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Grammar: Jij vs. Je / Zij vs. Ze / Wij vs. We

As the title suggests, this grammar explanation thread concerns the difference (in use) between marked and unmarked pronouns. This is really about the difference in Dutch between the pronouns that receive emphasis, and those that do not.

The marked and unmarked pronouns

Thusly, we have several pronouns which have a marked/stressed and a standard, unmarked form. These are the ones we’re talking about:

As you may have guessed, the Ik (= I), Hij (= he), and Jullie (= You, plural) forms do not have both a marked and an unmarked version.

When we, the Dutch, feel like emphasizing an inanimate entity, a ‘thing’, which we address with ‘het’ or ‘hij’ (it) and ‘ze’ (they), then we choose to use a demonstrative pronoun.

Anecdote: Interestingly, there’s a difference between the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and that spoken in Flanders (Flemish) in this respect. Flemish, in fact, uses ‘ze’ for the inanimate feminine nouns. In contrast, in the Netherlands, inanimate entities, or things, are not described as being feminine and generally approached with either the ‘it’ pronoun or the masculine ‘hij’.

So when do we use marked pronouns?

Yes, this distinction between different pronouns is not for naught. It actually has a function. We use marked pronouns when we want to emphasize the pronoun. Generally speaking, you’ll use one version or the other depending on the situation you are in. However, in speech there are cases in which an unmarked pronoun fits better than a marked pronoun, and vice versa. You’ll get a feeling for this by learning the language. Also remember not to stress an unmarked pronoun and note this: we use unmarked pronouns more frequently than their marked versions.

How do we emphasize the pronoun?

  1. Obviously, we first use the right version: zij, or ze, wij, or we, and jij, or je.
  2. However, when we give emphasis to the pronoun we increase our pitch
  3. We also tend to increase our volume, ever so slightly
  4. In addition, the word is also pronounced ‘longer’ (its duration is stretched in comparison to that of the unmarked pronoun). Thus, in contrast, when you’re using an unmarked pronoun, you should emphasize another part of the sentence (instead of the pronoun).


  1. Jij vs. Je (marked vs. Unmarked)

    Jij moet dat doen.” = “You have to do that” (that’s you, and not me!)
    Je moet dat doen.” = “You have to do that” (in order to…)

  2. Zij vs. Ze (marked vs. Unmarked)

    Zij wil vandaag zwemmen.” = “She wants to swim today.” (but I don’t….)
    Ze wil vandaag zwemmen.” = “She wants to swim today.”

  3. Dat vs. Het (marked vs. Unmarked)

    Dat klopt niet.” = “That is not correct”. (something specific is incorrect).
    Het klopt niet.” = “It is not correct”. (something in general is incorrect).

  4. Deze/die vs. Hij (marked vs. Unmarked)

    Deze geeft licht” = “This one gives light”.
    Hij geeft licht” = “It gives light.

  5. Wij vs. we (marked vs. Unmarked)

    Wij komen niet.” = “We are not coming.” (but the others are…)
    We komen niet.” = “We are not coming.”

  6. Zij vs. Ze (marked vs. Unmarked)

    Zij luisteren nooit naar ons.” = “They never listen to us.” (talking about a group in specific)
    Ze luisteren nooit naar ons.” = “They never listen to us.” (talking about some group in general)

  7. Deze/die vs. Ze (inanimate entities/things)

    Deze horen daar niet bij.” = “These ones do not belong with that.”
    Ze horen daar niet bij.” = “They do not belong with that.”

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July 16, 2014



This may be the conventional way of explaining the difference, but it appears to me that at least for jij/je, zij/ze, wij/we it is misleading. For example, Google Books has almost twice as many hits for "wij zijn" as for "we zijn". This wouldn't make sense if wij were just the stressed/emphasised/marked version of we. Stressed, emphasised and marked are relatively precise linguistic terms which in the majority of uses of wij obviously don't apply.

There is what I consider a much clearer explanation here, in German, from a native Dutch speaker. She refers to the variants as full and reduced and explains that the full version can be either stressed or unstressed, but the reduced version can only be used when the pronoun is unstressed. She also explains that there is a bias towards the full forms in the written language and towards the reduced forms in the spoken language.

This is completely logical as the reduced versions are what comes out naturally when you pronounce the full versions sloppily. This helps to predict/remember some usage distinctions that would otherwise be arbitrary:

  • Why can't the reduced versions be stressed? - Because stress is incompatible with sloppy pronunciation.
  • Why can the full versions be unstressed? - Because careful pronunciation doesn't imply stress.
  • Why is there a preference for the full versions in writing, and an extremely strong one in older literature? - Because the full versions can be thought of (or at least were once thought of) as 'more correct' in the same fuzzy sense in which some native English speakers think of it is as 'more correct' than it's.
  • Why can some of the reduced versions also stand for more than one pronoun? - Because sloppy pronunciation can make two different words such as jij and jouw sound the same.

PS: When I came back to add a reference to some linguistic literature, I found that this post at -1 with no comments. I think that's bad form. If I am wrong I would love to get an explanation why I am wrong. It's hard to learn from a downvote.

I don't know how to search for literature on Dutch linguistics systematically. Here are quotations from what I found with my unsystematic search:

  • Marlies van der Velde, The asymmetry of Dutch weak pronouns. This paper is only about object pronouns. (The present post by Lavinae is about subject pronouns.) Still it's interesting to note the terminology she uses: "Dutch has two series of pronouns: a series of full forms (strong pronouns) and a series of reduced forms. The status of these reduced forms is the subject of some debate."
  • Frank van Eynde, On the notion ‘minor preposition’. "Like French and Italian, Dutch has two types of personal pronouns: the full or tonic ones and the reduced ones [...]. The most conspicuous difference between the two types is a phonological one: while the full pronouns can be stressed, the reduced ones cannot. [...] Next to the phonological and syntactic differences there is also a semantic one. Whereas the full pronouns are always used as the argument of some predicate, be it a verb, a preposition or an adjective, the reduced ones can also be used in positions which are not assigned any semantic role. In other words, the reduced forms may have semantically vacuous uses, whereas the full forms are always referential."

To sum this up, linguists refer to the two kinds of pronouns as full and reduced, or as major and minor, and it appears they have good reasons for this choice of terminology.


This is great!

I realize that we have the same thing, only less developed, in spoken english, where when "you" is pronounced as "yuh" or "ya" or "y'," it always functions like the dutch unstressed form. It's not new-- "Ya gotta have heart, all ya really need is heart"--it's just ongoingly invisible in grammar books.

Might help a native english speaker to distinguish the usages, to keep that in mind. (It's not that the stressed "you" didn't and doesn't exist concurrently, BTW; "hey you!--yeah You! You listen to me: ya gotta have heart.")


Thanks, these are some really interesting points and probably worth considering. But please be patient with Team Dutch :) They are all very busy right now. And the choice between a more precise terminology and a commonly (as far as the Dutch language teaching community is concerned, if I understand Lavinae correctly) established terminology, is certainly not an easy one.


Upvote with an explanation: I was beginning to deduce that "marked" versus "unmarked" corresponded to contractions in English plus "stressed" and "unstressed" pronunciations, like we are versus we're which can be pronounced "correctly" when it's emphasized as /wii ər/ or as /wɚ/ (rhymes with "bird" without the /d/) when it's not emphasized - or when it becomes a habit.

Your explanation aligns with my theory. Thank you!


I completely agree with this interpretation of the two forms. This (Dutch) site gives a nice overview of all forms, and also uses the terminology of full and reduced forms:


It is noted there that ie, 'k, 'm, 'r, d'r, 't, m'n, z'n (the reduced forms of hij, ik, hem, haar, haar, het, mijn, zijn) are typically not written down/spelled the same as the full forms. They are heard very regularly nonetheless, and in many situations it sounds odd if someone does not say the reduced form of a personal pronoun!

Maybe it would be nice if there was a separate Duolingo exercise for this, containing sound files with the reduced forms (but using the typical writing conventions, so writing "hij" when hearing "ie").


Thanks for the explenation, both of these are great


Greetings all.

So I'm wondering how frequently the emphasized pronouns are used in Dutch compared to English. In English, it doesn't seem like emphasizing nouns and pronouns is all that frequent, unless you're trying to make a point or something, but I gather that it must be quite a bit more frequent in Dutch than in English if there's a whole set of pronouns devoted to it. Any thoughts?

Thank you!


It is very frequent in Dutch. The fact that one of the pronouns is marked and the other unmarked is useful in poetic contexts, in literature and other cases of written Dutch and when you want to get a specific message (with emphasis) across in a conversational context (also for the sake of clarity).

Generally speaking, however, in spoken Dutch we sometimes use one of the two because of their (un)marked nature, but (I personally have to admit that) we also just use either form, without giving it much thought. Whereas the distinction is certainly there and at times very useful, in practice it often disappears (it being of no concern) and these personal pronouns are used interchangeably. :)

I'm a native speaker so I rarely put much conscious thought into my use of marked vs. unmarked pronouns. I only really think about which pronoun I use when I want to get a specific message across, which emphasizes a particular individual. For instance: "Zij heeft dat gedaan" ( = she has done it (it wasn't me)). This happens about less than once a week. :)

In sum: Yes, marked pronouns are used very frequently. Even though the distinction can be usefully used for clarification purposes and the use of one pronoun over the other does make a difference (in certain situations), the marked and unmarked pronouns are also very much used interchangeably.


We do it all the time: "you hold the screw, I'll hold the wire" is a stressed "you." And, "you need to clean the bathroom [it's your turn, I'm not doing it again]" is a stressed "you." In contrast, unstressed would be, "for assembly, you put the coupling in the large hole, you next place the set screw in the small hole, then you use the provided hex wrench to tighten the set screw until finger-tight." Or, "to get there, you go straight, take the second right, and then you should see the red sign on the left. If you reach the river, you've gone too far."

I notice my dutch spouse suffers from the absence of two distinct forms in English, and sometimes feels ordered to do something when that's not the case--especially if the general directions / information are said distinctly and emphatically. Or fails to understand a direct request as being....directed. I also notice that the in-laws will point and very intently say YOU! or 'We!" when they're intending the stressed usage in English. It can come across as bossy, actually, but it's just filling in for the absence of a linguistic distinction.


My understanding is that it's not so much about emphasis, but really about clear and non-sloppy pronunciation. This corresponds to not using a contraction in English when you could. Normally it doesn't matter whether you use a contraction or not, but obviously you can't stress a word when you have contracted its syllable away. Similarly, you never pronounce an emphasised word sloppily, e.g. replacing the clear ie/ay sound of jij by the neutral schwa sound of je.

Maybe Dutch is a bit further advanced on the path towards a grammatical difference between two words jij and je as opposed to just a phonetic phenomenon making the vowel of English is optionally disappear if it's unstressed. But I don't think you can make any mistakes by just ignoring this and thinking of English contractions as a perfect analogy.


This is interesting - but in the app it asks me to translate but without context or inflection. How am I supposed to know? I often feel like its a 50/50 guess.


Often both versions are correct. If you feel that the personal pronoun probably isn't stressed in English, then it probably isn't stressed in Dutch either. In this case you have free choice in principle, but should prefer the more casual je or ze because native speakers normally prefer it in this situation. But if the personal pronoun is stressed in English, then it's probably stressed in Dutch as well. Since you can't stress je or ze, you must use jij or zij.

If you are confused and you just want to make sure not to make a mistake: Whenever je/ze is possible, jij/zij is also possible, so by always choosing jij/zij you are on the safe side.

Except that je can also mean jou[w] (your), in which case obviously it would be a mistake to use jij. By the way, that's another trick: If you can't decide whether it should be jou or jouw, you can just use je instead.

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