- 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.