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Essential Dutch Grammar

Essential Dutch Grammar

by Henry R. Stern, Henry Stern

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This is the first Dutch grammar specifically designed for the adult with limited learning time whose objective is broader, more fluent everyday communication. Avoiding archaic, highly literary and seldom-used forms, this grammar helps those with some knowledge of Dutch use phrases and vocabulary more effectively. For the beginner, it provides all the grammar


This is the first Dutch grammar specifically designed for the adult with limited learning time whose objective is broader, more fluent everyday communication. Avoiding archaic, highly literary and seldom-used forms, this grammar helps those with some knowledge of Dutch use phrases and vocabulary more effectively. For the beginner, it provides all the grammar really needed for speech and comprehension.:
Based on the premise that systematic study of grammar is a shortcut to language learning, Essential Dutch Grammar helps you acquire fluency by emphasizing the strong similarities between English and Dutch, and by concentrating on essentials: spelling, word order, articles and nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, verbs, conjunctions and prepositions--all illustrated by easy-to-understand examples.
While explaining how to avoid complicated sentence constructions, tell time and use idioms, the book provides dozens of useful expressions, four detailed appendices on verbs, and a handy glossary of grammatical terms. Whether you're just beginning the study of Dutch or need a handy refresher course, Essential Dutch Grammar offers a modern, streamlined approach that will enable you to master Dutch in the shortest possible time.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Language Guides Essential Grammar Series
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Essential Dutch Grammar

By Henry R. Stern

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1984 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11627-3



1. Study words and word lists that answer real and preferably immediate personal needs. If you are planning to travel in the near future, your motivation and orientation are clear-cut and a recorded language course or a good travel phrase book will provide you with the material you need. But select from this material that specifically applies to your case. For instance, if you don't plan to motor, don't spend time studying the parts of the car. If you like foreign foods, study the food lists in Say It in Dutch. Even if you do not plan to travel in the near future, you will probably learn more quickly by imagining a travel situation.

2. Memorize by association. Phrase books and recorded language courses usually give associated word lists. If you use a dictionary, don't memorize words haphazardly but choose words which are related and belong to the same family.

3. Study the specialized vocabulary of your profession, business, or hobby. If you are interested in real estate, learn the terms associated with property, buying, selling, leasing, etc. If you are interested in mathematics, acquire a vocabulary in this science. Many of these specialized words can be used in other areas too. You may not find specialized vocabularies in ordinary phrase books, but a good dictionary will help you to make up a list for your own use.


In order to learn Dutch grammar well, the student must first be familiar with the Dutch spelling system, since nouns, verbs, and adjectives often alter their spelling as endings are added. The reason for this is that, unlike English or French spelling, the written form of a Dutch word is a fairly faithful guide to its pronunciation. What initially may appear to the student as a bewildering and capricious change of spelling within a word is actually rigorous adherence to the principle that spelling must reflect pronunciation. To understand how the Dutch spelling system works the student must first recognize the difference between open and closed syllables and then learn five simple rules.

An open syllable is one that ends in a vowel (syllable breaks are shown in square brackets):

paling [pa-ling] (eel) beter [be-ter] (better)
komen [ko-men] (to come) meten [meten] (to measure)

A closed syllable is one that ends in a consonant:

les (lesson) lessen [les-sen] (lessons)
paard (horse) paarden [paar-den] (horses)
mens (human being) mensen [men-sen] (human beings)

Regarding consonants occurring within a word, note that:

1. a single consonant begins the following syllable: hopen [hopen] (to hope);

2. two consonants are divided, the first one ending a syllable and the second one beginning the following syllable: pudding [pud-ding] (pudding), feesten [fees-ten] (festivals).

Rule I. A long vowel is represented by a double vowel letter in a closed syllable, and by a single vowel letter in an open syllable:

boom (tree) long vowel, closed syllable
bomen [bo-men] (trees) long vowel, open syllable
ik loop (I run) long vowel, closed syllable
wij lopen [lo-pen] (we run) long vowel, open syllable
rood (red) long vowel, closed syllable
het rode [rode] licht (the red light) long vowel, open syllable

Note that if a word ends on a long vowel, that vowel is spelled with a single letter. The exception to this rule is ee, which represents the long e-vowel at the end of a word:

ik ga (I go; from gaan, to go)
ik sla (I strike; from slaan, to strike)

nu (now) vla (custard) zo (so, thus)

BUT: twee (two) zee (sea) thee (tea)

Rule II. Short vowels are always represented by a single letter and appear only in closed syllables. In other words, short vowels will be followed either by two consonants, or by one consonant at the end of a word:

smal (narrow)de
smalle [smal-le] weg (the narrow path)
pet (cap) petten [pet-ten] (caps)
man (man) mannen [man-nen] (men)

Note that the doubling of consonants in petten and mannen indicates visually that the vowel remains short in the plural (it is still contained within a closed syllable).

Note also that Rules I and II pertain only to the simple vowels a, e, i, o, u. They do not pertain to: (1) the diphthongs au, ei, ij, ou, ui, and uw; (2) vowels spelled with two different letters (eu, ie, oe); or (3) aai, eeu, ieu, ooi, or oei. Whether these sounds appear in open or closed syllables, their values and spelling remain the same.

Rule III. No Dutch word may end on two identical consonants. In the Dutch spelling system a double consonant at the end of a word is redundant:

zitten (to sit) ik zit (I sit)
bidden (to pray) ik bid (I pray)
hebben (to have) ik heb (I have)

Rule IV. The letters f and s change to v and z, respectively, when, owing to the addition of an ending, they begin rather than end a syllable:

brief (letter) brieven [brie-ven] (letters)
lief (dear) mijn lieve [lie-ve] moeder (my dear mother)
roos (rose) rozen [ro-zen] (roses)
huis (house) huizen [hui-zen] (houses)

Rule V (converse to Rule IV). The letters v and z change to f and s, respectively, when, owing to the change in the form of a word, they end rather than begin a syllable:

leven (to live)
Ik leef (I live)

Ik leefde [leef-de] (I lived)
reizen (to travel) Ik reis (I travel)

Ik reisde [reis-de] (I traveled)

These rules for spelling will be repeated in the text at the appropriate places. The student is encouraged, however, to review this chapter before proceeding.


Dutch sentences employ three basic types of word order. The position of the working (conjugated) verb provides the focal point for their description. Once these three basic frameworks are familiar to the student, he will encounter few difficulties with Dutch sentence patterns.

Type I. In most Dutch sentences the working (conjugated) verb occupies second position. The subject of the sentence normally, but not always, takes first position. If some element other than the subject begins the sentence, the subject is regularly placed immediately after the working verb. Inactive verb forms (infinitives and past participles) come at the end of the sentence.

Sequence 1: subject, working verb (in italic), ..., infinitive/ participle

Ik help hem.
I help (am helping) him.
Hij zal ons helpen.
He will help us.
Het kind wil met de kat spelen. The child wants to play with the cat.
Ik heb hem gisteren opgebeld.
I called him yesterday.
Ik heb hem vaak moeten helpen. I often had to help him.

Sequence 2: first element (not the subject), working verb (in italic), subject, ..., infinitive/participle

Wanneer komt hij terug?
When is he coming back?

Morgen moeten wij vertrekken.
We must leave tomorrow.

Met wie hebt u daarover gesproken?
With whom did you talk about it?

In de krant heb ik dat artikel gelezen.
It was in the newspaper that I read that article.

Deze man wil ik niet helpen.
I do not want to help this man.

Omdat het zo hard regent, blijven wij thuis.
Since it is raining so hard, we are staying home.

Note that almost any element may occupy first sentence position: question words, adverbs, prepositional phrases, object nouns and pronouns, or even an entire clause. Sentence elements with significant information value are often assigned first position, as are those ideas a speaker or writer wishes to emphasize.

Type II. In yes-and-no questions the working verb stands in first position, followed by the subject. The working verb also occupies first position in commands. If a subject is expressed, it follows the verb. Inactive verb forms (infinitives and past participles) occupy last position.

Sequence: working verb (in italic), subject, ..., infinitive/ participle

zijn Piet en Ineke al thuis?
Are Piet and Ineke home already?
Leest u deze krant?
Do you read this newspaper?
Kun je hem morgen afhalen?
Can you pick him up tomorrow?
Kom toch mee!
Do come along!
Ga (jij) met hem mee!
(You) go along with him!
Heb je de nieuwe film al gezien?
Have you seen the new film already?

Type III. In dependent clauses the working verb comes at the end of the clause. Inactive verb forms generally precede the working verb, although they are sometimes placed after it. This is largely a question of usage and style and need not concern the beginning student. There are several kinds of dependent clauses and they will be treated individually in the appropriate chapters. For now the student should merely note the position of the italicized (working) verbs in the examples:

Ik zou graag weten waarom hij dat gedaan heeft (OR: heeft gedaan).
I would like to know why he did that.

Wij weten nog niet of hij ons morgen opbellt.
We do not know yet if he will call us tomorrow.

Hij zegt dat hij niet zingen wil.
He says that he does not want to sing.

Wij maken een wandeltocht, omdat het mooi weer is.
We are taking a walk because the weather is so nice.

Dat is de man, aan wie ik het boek gaf.
That is the man to whom I gave the book.


The question of negation is a complex one in any language. There are many subtle distinctions that may depend on the placement of a negative. The following rules, however, provide solid guidelines for negation in Dutch. Mastery of them will provide the beginning student with a working set of principles to cover most of the sentences he will encounter. In general, the English speaker should bear in mind that English tends to negate the verb itself in most instances: He speaks too loudly; he doesn't speak too loudly. This tendency will not be found in Dutch.

Rule I. In simple sentences the negative niet (not) comes last when the whole sentence is negated:

Ik weet het niet.
I don't know (it).
Hij ziet onze vrienden niet. He doesn't see our friends.
Kom je of kom je niet?
Are you coming or aren't you?

Rule II. In sentences where a predicate adjective follows the verb "to be," niet immediately precedes the predicate adjective:

Ik ben niet rijk.
I am not wealthy.
Hij was niet dapper. He was not brave.

Rule III. When niet negates one specific sentence element, it precedes that element:

Hij speelt niet goed.
He does not play well.

Hij heeft niet goed gespeeld.
He did not play well.

Dat doe ik niet graag.
I don't like to do that.
[LITERALLY: That I do not gladly].

Het zou niet lang duren als....
It would not last long if....

Hij gaat niet met de trein.
He is not going by train.

Ik wil er niet meer aan denken.
I don't want to think about it any more.

Zij zijn niet zo laat aangekomen.
They didn't arrive so (that) late.

Zo veel geld heb ik niet nodig.
I don't need that much money
[So much money have I not necessary].

In many sentences niet combines with an adjective or adverb to render one thought unit: niet meer (no longer), nog niet (not yet), niet zo (not so), niet erg (not very).

Rule IV. In sentences that end with an inactive verb form (infinitive or past participle) or a separable prefix, niet is generally placed immediately before them:

Ik had hem niet kunnen vinden.
I had not been able to find him.

Hij had zijn broodje niet opgegeten.
He had not eaten his sandwich.

Zij wil morgen niet komen.
She doesn't want to come tomorrow.

Het plan ging niet door.
The plan did not go through.

Rule V. In sentences in which one clause has Type III word order, niet is placed immediately before the verb form(s) at the end of that clause:

Ik weet dat hij niet komen wil.
I know that he doesn't want to come.

Ik weet dat Piet dat boek niet vertaald had.
I know that Piet had not translated that book.

Zijn zoon is tandarts, als ik me niet vergis.
His son is a dentist, if I am not mistaken.

Rule VI. Many English sentences negate the verb, while the equivalent Dutch sentence negates the direct object, using the adjective geen (no, not any):

Hij heeft geen geld.
He doesn't have any money (OR: He
has no money).
Spreek je geen Nederlands? Don't you speak any Dutch?


Indefinite Article

In English, the indefinite article is either "a" or "an." In Dutch the indefinite article has only one form, een:

een man (a man) een vrouw (a woman)
een olifant (an elephant)

In informal speech and writing een is often reduced to "n. A stressed form of een, written een, means" one as opposed to "more than one" or "several":

één man (one man [not several])
één hand (one hand [and no more])

Definite Articles

In English, the definite article has only one form, "the," but Dutch has two forms. All plural nouns take the form de. The situation is more complex for singular nouns. Dutch nouns are classified as being of either neuter or common gender, and the gender of a noun determines which of the two forms of the definite article is used with it in the singular. Neuter nouns take het in the singular, while de is used for common-gender nouns. Since gender in Dutch is largely a grammatical rather than a natural category, it is preferable to speak simply of het-words and de-words. Henceforth we will almost always use these terms rather than "neuter" and "common gender." In general, the student is best advised to learn each new Dutch noun together with its (singular) definite article, since there is no foolproof way for determining the gender of most nouns:

de auto (the car) het huis (the house)
de vork (the fork) het mes (the knife)

While memorizing the definite article as you learn each word is the best way of ensuring that you learn the gender of the word, there are nevertheless some general rules that can help you in recognizing and remembering the gender of a noun:

1. Nouns denoting male or female persons are most often de-words. Such nouns often show an agent suffix that marks them as de -words. Some of the more common suffixes are:

-aar de leraar (the teacher) de Leidenaar (the citizen of Leiden) ent de student (the student) de docent (the lecturer) -er de denker (the thinker) de danser (the dancer) -es de zangeres (the [female] singer de lerares (the [female] teacher) -eur de acteur (the actor) de directeur (the director)

2. All diminutives end in -je and are het -words even when they refer to persons:

het meisje (the girl) het mannetje (the little man)
het kopje (the [small] cup)

3. Nouns that end in -isme are also het-words: het communisme (communism) het kapitalisme (capitalism)

4. All nouns ending in the following suffixes are de-words:

-heid de godheid (the deity)
-ij de slagerij (the butcher shop)
-ing de herinnering (the memory)
-teit de identiteit (the identity)
-tiede kwestie (the question)

It should be noted that, in contrast to English, abstract nouns in Dutch are generally preceded by the definite article:

de moed (courage) het leven (life)
het socialisme (socialism)


Excerpted from Essential Dutch Grammar by Henry R. Stern. Copyright © 1984 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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