- Introduction: 'to be'
- Exploring the subtleties: some examples
- A note on literal translations
1. Introduction: 'to be'
In Dutch, something cannot just be somewhere. It is either lying, standing or sitting somewhere. The glass you are drinking from is standing on a table and the cat is lying on the floor.
Thus, in Dutch, the verb ‘to be’ may receive either one of the four translations:
- ‘zijn’ (= to be)
- ‘zitten’ (= to sit)
- ‘staan’ (= to stand)
- ‘liggen’ (= to lie).
How do we decide how to translate ‘to be’?
Below you can first find a short and quick explanation, after which the differences between the verb uses are more thoroughly explained.
First of all, you translate 'to be' with the verb 'zijn' in sentences like these:
- "Zij zijn mooi." = They are pretty.
- "We zijn er niet." = We are not there.
- "Het feest is morgen." = The party is tomorrow.
There it is used to describe a quality, a state, existence or specify a time. One thing it is not typically used for is describing the location of something. For that we can use the verbs “zitten”, “liggen” or “staan”, as explained below.
There are, of course, some exceptions. ‘Zijn’ is used to describe the location of:
- an event.
- a person or animal that is not explicitly standing, sitting or lying down.
- "Het festival is in België." = The festival is in Belgium.
- "De bruiloft was in die kerk." = The wedding was in that church.
- "Ik ben in Duitsland." = I am in Germany.
- “Mijn zoon is vandaag in Amsterdam.” = My son is in Amsterdam today.
The verb ‘liggen’ (= to lie) is used to describe the location of:
- an object that is actually lying down on its side. If an object has no ‘preferred’ upwards-facing direction (and thus no side), then the object can be in any position where it is wider than it is tall.
- a geographical area or feature, such as a country, mountain, city, river, field, etc.
- a person or animal that is explicitly lying down (see below).
- “Het boek ligt op de tafel.” = The book is (lying) on the table.
- “De handdoeken liggen op de grond.” = The towels are (lying) on the ground.
- “Nederland ligt ten noorden van Frankrijk.” = The Netherlands lies north of France
- “Die stad ligt in België.” = That city is in Belgium.
The verb ‘staan’ (= to stand) is used to describe the location of:
- an object that is not lying down but standing in an upright position.
- an object that is resting on legs or wheels, such as a table or a car.
- text or images. These are always described as ‘standing’ on whatever surface they are written/drawn/printed/painted/displayed.
- a person or (certain kind of) animal that is explicitly standing (see below).
- “De lamp staat in de hoek.” = The lamp is (standing) in the corner.
- “De auto staat in die straat.” = The car is (standing/parked) in that street.
- “De woorden staan op de muur.” = The words are (written) on the wall.
- “Mijn foto staat in de krant.” = My photo is (printed) in the newspaper.
The verb ‘zitten’ (= to sit) is used to describe the location of:
- an object or a person that is located inside of something else, such as a building, a room or a box.
- a person or an animal that is explicitly sitting down (see below).
- “De kikker zit in de koffer.” = The frog is in(side) the suitcase.
- “De jongens zitten in de klas.” = The boys are in class.
- “Er zit koffie in het kopje.” = There is coffee in the cup.
6. Exploring the subtleties: some examples
When is something standing in an upright position, and does this really apply to very small, round, shaped obects like coasters as well? Yes, even coasters 'stand' on a table when you are viewing them in a vertical position (as do ashtrays, plates, bowls and cups).
But what if we are dealing with a small ball? Because the ball has a spherical shape, we Dutch (and perhaps you too) feel that the ball is lying somewhere.
A box vs. a die/dice
...you didn't think it was that simple, did you now? Even the size of an object determines which verb we use. Whereas a box of 1 by 1 meter may stand on a platform, a die or dice is never standing anywhere. A die/dice lies somewhere, be it on the floor, below the couch, etcetera.
Let's kick this up a notch...
What do you think will happen if this box falls on the ground? Is it lying on the ground? Yes, the big box is lying on the ground if it fell. If you put it there, then it is standing on the ground. You always have to know why an object is located somewhere!. What is the meaning of the placement of the object? Why is it there? If the object is there, usually by coincidence or pure chance, then it is (usually) lying there. If not, then it can be sitting there really, but let's return to this later....
Buildings either stand or lie, depending on their proportions. Most buildings that you would encounter in a city are described as standing: houses, office buildings, skyscrapers, churches and pretty much anything else that is higher than it is wide. On the other hand, when describing a building as lying it evokes imagines of vast sprawling mansions or palaces. Large complexes of buildings, like monasteries, train stations, universities or some museums can all be said to be lying. The same is true for buildings that implicitly include some amount of land around them, such as farms, mansions or castles.
A human being can stand, lie or sit somewhere. However, these verbs all give a different meaning to someone's location. For instance, when we use the verb 'to sit', we sometimes refer to a person 1) being stuck somewhere or 2) doing something secretive/mysterious:
- "Hij zit in de gevangenis." = He is (stuck) in prison.
- "Zij zit in de kelder." = She is in the basement.
This is a very subtle difference in meaning and you can get away with using 'to sit' in these instances, but this difference is good to know, regardless (right?). Then, when we use 'to lie' in sentences like those below, the impression is given that the person is dead or in a non-active physical state (sick or sleeping or just...being a couchpotato...).
- "Hij ligt in de slaapkamer." = He lies in the bedroom.
- "Ze ligt in de woonkamer." = She lies in the living room.
If in Dutch you simply want to explain that someone is (present) somewhere, you are better off using the word 'zijn'.
When we're dealing with objects, we always have to ask ourselves why it is located there. When we are talking about a closet, we refer to it standing somewhere. After all, a closet is pretty vertical right? However, if we are throwing this closet out of the window, we can say that the closet is lying on the patio.
Deciding which 'to be' verb to use for animals is more straightforward. I won't go into the verbs used for insects and fish here, because this really doesn't fit into this basic yet elaborate explanation (different, specific rules apply as well).
Animals who are clearly 'vertical' stand and those animals which are close to the ground or sitting on something, underneath something, etcetera. Thus, a rabbit is not standing in the garden, but a flamingo is (unless he is sitting down!). The flamingo may sit inside the basement. He may lie in the basement when he is dead. If the flamingo is simply hurt, you should refrain from saying that he is lying in the basement (for the time being).
7. A note on literal translations
It is often the case that ‘standing’, ‘lying’ and ‘sitting’ are perfectly appropriate verbs to describe a location in English. Indeed, these literal translation are accepted on Duolingo most of the time. But you will probably have noticed that the recommended translation is usually the verb ‘to be’. Why is that? It is a matter of emphasis.
When the Dutch say that a building is ‘standing’ in the city, there is no emphasis on the verb ‘staan’. The meaning that it might convey, perhaps that the building is rather tall, is far less important than the location. But in Dutch, one would need to use ‘standing’ or ‘lying’, because “Het gebouw is in de stad” is simply unnatural and awkward.
That is why it is good (and even encouraged) to translate all these verbs as ‘to be’ when describing a location. A literal translation would often introduce more emphasis on the position of the object, an emphasis that is not present in Dutch.
Thanks for this explanation!
"When an object is located inside of something, we tend to use ’zitten’ (= to sit)."
Does this mean "de koekjes zitten in de pot"? because they are inside a jar?
This is basically the same in Swedish (where I'm from at least) so that's great! Makes things easier. One thing that is different though is that in this example:
“Het huis staat in die straat.” = The house is in that street.
We would say that the house ligger på (ligt op) instead of står i (staat in). Unless you're talking about where exactly it is positioned which is on top of the actual street (asphalt). Then it would be står på (staat op).
That's why Dutch is fairly easy to learn for Swedes. :) So many similarities! I had never even thought about how we do this in Swedish until I came across it in Dutch on Duolingo and realised it's NOT naturally done that way in English.
I can see clearly now, the rain has gone. Seriously, this is perfect. I have been waiting for this post so long, you don't even know. Bedankt!
I'm truly so sorry, this post really should've been up sooner...
I'm glad this explanation helps! ^^
I like how specific Dutch can be. Spanish, for example is a very "ambiguous" language when it comes to expressing directions.
You can say El libro está en la mesa for example (most people wouldn't use "sobre" in this case), but Dutch makes it clearly specific: het boek ligt op de tabel
So in the example of the box under the "let's kick this up a notch" heading: if the box is sitting somewhere then you are suspicious of it? Or you are just not sure if it ought (standing) or ought not (lying) to be there? Or it is shaped like a perfect cube and of medium size and thus, being Dutch, you naturally regard it with suspicion and uncertainty?
Great post! It goes even deeper into this topic than the skill notes (https://www.duolingo.com/skill/dn/Zitten_Liggen_Staan/tips-and-notes). Is there any chance it could be linked to there?
I LOVE THIS POST. Thank you for making it so clear . . . and so enjoyable to read! Also, this makes me love Dutch even more. I love the built-in poetry of English when certain things are said to "sit" or "lie" somewhere, but it usually only applies to landmarks and land formations - things "sit" on hills and "lie" in valleys, for instance - and so it makes me really happy that this is the standard in Dutch.
Since nothing in linguistics is coincidental
Another thing that might be useful to (native) speakers of Romance languages are the Latin roots of the verbs for 'to be' in your language. In French it is a bit more complicated because the two verbs, estre (from Latin 'esse' later 'essere') and ester (from Latin 'stare'), merged because of the fact that prononciation and dropping of the S after and initial E caused the conjugations to be indistinguishable in many cases and so te conjugation became a composite of two already composite verbs. That is to say the French composite être, Spanish ser and estar, Italian essere and stare etc. The Latin congugations and participles give the clues: Esse (to exist/be 3rd person singular subjunctive = sit, derived verb 'sedere' to sit ). The derived words for sit are almost incognito in the derived languages (ie. fr. 'asseoir' 3rd person sing. 'assied'/'assoit, es./pt. sentar, it. sedere, ro. 'a şedea'/'a aşeza'; Stare (to stand present participle = 'standus' standing - fr. étant, es. estando, italian stando, romanian infinitive a sta is worth noting because unlike its sister languages a sta has not changed meaning. The only thing is that the gerund is formed from what is now the infinitive for the other languages - stare). All that, to say that the words for 'to be' in Romance languages are also derived from verbs for 'to sit' and 'to stand'.
Lie, I would say is used much the same way as in Dutch, but like a good French-influenced language, we also use verbs like 'to be found' (fr. 'se trouver' to find itself) and 'to be located' (from latin 'locus' place, which gives us ro. 'loc', es. lugar, it. luogo, and fr. lieu, and if you look at the word you wil notice a similarity between Dutch 'LiGGen'/'LeGGen' and Latin 'LoCus', cf. Old English 'LiCGan'/'Lecgan, English Lie/LaY, German 'LieGen'/'LeGen'.)
This is really excellent - thank you so much.
If you have a moment (!!), it would also be extremely helpful to put example phrases in Dutch each time you list a different case/example.
A useful explanation, thanks. I did think I was getting used to this form of expression .. but then this sentence comes up in the lessons:
"het restaurant en het huis zijn bij het strand"
If you use 'staan' instead of 'zijn' you get it wrong. Why is this?
EDIT: I asked this question in a separate thread, and received useful answers, here: https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/30291195
In German it's perfectly fine to use "sein" for all of these things and you won't find that all of these rules apply in German. You will, however, see things like "Das Kissen liegt auf dem Bett." and stuff like that. And in those cases it kind of does matter whether the object is in a "lying" or "standing" position.
Overall, you should be fine just using "sein".
Kinda... Have you learned destination vs location? Die Flasche steht auf dem Tisch, aber ich stelle das Buch auf den Tisch. If it is in a location, like laying on the table, then you use dative. If it is being placed or going to somewhere, then it is accusative.
There's a whole list of verbs that go along with placement... Liegen, stehen, stellen, sitzen... Some are always accusative (stellen) while some are always dative (stehen). It's something to look up and learn.
This is great - thanks! How does this work with less tangible objects? In English we'd say "The program is on television" or "The website is on the Internet" but seeing as these things have no physical dimensions I'm not sure what verb I should use! Thanks for all the great work you've been putting into the course!
To say 'The program is on television' in Dutch, we use the verb 'zijn'. So it would be: 'Het programma is op televisie'.
When talking about a website, you can use both 'zijn' and 'staan'. We don't usually say that a website is on the internet, instead we say that a website is online. So it would be 'De website is online' or 'De website staat online'.
When referring to a certain content on the internet, you can only use the verb 'staan' and not 'zijn'. Imagine telling your friend that his photo is on the internet. You would say: 'Je foto staat op het internet!'
However, and to make it more complicated, if your friend's photo was showed on television, you would use the verb 'zijn' and not 'staan': 'Je foto is op televisie'.
Really? I find it harder, but I'm a native spanish speaker, so… The differences are somewhat similar, and there are other verbs in spanish like zitten or liggen, i.e. yacer, quedar, encontrarse, etc.
This is brilliant thank you. I had found this other document http://perso.univ-lille3.fr/~mlemmens/docspdf/dutchpostureverbs.PDF that had my head spinning, Your explanation is a million times better and clearer :D
This article was super helpful as this is something rare and quite unique to Dutch (I guess), so a detailed insight was very necessary and useful.
There's still one thing that isn't clear to me. When would you use "er is" to state that there exists something or that something is located somewhere? From my understanding "er is" means "there is" and likewise "there is" is the generic translation for "er is", right? So probably there must be cases in which "er is" is correct or maybe even preferred over "er zit/ligt/staat".
Examples: - "Er staan tien schapen in the wei" (There are ten sheep in the meadow) BUT "Er zijn (maar) twee soorten schapen" (There are (only) two kinds of sheep) --> "er zijn" refers toe "er bestaan" - "Er liggen vier appelen in de mand" (There are four apples in the basket) BUT "Er zijn twee appelen over" (There are two apples left) --> refers to the verb "overblijven" (There are only two left - no position given so "er is/er zijn") - "Er staat een paard in de gang" (There's a horse in the hallway) BUT "Er zijn veel paarden" (There are a lot of horses) --> refers to "er bestaan" again See the pattern? When a certain position is given you use "er staat/er ligt/er zit", when it's a regular sentence with no position, usually refering to the existence of the object you use "er is/er zijn". - Other example: "Er is een muis in (ons) huis" (There is a mouse in (our) house; used when you, say, have a (strange) dry conversation with your neighbour) --> "huis" should refer to position, BUT in this context you might need another specific position, basement for example: "Er zit een muis in de kelder" (There's a mouse in the basement) is used when the mouse is alive; "Er ligt een muis in de kelder" is used when the mouse is usually dead. Eventually you can also say "Er zit een muis in huis"! (used, for example, when the mouse just passed you and you scream in panic) Hope this explanation is clear enough and makes any sense! :)
russian has this too.. but i don't think it can be translated 1 to 1.. and i dont think we use "sitting", only "standing" and "lying"
very useful! thank you! also why there is "zit' in the title of the Dutch fairy tale - " Sinterklaas zit zonder geld " ?