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

Return to grammar overview!

1 year ago

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In addition to the explanation above I found the PDF "Er" by W. Voortman very helpful when explaining the concept of "er" (with some extra examples)! The link to this PDF is also included on the external source website mentioned above, but I thought it deserved some extra "highlighting" =)

1 year ago
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Thank you! I've added it to the list.

1 year ago
  1. I just wonder if by any chance "hij neemt er veel foto's" could be rephrased as "er neemt hij veel foto's" (tho of course "there takes he many photos" would be very awkward) or/ and thus translated as "he takes/is taking many photos": if yes, then why "there" is indispensable in the English translation; if not, why? - it's the same way as "er slaapt iemand in mijn bed (Somebody is sleeping in my bed)" - i simply don't see we need "there" (in the English translation) merely to reveal the (mere) fact of "he's taking many photos" - after all, you don't say "someone sleeps/is sleeping THERE in my bed" or thus translates for "er slaapt iemand in mijn bed" (for which "iemand slaapt er in mijn bed" works as a viable/acceptable paraphrase, i guess?) - all in all, i suppose "er" is in the Dutch sentence only because "hij neemt veel foto's" is awkward/less natural the same way as is "iemand slaapt in mijn bed".

  2. I think "In my bed sleeps someone/There sleeps someone in my bed" can be acceptable English (tho less common or a bit archaic/awkward).

  3. "who is sleeping there in my bed?" does not cause/add to emphasis on "who" or "there" itself, as corresponding to the Dutch sentence; on the contrary, i see it serves exactly a confirmation (question) of "is it that someone is sleeping in my bed?" instead of a sort of distinct questioning about "WHO is sleeping in my bed?" - unless you are going to tell me such questioning is exactly what the Dutch sentence about, i.e. "er" is for the emphasis on "wie", but then it'd contradicts the 1st tip/appear self-contradictory. However, the fact that "there" exists in "who is sleeping there in my bed" without causing emphasis does not entail "there" in the "photos" (or any other) sentence - i mean to say "there" is dispensable across these sentences and it's merely a matter of (personal) habit in (English) language using.

Thanks for any insights.

5 months ago
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Your first point contains the sentence: "Hij neemt er veel foto's." Here 'er' is used as a locative 'er'. For example: "Hij gaat vandaag naar Amsterdam. Hij neemt er veel foto's." Translated: "He goes to Amsterdam today. He takes many photos there." In this sentence 'er' is not used as a 'placeholder for indefinite subject', because 'Hij' is a definite subject.

"Er neemt hij veel foto's" is not correct, again because 'Hij' is a definite subject. However, you could say, "Daar neemt hij veel foto's." Note that "Daar" is a stressed locative, and an unstressed locative "er" would not fit, as it would confuse the determination of the subject "hij".

So, just to confirm: "Hij neemt veel foto's" is a very natural sentence in Dutch, and has a completely different meaning from "Hij neemt er veel foto's".

Regarding your third point. I would argue that the sentence "Er slaapt iemand in mijn bed" ("Someone is sleeping in my bed") means the same as "Het is het geval dat iemand in mijn bed slaapt" ("It is the case that someone sleeps in my bed").

Also note that in the original post, at the first meaning of 'er' (placeholder for indefinite subject), 'there' is strictly used to stress the existence of something, it doesn't refer to a location.

3 weeks ago
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