If you’re just starting to learn Dutch, it can be a serious challenge to get a grip on the grammar. Even Dutch natives sometimes are not able to understand the rules of their own language properly!
Despite the struggle, there certainly is a method to the madness that is Dutch grammar errors.
In fact, let me help you out a bit.
This article is going to teach you exactly what pitfalls to watch out for when you’re going to dive a bit deeper into the Dutch language. The patterns you’ll learn are way more important than learning words inside out, so make sure to pay attention and lock them up safely inside that noggin of yours.
What Are The Most Common Dutch Grammar Errors?
If you speak or write Dutch, you will commonly encounter the following grammar errors:
- Ending with d, t, or dt: This is one of the most common mistakes you’ll find and it applies to almost any Dutch sentence you will make. Knowing what letters to use at the end of a word ending in a t-sound can be a struggle. It comes down to knowing if it already happened (d), or if it refers to another person (t or dt). If a sentence feels like a future or current event, we could say “He becomes stronger”, i.e. “Hij wordt sterker”. This refers to him in the future, so we can use the base of the word “worden” (to become) to add the standard base (word) + t, which makes “hij wordt”. In case of a past event, you would say “He improved his strength”, i.e. “Hij heeft zijn kracht verbeterd”. The keyword being “verbeterd” here, which refers to the improvement. The word ends with a d, because it already happened. If you want to be absolutely sure of all the relevant circumstances and exceptions, use the following list as a grammatical rule of thumb:
- Self-form with root: I + root (or root + I), for example: I've been there yesterday = "Ik ben daar gisteren geweest". Yesterday, I've been there = "Gisteren ben ik daar geweest".
- You-form with +t (or without): You root + t (or root + you), for example: You think = Jij denkt (denk + t). Or You are = Jij bent (ben + t). Other way around is different, since that would be without +t: Are you = Ben jij (root + you). You have to look at the position of the verb in the sentence for this exception.
- Polite you-form with +t: Much like the German language, Dutch people will use a polite form of you, changing the word je or jij to u or uw. All these words translate to you in English, with the latter two being the polite forms. The polite form will always use root + t, regardless of the position of the words in a sentence. For example: Sir, you are late = Meneer, u bent laat. Likewise, changing the word order in a sentence changes nothing about the use of +t: Sir, are you late? = Meneer, bent u laat?
- He- or she-form with +t: Without assuming gender, you can safely use +t when referring to another person. He becomes stronger = Hij wordt sterker. A she-version of this sentence would result in the same grammatical structure. When we shuffle the words, results stay the same (root +t, e.g. in Dutch word + t): Has she become stronger? = Wordt ze sterker?
- If you're ever confused about when to use the you-form ("je" in Dutch), simply change it to jij of jouw (you or your), that way it makes more sense which example to choose (self-form or you-form).
- Writing that weird g sound with ch or g: Foreigners love this sound, but how do you write that gurgling mess? If you start with the letter s, it’s always “sch”. Sheep becomes schaap, not sgaap. But there’s also the Dutch word for “grumpy”, which translates to “chagarijnig”. That’s a “sja” sound at the start, but also a gurgling g sound right afterwards. Sjaggarhineug. That’s how you pronounce it. It’s going to make sense at some point.
- Glue or rip apart your words: Break light is not “rem licht”, but “remlicht”. Emergency telephone is not “nood paal” but “noodpaal”. Too much would become “teveel” instead of “te veel”. Dutch people don’t like to use their spacebar a lot. Just remove that thing from your keyboard.
- That translates to die or dat: Pointing at things, it’s a struggle in Dutch. Die auto, instead of dat auto. But saying that child, it suddenly becomes “dat kind”. The common rule is: Words in English always start with “the”, but in Dutch they start with either “de” or “het”. Written with “de” before the word will use “die” if you point at them. Words written with “het” are “dat”-words. Dutch people just like you to struggle a bit more.
- Male or female words: The actual reason we use “de” and “het”, usually relates to a word being either male or female or without gender. If they don’t have a gender, it’s always “het”. Otherwise, it’s always going to be “de”. In a Dutch dictionary, you will always find an indication of the gender of a word (m for male, v for female). Some rules of thumb added to this:
- Indicating something as small with -je: These words become without gender ("het"), e.g. "the small bed" is "het bedje", or "the little child" is "het kleine kindje".
- Words with added "exits" are de-words: Words ending with e.g. -heid, -nis, -de or -te are referred to as "de". "De waarheid" = The truth. "De erfenis" = The inheritance. "De liefde" = The love. "De warmte" = The heat. You can find more of those here.
- De-words include trees, rivers, mountains, or any type of landmark.
- De-words are also numbers and letters;
- Het-words are languages, geographic area's, sports, metals or wind directions.
- Past perfect tense (voltooid verleden tijd): This one is just funny. If you want to save something in Word, Dutch people would say “save” or “opslaan”. Dutchies can use English and Dutch for that. This makes for some weird words. It would be “Opgeslagen” – To have saved, because “op” and “slaan” are two words. But it can also be “gesaved”. Make sure to use the correct position of the “ge” part (if it’s two words in Dutch you place it in the middle), and to end a past perfect tense word with either a d or t depending on the pronunciation of the regular past tense. Here are some more situations this might result in: "I washed the floor when the painter had gone again." becomes "Ik boende de vloer toen de schilder weer weg gegaan was." Or "Steven had felt it for a while.", would become "Steven had het al een tijdje gevoeld." Notice also how the word shifts to the end of the sentence on most occasions.
- Using comma's in long sentences: This is something Dutch people even commonly get wrong. Subdividing your sentences with comma's can sometimes even change the meaning of a sentence. For example: "Hurry up Greece!" makes for a painful translation: "Schiet op Griekenland!", which literally translates to "Let's shoot at Greece". A simple comma can fix that. "Hurry up, Greece!" = "Schiet op, Griekenland!". Now the word meaning changes to hurry up.
- The silent N: Kosteloos of kostenloos? Just like the French language, Dutch words can have silent letters in them. Kostenloos is Dutch for "Without costs". Kosten refers to costs, which is the correct use of the word. But if you want to add -loos (which usually indicates "without"), the n becomes silent when you say the word. It sounds like "kosteloos", but you write "kostenloos"! The simple way to know this is to look at the base word, and remove the addition.
- King e versus the common e’s: Creëren. Creëeren. Creeeeëeeeeren. To create something ("creëren") uses a lot of e’s in the Dutch version of the word. How many you use, depends on the base of the word, which is "creëer" (to create). To create would be correct if you say “creëren” and I create would be “Ik creëer”. However, you cannot deduct this from saying the word and the amount of e's is just a matter of "learning by heart". You need to learn these exceptions and never forget them, there are not many words like this with when we call a "trema", which are the little dots on the letter e.
- Writing “at all times” in Dutch: This is one of those horror-exceptions. At all times could translate into “ten alle tijden”, or is it “ter allen tijde”, or perhaps… “Te aller tijden”. Forget all these. The real translation of “at all times” is “Te allen tijde”. Just for no reason at all. Pretty weird, right?
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What English Or Dunglish Mistakes Do Dutch People Often Make?
There’s also a high chance that mistakes are made when a Dutch person tries to learn English. Here are a few commonly made errors. Dutch people like to call these mistakes “steenkolen Engels”, which translates into “charcoal English”, or “Dunglish”:
- I live in Amsterdam for one year: Famous in Dunglish, because sentence structure is totally different in English. Word for word this would be the translation, since “have lived” would not literally translate. One of the most common problems encountered. Correct would, of course, be “I have lived in Amsterdam for one year”.
- Hereby: Please never use this as a translation unless you’re setting up a contract. It’s a translation of “hierbij”, but commonly used in Dutch. Not in English, apparently.
- Greetings: Where people from The Netherlands would use “Groetjes” (casual way of saying goodbye) or “Vriendelijke groeten” (kind regards), they can’t just say “Greetings”. It just doesn’t work that way and makes you sound like some sort of alien or robot.
- Is published: A variation of the first mistake, you can say “The document is published” but better would be “The document has been published”.
- Have seen: “I have seen that last week” or “I saw that last week”? English teachers would prefer the second option. Another one of those steenkolen mistakes related to the past.
- Using “on” vs. “in”: Dutchies would say “Ik heb dat op school geleerd”, which literally translates as “I have learned that on school”. You really sat your bum down on the roof of the building? I think not. It’s actually “I have learned that in school”.
- Future tense: “I’ll do it soon” instead of “I do it soon” is often ignored in Dunglish, whoops…
- –ing words: I am having an idea! Eureka! Little did he know that the correct phrase would be “I have an idea!” Rookie mistake. Especially since “having dinner” or “having a good time” would in fact be correct. This is one of those irregularities in the English language. Can’t blame the Dutch on this one.
- Yes. No.: Here’s a cultural difference, which is quite interesting. In Dutch, it’s fine to just say “Yes.” As your answer, and be considered polite. Their culture is very to the point, no extra politeness required. British are a little more demanding in their politeness, since they would prefer “Yes, thank you”, or “Yes, I do”. It requires a small explanation or addition, which is often omitted by people from The Netherlands. They mean no harm though.
- Make that the cat wise: Dutch sayings are notorious for being translated word for word into English, but that’s only done by really lazy Dutch natives who want to speak English. It’s also often done in a joking manner. If you want some fun examples, make sure to check out this Instagram account. “Maak dat de kat wijs” (“make that the cat wise”) roughly means “I don’t believe what you’re saying, if you can convince the cat (a distrusting animal), I’ll trust you”.
Is It Easy For An English Speaker To Learn Dutch?
Learning the basics of Dutch will be as accessible for an English speaker as any other language. In general, Dutch is deemed more difficult to master than an average language, especially because of the many grammar exceptions.
It can be a struggle.
But over time, especially once you travel to and live in The Netherlands, you will find yourself speaking words and sentences you would never have imagined. The languages can be quite similar, and adopt plenty of words from each other, as well as having common French or Spanish-derived words. However, the grammar structures can remain a problem for quite a while.
It’s a steep learning curve, but you will overcome it.
The other way around, it’s a little bit different. Dutch people tend to grow up in a heavily Americanized culture, with English spoken television, movies and video games. Especially on the internet, English is the commonly used language by pretty much all Dutch people. They adopt a lot of English words in their own language as well. That’s why an average 6-year old from The Netherlands will often have no problem conversing with a British peer.
Fixing Your Dutch Grammar Mistakes
It’s obvious that for both directions, common errors and grammar mistakes happen. This can be frustrating to perfectionists, but humans are adaptable creatures.
Even if you make mistakes, there will be a level of understanding between two different cultures and languages. Keep practicing, focus on the fundamental common grammar rules, and make sure to never ever give up learning.
You will have to accept that you won’t ever 100% grasp every word or sentence structure, but neither do Dutch natives. It’s fine to not know everything, as long as you can make yourself understood in another culture’s language. Veel plezier met leren!
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