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Grammar: "Er"

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Introducing... the most annoying, versatile and untranslatable word in the Dutch language. The particle er gives many learners nightmares and is known to have at least five separate uses. In this post we will go through all of them, starting with the most common.

1. Placeholder for indefinite subject

Often, but not always, er can be translated as "there". It is used to express the existence of something:

  • Er is een probleem. - There is a problem.
  • Er is iemand in mijn huis. - There is somebody in my house.

But unlike in English, it can be combined with verbs other than "to be":

  • Er slaapt iemand in mijn bed. - There is somebody sleeping in my bed. = Somebody is sleeping in my bed.

In fact, it is often necessary to include er when the subject is indefinite (i.e. doesn't point to a specific person or object). In the above example, you cannot leave it out without adding some strange, unnatural emphasis:

  • Awkward: Iemand slaapt in mijn bed. - Somebody is sleeping in my bed.

Indeed, the reason behind these particular rules is emphasis: the first element of the sentence receives a special emphasis, which sounds odd when combined with an indefinite subject. That is why the subject is replaced by the placeholder er, which is always unstressed. And that is also why the addition of er is unnecessary when there is already a prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence:

  • In mijn bed slaapt iemand. - In my bed, there is somebody sleeping.

In questions where the subject is "who" or “what”, it is also common to include er, although usually it is not strictly necessary. In this case, it cannot be translated in English.

  • Wie slaapt er in mijn bed? - Who is sleeping in my bed?
  • Less natural: Wie slaapt in mijn bed?

2. Locative "er"

Er can also refer to a location, as an unstressed form of "hier" or "daar".

  • Zijn we er al? - Are we there yet?
  • Ik werk er graag. - I like working there.

3. Describing a quantity

When placed before a number, “er” means of them. This is best shown in some examples:

  • Ik houd van katten. Ik heb er vijf. - I like cats. I have five of them.
  • Ik heb koekjes gebakken. Wil je er een? - I baked cookies. Do you want one (of them)?

Sometimes it doesn’t need to be translated, like in the second example. You cannot leave out “er” in the Dutch sentence, though!

4. Pronominal adverbs

If you encounter a preposition + it, then Dutch will use a pronominal adverb. In this case, “het” is replaced by “er”. This is described in detail in the grammar post on pronominal adverbs.

5. Impersonal passive voice

Dutch has a construction called the impersonal passive voice, which does not exist in English. It describes an action (i.e. a verb) without specifying any subject or object. Not surprisingly, the place of the object is taken by the word “er”. This is described in the grammar post on the passive voice.

External sources

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9 months ago