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Dutch Syntax for Beginners

By Annemiek, published on 10/12/2018 Blog > Languages > Dutch > How to Structure Dutch Sentences

Dutch is a complicated language. That’s not so much an opinion, but probably a fact. One of the reasons that the language is so complicated is that the word sequence in a sentence is difficult to understand and to learn. In this blog we will try to discuss the basic structure of Dutch sentences. In the first section of this blog we will talk about the most basic Dutch sentences and their components. After that, in the second section, we will talk about some elements that can be added to the sentence to expand it.

We have tried to keep it as simple as possible. Learning Dutch sentence structures will always remain tough and that is primarily so because there are so many possible additions Those you will simply have to learn. Good luck with learning this element of the Dutch language, we are sure that you will manage!

Longing for Dutch countryside is a good reason to learn Dutch If you long for the tidiness of a Dutch garden in the spring… Source: Pixabay Credit MabelAmber

A Basic Dutch sentence

First of all, let’s discuss the word sequence in Dutch sentences. After that we will discuss a basic sentence before we move one and add other possibilities to the sentence. As mentioned earlier, what we discuss are the basic rules. Unfortunately, Dutch is complicated language so there are a lot of possible additions. Nonetheless, you need to start somewhere and that is what we will do.

In general a sentences consists of the following elements in the following order: subject, direct verb, time, manner, place, other verbs. Not all elements are always included in every sentence. The following sentences does include all of these elements: Ik heb vanmorgen met tegenzin in de sportschool getraind. In this sentence Ik is the subject (which means I), heb is the direct verb (which means have), vanmorgen is the time (which means, this morning), met tegenzin is the manner (which means reluctantly), in de sportschool is the place (which means the gym) and finally getraind is the additional verb (which means trained).  In English this sentence would be This morning I went to the gym reluctantly.

These sentences can help you learn

Before we talk about adding extra elements in sentences lets discuss the most basic Dutch sentence that can be made. The most simple Dutch sentence consists of a subject, direct verb and phrasal verbs. With those three word types you can, for example, form a sentence like: Loes en Jaap (typical Dutch names!) zullen komen eten. In English this sentence would be: Loes and Jan are coming for dinner.

Yes, the structure is completely different from an English sentence, have you noticed?! In this sentence Loes en Jaap are the subject, zullen (which means: will) is the direct verb and komen eten (which literally means: coming to eat) are the phrasal verbs.

Past the basics, adding extra elements to the sentence

The following extra elements can be added in a sentence. There are many elements that can be found and we have select 5 of them that we will discuss.

  • Het lijdend voorwerp

Losely translated, in English the lijdend voorwerp would be the direct object. You can find the ‘lijdend voorwerp’ in a sentence by asking the following question: Wat [verbs] the subject? The answer to that question is your lijdend voorwerp. For example, you can use the sentence “Hij bakt een appeltaart” (He is baking an apple pie). The questions would than be: What is he baking? or Wat bakt hij? In conclusion: the apple pie is the lijdend voorwerp.

Unfortunately, the lijdend voorwerp does not have a fixed place in the sentence. To find the correct position for the lijdend voorwerp you have to decide if the lijdend voorwerp is specific or non-specific. The lijdend voorwerp is always placed in the middle of the sentence.

A specific lijdend voorwerp is a lijdend voorwerp that starts with de or het, a lijdend voorwerp that starts with mijn, jouw, die, dat, deze, dit. Finally, a specific lijdend voorwerp is als every person, city, book title, and so forth.

A non-specific lijdend voorwerp is one that starts with a number, with een or with a onbepaald voornaamwoord (you will want to Google that one, we won’t explain it in this specific blog).  There are a few more exceptions that can be discussed but we are quite sure that you may fill dizzy already. Therefore, its time for the next subject.

  • Het meewerkend voorwerp

The meewerkend voorwerp is the recipient of the lijdend voorwerp. Typically the meewerkend voorwerp will start with aan of voor. To explain this we can use the following sentence as an example. De kok had een heerlijke maaltijd voor ons bereid.

In this sentence, de kok, which is the cook, is the subject, had is a verb, een heerlijke maaltijd, which is a great meal, is the lijdend voorwerp (we are sure you already used the question-methode mentioned above!) and the meewerkend voorwerp is voor ons, which means for us. The meewerkend voorwerp is always placed in the middle of the sentence.

The Dutch language is complicated A typical Dutch image.

  • Bijvoeglijk naamwoorden

Bijvoeglijk naamwoorden are relatively simple, they are adjectives. There are hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of bijvoeglijke naamwoorden in Dutch. They are almost always used in combination with a noun. Bijvoeglijk naamwoorden can be placed just before the noun, but that is not always necessarily the case. They can also be placed in separate parts of a sentence.  Bijvoeglijk naamwoorden can be used in 4 different ways. In Dutch these four different ways are described as followed.

Attributief (from the English verb: to attribute), in this case the bijvoeglijk naamwoord is always placed exactly in front of the noun. Next, bijvoeglijk naamwoorden can be indepent. A bijvoeglijk naamwoord is independent in the following sentence: Do you want a red one of a white one? The noun itself is not mentioned in this sentence. Next, a bijvoeglijk naamwoord can be predicatief. In the sentence, the car is red, the bijvoeglijk naamwoord is predicatief.

Finally, a bijvoeglijk naamwoord can be bijwoordelijk. The car is driving fast, that’s a sentence with a bijwoordelijk bijvoeglijk naamwoord for you! As you understand, a bijvoeglijk naamwoord can be placed anywhere in the sentence, depending on the situation.

  • Wederkerend werkwoord

This is going to be a complicated one for us to explain. A wederkerend werkwoord refers to the subject, twice actually. We will explain the wederkerend werkwoord with an example. We will use the verb schamen. Which means to be ashamed, to ashame oneself.

In Dutch, if you are ashamed, you will say Ik schaam me, this would literally translated in to I ashame me, where the me is the wederkerend werkwoord.  Jij schaamt je, next, you are ashamed. And je is the wederkerend werkwoord. In a sentence, of course, the wederkerend werkwoord is always placed with the verb. We hope that we have been able to make this element of the sentence a little clearer for you!

  • Kort meewerkend voorwerp en lijdend voorwerp

We have discussed the meewerkend voorwerp en the lijdend voorwerp. The kort meewerkend voorwerp and lijdend voorwerp are the shortened versions of these. We will discuss this based on the following example sentence: ZIj geeft het boek aan hem (She gives the book to him). In Dutch this sentence would often be shortened to Zij geen hem het boek. This shortens the meewerkend voorwerp. Normally that would be aan hem, now it shorted to hem. The same goes for a short lijdend voorwerp in a sentence.

A lijdend voorwerp in a sentence is short when it consists of one of the following words:me/mij, je/jou, haar, hem, het, ons, jullie en hen. In order to determine therefore if a word is a kort lijdend voorwerp you need to answer the question we mentioned before being: What – the verbs- the subject? If the answer then consists of one of the mentioned words, then you have a kort lijdend voorwerp. We hope you are still with us in this! This is the last extra element we will discuss here.

Don't get confused The flag of the Netherlands.

Our Conclusions

Ok, we mentioned earlier that the Dutch language is a difficult one. However, we have discussed the most common sentence structure and we hope that we have made it a bit clearer for you. As said there are dozens of elements that can be added, and we have also discussed a few of these. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to understanding the structure of the Dutch sentences.

Therefore the most important thing is to practice, practice, practice and ask people to correct you when you are wrong. The most important elements to remember are subject, direct verb, time, manner, place, other verbs. As long as you have those in order you should be fine.

As a person that is a native Dutch I honestly have to tell you that I think that most Dutch people who not be able to name most elements one by one. But then again, we have had the advantage that we have learned it automtically. The sentence structure is of course always learned in school at the age of 9 or 10. Good luck with learning!


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