Grammar: Word Order (First Steps)
The Dutch word order is very flexible, which is convenient but it is also difficult at the same time. In this grammar post, we will explain the basic word order - you cannot go wrong with this one!
Dutch word order is underlyingly what linguistics call “SOV” (subject - object - verb). But, there is an additional rule: the finite verb (the verb that is inflected for the subject) comes in the second position of a main clause (“V2”). Because of this, sentences with only one verb have a “SVO” (subject - verb - object) order.
- Ik eet een appel. - “I eat an apple.”
- Hij heeft de brief. - “He has the letter.”
- Jullie kennen haar. - “You (all/guys) know her.”
The same word order applies when the object is changed with an adverb (manner, place or time):
- Je rijdt te snel. - “You drive too fast.”
- Zij gaat naar school. - “She goes to school.”
- Ze slapen nu. - “They are sleeping now.”
So far so good? Well, buckle up your seatbelts, because it is getting a bit more complex. The Dutch word order is both very flexible and very strict when it comes to adverbs. There are several different places in a sentence where adverbs can be inserted, but there are also a lot of arbitrary rules.
In most cases, the adverb comes after the verb. If the verb has an object (the person or thing that is receiving the action of the verb), the adverb comes before or after the object, depending on whether it is definite or indefinite.
A definite object is either a definite pronoun ("me/mij", "je/jou", etc), or a noun with a definite article ("de", "het") or possessive ("mijn", "jouw", etc). Adverbs usually come after a definite object:
- Ik eet de boterham nu. - “I am eating the sandwich now.”
An indefinite object is an indefinite pronoun ("iets", "iemand", etc) or a noun with an indefinite article ("een") or no article. Adverbs always come before an indefinite object:
- Ik eet nu een boterham. - “I am eating a sandwich now.”
It is always possible to put an adverb at the beginning of the sentence, for emphasis. This will cause inversion and is explained later in this post.
There are two types of questions, both in English and in Dutch: open and closed. Closed questions can only be answered with 'yes' (ja) or 'no' (nee). Open questions normally start with a so-called interrogative pronoun (who, what, how, etc).
Turning a sentence into a closed question is relatively easy in Dutch. Unlike in English, where you often have to add the auxiliary verb "to do", you only have to change the word order of the sentence to form a question. For example:
- Hij spreekt Nederlands. - “He speaks Dutch.”
- Spreekt hij Nederlands? - “Does he speak Dutch?”
As you can see, the subject and the verb switch places in a question (inversion - explained later on) and you will also encounter it when you learn more complicated sentence structures.
Open questions have the same word order as other sentences.; the finite verb is in the second position. In this case, an interrogative pronoun is added:
- Wie zit daar? - “Who is sitting there?”
- Wat ziet zij? - “What does she see?”
- Waar wonen jullie? - “Where do you (all/guys) live?”
It was already mentioned before, and here it finally is: inversion.
In Dutch, just like in English, you can move words to the beginning of the sentence to give them more emphasis. However, the V2 rule requires that the verb must remain in the second place. Therefore, as another word is moved to the first place, the verb switches places with the subject. This is called inversion:
- Ik eet nu een boterham. - “I am eating a sandwich now.”
- Nu eet ik een boterham. - “Now I am eating a sandwich.”
Adverbs are often moved to the beginning for emphasis, but the same can be done with the object of the sentence. This will change the word order to “OVS” (object - verb - subject), which can make a sentence very ambiguous! Furthermore, prepositional phrases and subclauses can also cause inversion, but you will see this in another post.
Losing the -t?
When a sentence is inverted, an odd thing can happen: if the subject is je (or the stressed form jij), then the verb loses the -t at the end.
- Je spreekt Nederlands. - “You speak Dutch.”
- Spreek je Nederlands? - “Do you speak Dutch?”
This does not happen for any other subject, like hij or ze, or even u! So keep a close eye out for the combination of inversion + je/jij.
Time-Place or Place-Time?
Dutch and English word order cannot agree on this matter. In English, place comes before time, whilst in Dutch, the place comes after time.
- Het kind gaat morgen naar school. - “The child is going to school tomorrow.”
- Ik eet vandaag thuis. - “I am eating at home today.”
Adding another verb
So, Dutch has this rule that the finite verb comes second (V2 rule). But what about the other verbs? In English, all the verbs are placed together. First the finite verb, then the others. This is different in Dutch, where all the other verbs come at the end of the sentence. So most longer Dutch sentences look like this: subject - finite verb - object - manner - time - place - other verbs. Note that you can put the object, place, or time at the first spot of the sentence. The subject will move to the spot directly after the finite verb.
- Zij is dit jaar met haar broer naar Nederland geweest. - “She has been to the Netherlands this year.”
- Dit jaar is zij naar Nederland geweest. - “This year, she has been to the Netherland.”
- Ik ga hier vanaf morgen wonen. - “I will live here from tomorrow on.”
- Hier ga ik vanaf morgen wonen. - “Here I will live from tomorrow on.”
- Vanaf morgen ga ik hier wonen. - “From tomorrow on, I will live here.”
“Niet” and “geen”
Last but not least, the placement of “niet” and “geen” in a sentence. The usage of “niet” and “geen” is explained in this grammar post.
The placement of “geen” is not too difficult: it is placed right in front of the noun it negates.
- We hebben geen boeken. - “We do not have books.”
- Het is geen kat. - “It is not a cat.”
The placement of “niet” in a sentence depends on what you are negating. If you're trying to negate something particular like an adverb or adjective, then it's best to put “niet" right before it.
- Mijn rok is niet geel.* - “My skirt is not yellow.”
- Ik eet niet altijd vis.* - “I do not always eat fish.”
In most other cases, "niet" comes after the "middle part" of the sentence - where you usually have the time, manner and place.
- Ik heb hem gisteren (time) niet gezien. - “I did not see him yesterday.”
- Ik heb door het lawaai (manner) niet kunnen slapen. - “I could not sleep due to the noise.”
- Ik heb de boeken (definite object) niet. - “I do not have the books.”
Put "niet" here, and you will likely be right.
Despite the "place" usually being in the middle part of a sentence, "niet" usually comes before it when it indicates a direction.
- Wij gaan niet naar huis. - “We are not going home.”
However, if you put "niet" in front of the time, manner and place, then you are stressing that it was not then that I did it (but later), that it was not there that I did it (but here), or I didn't do it like that (but like this). + Hij gaat niet vandaag naar de maan. - “He is not going to the moon today.” (But tomorrow)
Don’t be discouraged!
Now you now the very basics of Dutch word order! A lot to take in, isn’t it? It can get extremely complicated, but don't get discouraged! People will still understand you if you mess this up.
If you think you can handle more, you can try the second part.
After twice through the course I still mostly use my best guess on word order. Still seems like word soup to me. I guess eventually the penny will drop but not seeing light at the end of the tunnel just yet!
I know what you mean Red512202! For me trying to work out the word order is the most difficult part of learning Dutch (so far). Just when I think I have got it right and see light at the end of the tunnel, I get it wrong and the light goes out again. I guess I will get there eventually (He said hopefully).
I have so many questions about this sentence:
Ik heb door het lawaai niet kunnen slapen.
- What is the meaning of "door" here? "Due to?"
- Why the verb "Kunnen" isn't in the past participle form "gekund"?
- Can I also say, "Door het lawaai heb ik niet kunnen slapen"?
- That's right. The preposition "door" can mean through or because of/due to. For the latter, it's synonymous to "vanwege".
- Good question. This is something weird that happens with modal verbs in the present perfect. Explained at the end of this post: https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/24981849
- Yes, for sure.