses

A similar difference in word order occurs when a sentence starts with a subordinate clause. For example: ‘if you’re going to Holland, I’ll come with you’. Or in Dutch: ‘als jij naar Holland gaat, kom ik met je mee’. Using the Dutch word order, the English translation would be: ‘if you’re to Holland going, come I with you’.

2. Different Usage of Verb Tenses in English and Dutch Grammar

Both Dutch and English have four basic tenses: the present simple, past simple, present perfect and the past perfect. However, these tenses are not always used in the same way in both languages. A common mistake that Dutch people make while they speak English is using the present perfect where the past simple should be used.

For example, in English you would say: she learned some Afrikaans yesterday’. But a Dutch person might easily make the mistake of using the present perfect here and say she has learned some Afrikaans yesterday’. This is because of how you would structure this sentence according to Dutch grammar rules. In Dutch you would use the present perfect: ‘zij heeft gister Afrikaans geleerd’.

Another common mix-up of tenses between Dutch and English is using the present simple instead of the future simple. Whereas in Dutch, using the present simple in ‘I teach you how to speak Dutch tomorrow’ is completely correct, in English, the future simple would be used: ‘I will teach you how to speak Dutch tomorrow’.

Furthermore, don’t be surprised when a Dutch person tells youI live in Utrecht since 2012’. In Dutch, the present simple is used in this kind of sentence (‘ik woon in Utrecht sinds 2012’), but in English, the present perfect should be used (‘I have lived in Utrecht since 2012’). Learn more about Dutch verb tenses.

3. The Lack of Auxiliaries in Dutch Grammar

As opposed to English, Dutch does not use any auxiliary to form an interrogative sentence. So to form a question in Dutch, there is no need to add an auxiliary like ‘do’ to the sentence. And since auxiliaries aren’t present in the Dutch language, the use of ‘do’ and ‘did’ might be a bit tricky for a Dutch beginner learning to speak English.

Therefore, you might hear a Dutch person say: ‘like you this language course?’ (‘vind je deze talencursus leuk?’) instead of ‘do you like this language course?’

What is interesting is that back in the day there was no need for adding auxiliaries in English either. It might seem very weird to you now to form an interrogative sentence without an auxiliary, but just look at back at texts of Shakespeare, for example, and you will see that the Dutch system is used there. (Side note, this might be an interesting topic for a thesis for any of you out there looking for one. Or am I the only one interested to know why this has changed?)

4. Singular Pronouns in Dutch: ‘Iedereen’ is Used for Both ‘Anyone’ and ‘Everyone’

Whereas the English make a distinction between ‘everyone’ and ‘anyone’, the Dutch just use ‘iedereen’ for both. So if you want to say ‘anyone can learn a foreign language’ or ‘it seems like everyone is learning foreign languages these days’, in Dutch you would use ‘iedereen’ in both cases.

Similarly, ‘alles’, is used for both ‘everything’ and ‘anything’. So again using an example, you would use ‘alles’ in both ‘everything is written in Flemish’ or ‘I can’t understand anything written in Flemish’.

Even though ‘iedereen’ clearly refers to multiple people, it is considered to be a singular pronoun in Dutch. The same goes for ‘alles’: although it refers to multiple things, it’s considered a singular pronoun. Therefore, you say ‘iedereen is en ‘alles is instead of ‘iedereen zijn‘ en ‘alles zijn‘.

‘Anyone’ and ‘everyone’ in English are considered to be singular pronouns too, however, in conversational English you will sometimes come across a sentence like ‘everyone is showing off their language skills’. In Dutch, albeit formal or informal, you will never come across something like this.

5. The pronoun ‘Het’ (‘It’) is Used for Both Singular and Plural Forms of Nouns

If a Dutch person comes up to you and says it are good quality tulips’, you’ll probably have to try hard to suppress a grin. This is how we say it in Dutch though, as a plural form of ‘het’ does not exist. In Dutch, you would say, het zijn goede kwaliteit tulpen’.

A mountain of tulip bulbs Lots of Dutch tulip bulbs at the flower market in Amsterdam. Photo via visualhunt.com.

Okay, if it’s one of those annoying salesmen at the flower market in Amsterdam, you’re allowed to let out a little grin. But in any other situation, keep in mind that translating ‘het zijn’ into ‘they are’ can be tricky for the Dutch who are just starting to learn English.

It’s not that using ‘they are’ in these cases doesn’t exist in Dutch. However, this is done only when ‘they’ is not directly linked to a noun in the same sentence. ‘They are’ is only used referring back to a noun, for example in a previous sentence.

So for example: ‘het zijn goede kwaliteit tulpen’ (‘they are high quality tulips’), and ‘ze zijn van goede kwaliteit’ (‘they are of good quality’). Notice that in the second sentence, the noun, ‘tulpen’, is not present.

We hope you enjoyed our blog. Why not check out the whole series on Dutch Grammer. 🙂

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