In many respects, such as syntax or verb morphology, Dutch is quite similar to German. However, it has many of its own peculiarities and things that can make Dutch grammar hard to learn. This article gives an overview of the main features of Dutch grammar to give you a general understanding of the system and what you need to pay attention to when learning.
In Dutch, nouns are inflected for number, singular and plural. The plural is formed by the addition of -en or -s. Which of the two should be used is somewhat unpredictable, but there are some general rules.
Cases have largely fallen out of use, as have the endings that were used for them. The former Dutch case system resembled that of modern German and distinguished four cases: nominative (subject), genitive (possession or relation), dative (indirect object, object of preposition) and accusative (direct object, object of preposition). Only the nominative and genitive are still used on a regular basis, with the genitive seldom used and only surviving in the margins of the language.
Standard Dutch has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. However, in large parts of the Netherlands, there is no grammatical distinction between the original masculine and feminine genders, the main distinction nowadays is between common and neuter. Gender is not overtly marked on nouns either and must be learned for each noun.
Many nouns have a diminutive form alongside the normal base form. This form is used to indicate small size or emphasizes a particular endearing quality. The use of diminutives is very common, so much so that they could be considered part of the noun’s inflectional paradigm.
Dutch has both a definite article (de, het for neuter singular) and an indefinite article (een).
There is no indefinite article in the plural, the noun is just used on its own. However, there is a negative indefinite article geen (“no, not a, not any”). Similar to een it is invariable, showing no inflection for gender or number.
Dat is geen man. – That is not a man.
Dat zijn geen mannen. – Those aren’t men.
Within the Dutch noun phrase, adjectives are placed in front of the noun and after the article (if present).
The inflection of adjectives follows the gender and number of the following noun. They also inflect for definiteness, like in many other Germanic languages.
een klein huis – a small house
het kleine huis – the small house
Most adjectives ending in -en have no inflected form.
The uninflected form of an adjective is implicitly also an adverb. This makes it hard at times to distinguish adjectives and adverbs in Dutch.
Adverbs in Dutch are not formed by adding any kind of suffix. As mentioned above, they simply coincide with the uninflected form of adjectives.
Een traag schip – a slow ship
Hij werkt traag – He’s working slowly
The Dutch language uses the following pronouns: pronouns (ik, jij), object (mij, jou), possessive (mijn, jouw), reflexive (mezelf, jezelf), interrogative (wie, welk), demonstrative (det, deze), relative (dat, wat), indefinite (alles, iets).
As in English, Dutch personal pronouns still retain a distinction in case. Two case forms survive: the subjective on the one hand and the objective on the other.
Dutch verbs inflect for person and number, and for two tenses and three moods. However, there is considerable syncretism among the forms: many grammatically distinct lexemes are identical in form.
In modern usage only the present singular indicative has different forms for different persons, all other number, tense and mood combinations have just one form for all persons.
Dutch verbs inflect in these two main tenses:
- The present tense is used to indicate present or future time, and may, therefore, be considered a “non-past” tense.
- The past tense is used to indicate past time.
Verbs also inflect for the following moods:
- The indicative mood is the default mood of Dutch and is used for general statements.
- The subjunctive mood is used for statements that are perceived as hypothetical or desired. Due to syncretism it is only clearly distinguished from the indicative in the present singular. It is rarely used in modern Dutch. Usually, it is replaced by the indicative or by a periphrastic conditional phrase.
- The imperative mood is used for commands. It exists only for the second person; imperatives for other persons are expressed periphrastically. Only one form is used for both the singular and plural imperative in modern Dutch.
Other grammatical categories such as future tense, passive voice, progressive or perfect aspect may be expressed periphrastically. Verbs additionally have an infinitive and two participles (present and past).
Dutch has a complex system of prepositions, including quite a few prepositional expressions: several prepositions used together to form meaning.
Some of the most common Dutch prepositions are: aan (to, on, at), in (in, into), met (with), na (after), naar (to), op (on), van (from, of).
This is a very brief overview of Dutch grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Dutch grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.