1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Dutch
  4. >
  5. "He pays them."

"He pays them."

Translation:Hij betaalt hen.

July 18, 2014



When it comes to the verb 'betalen', or 'to pay', either 'hen' or 'hun' can be used depending on which elements are included in the sentence. It really depends on what the direct object is in the sentence. Only if there is already a direct object can 'them' become the indirect object, or 'hun'. In this sentence, there is no other possible element that can constitute the direct object. 'Them' is the direct object and thus 'hen' should be used. Again, this is the case for when you come across the verb 'to pay'.

If you have the sentence "I pay them a hundred euros.", this will be translated as "Ik betaal hun 100€" because the 100€ becomes the direct object and them becomes the indirect object.

After all, what do you pay them? A hundred euros. Since you're paying these euros, which is the direct object, the fact that you're paying to them makes them become the indirect object. You are therefore dealing with hun in this case.

Now if you have another sentence, say, "I have already paid them.", which is "Ik heb hen al betaald", them becomes the direct object. Who have you paid? You've paid them. What have you paid them? The sentence does not give any information about this! There is no other element that can be the direct object.

Thus, in this sentence, it should be hen. At least when 'betalen' is concerned, 'them' only becomes an indirect object if you have a direct object that they 'receive'.

I hope this clarifies things. I can see how this can be confusing, because you would expect pay to go with an indirect object regardless, based on the meaning of the verb. However, at least for the verb to pay, it doesn't work that way. Whenever you come across a sentence with 'to pay' and are in doubt whether 'hen' or 'hun' should be used, look at the different sentence elements present. What is the direct object? Are there two possibilities? Is there an indirect object? This rule of thumb may work for many other sentences as well, but remember: there are always exceptions. :)

Official Dutch Grammar Source


I would like to add to Lavinae’s explanation.

The below may go beyond the scope of this course, but I’ll try to explain it as simple as possible.

A lot of Dutch people – yes, native speakers – don’t (always) know when to use hen or hun. They are very similar; even if you use the wrong one, people will still understand you. It’s possible that in fifty years, hun and hen will, in many cases, be interchangeable.

In German, cases are still widely used; far more than in Dutch and English. So in German it is easier to see the difference between the direct and indirect object. And we can see that German also changes the role of ‘them’ depending on whether ‘the money’ is explicitly mentioned:

  • Er bezahlt sie – here sie is used, which is in the accusative case; generally used for the direct object.

  • Er bezahlt ihnen das Geld – here ihnen is used, which is in the dative case; generally used for the indirect object; das Geld is in the accusative case.

English speakers use word order or a preposition to mark whether a word is a direct or an indirect object. In a standard sentence, the indirect object is placed in front of the direct object:

  • He pays them the money

But you can also use a preposition – although this specific example may sound a little odd to some:

  • He pays the money to them

Betalen is a special case because of its valency. Valency is a linguistic term that indicates how many arguments – another linguistic term – a verb has. Some examples:

  • ‘To sleep’ is a verb with one argument; this means that you only need a subject to make a full sentence: He sleeps.

  • ‘To hit’ is a verb with two arguments; you need a subject and one object to make a full sentence: He hits her.

  • ‘To give’ is verb with three arguments: you need a subject and two objects to make a full sentence: He gives her a present.

One could argue that ‘to pay’ can have either two or three arguments:

  • He pays them

  • He pays them the money

The same is true for Dutch:

  • Hij betaalt hen

  • Hij betaalt hun het geld

And we already saw above that this is true for German as well.

So you could argue that there are two versions of the verb betalen; two versions that look and act exactly the same, except that one uses hen and the other uses hun.

Languages constantly change. And different languages change in different ways. The more languages you learn, the more you’ll notice that what seemed logical in one language, is approached very differently yet just as logically in another.

De Nederlandse Taalunie is an organisation that pursues policies in the field of the Dutch language. As they advise to use hen and hun depending on whether an indirect object is used, we will follow their lead: https://onzetaal.nl/taaladvies/advies/hun-hen

I hope this has somewhat clarified the issue. :-)


Does this mean that in Dutch, an indirect object has to become a direct object if no direct object is present? Because that's not true of other languages. How would one distiguish in such a sentence if something were the object being acted upon or the recipient of something, if no other information is supplied? Would it be dependant on context? I assume it would be rare to imagine people being exchanged as payment, but there must be other verbs that behave this way...


Commenting to spend a week staring at the comments to try and work this concept out :P


what's the difference between hen and hun?


"hen" is used if it's "them" as a direct object (it receives the direct action of the verb):

  • Ik zie hen. = I see them (direct object).

"hun" is used if it's an indirect object; it is generally the recipient of something:

  • Ik geef hun een boek. = I am giving them (indirect object) a book.

"hun" is also used as a possessive pronoun (their):

  • Hun hond is jong. = Their dog is young.


Thanks for your thorough explanation. However, it means that 'hun' is needed in this case if 'they' does not substitute money but people.


That's not the case in Dutch.


not clear what your reply means


My reply means that "hun" is not needed in the case of "Hij betaalt hen." There is no rule regarding money vs. people.


From what you explained about direct and indirect objects I understand that in case 'they' is used for 'money', the object is direct: 'we pay money' then use 'hen'. If we mean 'people' by 'them', the object becomes indirect and the sentence requires 'hun'. This is what my above clarification was about. Is this what derives from your explanation?


In English money is not replaced with the word "them", It is replaced with the word "it". I have a feeling this might be the same in Dutch, though I am not sure. "I pay it to them." or "I pay them it." So I am thinking that it might be "Ik betaal hun het."


Kai, I don't understand your second point. Hun is for indirect object. However, can you not argue they are a direct object? Or is the book you are giving them the indirect object? Could you explain further if you have the time? I'd appreciate it a lot :) :) I admire that you're learning Irish by the way! I'm Irish myself, and it is incredibly difficult :P


Isn't "hun" the recipient here? the one being paid? In French, you'd say "Il leur paie" and "leur"="hun" and "les"="hen". So why is it "hen" instead of "hun" in this one?


So 'he pays them' is il leur paie. Does that mean 'he pays them the money' is il leur paie l'argent? Cause that would mean French uses a different approach compared to Dutch, English, and German. :-)


Yes, exactly. Which is probably why I was confused. Because French is the only language I'm fluent in that has different pronouns for this kind of situation, since English doesn't have different pronouns for these situations--also, because wiktionary describes "hun" as the dative pronoun, and "hen" as the accusative pronoun, and then says that Dutch people get confused as when to use which one--but from what's being described here by you and Lavinae implies that wiktionary is incorrect... rather than dative vs. accusative, it's more of a hierarchy of action situation. I'm guessing that this implies that you can't use "hun" to contrast a dative sense from an accusative sense the way you can in French... "Il leur dit" means "He says to them" or "he tells them", but "Il les dit" means "he's saying them (presumably words)". I'm guessing then, that *"Hij zegt hun" would likewise be incorrect.


Now "Hij vertelt hun" would be correct (= to tell).

However, we do not use the verb 'zeggen' without a direct object and when you say something to someone, this someone becomes the indirect object, again. So, in that respect, you're right. "Hij zegt hun" is incorrect.

An example of a sentence with a direct and an indirect object with 'zeggen' would be: Ik zeg hun te luisteren = I tell them to listen

However, when it comes to 'zeggen' we mostly include the proposition 'tegen' (say + to). The sentence above is quite uncommon.

In the cases where you have the preposition 'tegen', them becomes hen and thus you will get:

  1. Ik zeg tegen hen = I tell/say to them
  2. Ik zei niets tegen hen = I did not tell them nothing.

  1. "After a preposition and after the direct object, you use hen." What in this sentence (Hij betaalt hen) is the proposition/direct object? :S

  2. would "Hij betaalt ze" work?


"hen" is the direct object, as it's receiving the direct action of "betaalt".

"Hij betaalt ze" works.

Learn Dutch in just 5 minutes a day. For free.