Dutch/Lesson 21

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Les 21 ~ Lesson 21

That difficult word order...

<< Les 20 | Les 21


Word order in Dutch is not easy for speakers of English or one of the Romance languages. We have already seen a number of issues above that may well drive Anglophone learners of Dutch a little crazy. The three main ones are:

  1. Inversion: reversing the order of the subject and the finite verb (See Lesson 11)
  2. Subjunction: a different word order in a dependent clause (See Lesson 11)
  3. Separability: separable verbs can split and combine (See Lesson 18)

These three issues are mainly concerned with the verbs in the sentence.

However, pronominal adverbs are also separable (See Lesson 8) and this is part of a more general, fourth issue: the position of other parts of the sentence, like adverbial expressions or objects. It is also different from English.

Obviously in a Dutch sentence these four issues may very well combine and interfere with each other.

This lesson will try to tie the issues together a bit and expand on the fourth issue.

Two poles[edit]

In English a sentence typically has a basic SVO structure: subject - verb - object

E.g.: The farmer - plows - the field

Dutch has the same order in this case

De boer - ploegt - het veld

But this resemblance is a bit deceptive. This becomes clear when we have a compound verb in the sentence. In English SVO continues to hold for the perfect tense for example:

The farmer - has plowed - the field

But in Dutch this is not the case. The finite part of the verb 'has' - 'heeft' remains in the same position, but the participle 'geploegd' moves to end of the sentence, forming a second verbal pole:

De boer - heeft - het veld - geploegd

That means that Dutch is not really an SVO language. We could say that the Dutch structure has two verbal poles: SV1OV2

The second pole does not just attract past participles, but also infinitives, e.g. in the future tense

De boer - zal - het veld - ploegen

Also the adverbial prefix of a separable verb, like omhakken, moves to the second pole:

De boer - hakt - de boom - om

In a dependent clause the role of the second pole even becomes dominant, because even the finite verb moves to V2:

Ik zeg dat de boer - het veld - geploegd heeft
Ik zeg dat de boer - het veld - heeft geploegd

(Both versions occur: Dutch word order is less uniform than the English one). In either case the order is SOV!

In English the order simply remains SVO:

I say that the farmer - has plowed - the field


Adverbial expressions typically end up between the two poles.

E.g. gisteren - yesterday

De boer - ploegde -gisteren - het veld
De boer - heeft -gisteren - het veld - geploegd
Ik weet dat de boer -gisteren - het veld - geploegd heeft

Notice that in Dutch the adverbial expression typically comes before the object. It is possible to swap the object and the adverbial expression, -which resembles English word order more-, but this tends to put emphasis on the adverb:

De boer - heeft - het veld -gísteren -geploegd (niet: vandaag)

It also possible to put the adverbial expression up front, but then it triggers inversion of the subject and the finite verb:

Gisteren - heeft - de boer - het veld -geploegd

In the front position there is a mild emphasis on the adverb, but often it is just a way to accommodate more than one adverbial expression. Compare:

De boer - heeft -gisteren - met de tractor- het veld - geploegd
Gisteren - heeft - de boer - met de tractor - het veld -geploegd

The order of the adverbial expressions in usually when - how - where:

Ik- ben -gisteren - met de trein- naar Brussel - gereisd


Negation in Dutch is done by adding the adverb niet. It gets its own position:

De boer - ploegde -gisteren - het veld - niet
De boer - heeft -gisteren - het veld - niet - geploegd
Ik weet dat de boer -gisteren - het veld - niet - geploegd heeft

We could put it before gisteren, but that changes the meaning to: not yesterday (but today).

Sometimes, however, the negation is put between the adverbs, after the time expression:

The order of the adverbial expressions in usually when - how - where:

Ik- ben -gisteren - niet - met de trein- naar Brussel - gereisd

Objects: direct, indirect and prepositional[edit]

In Dutch the indirect object can be expression either with or without the preposition aan. This is comparable to the situation in English:

He gave me the book
He gave the book to me
Hij gaf mij het boek
Hij gaf het boek aan mij

Notice that in both languages the real indirect object and its prepositional stand in have a different position in the sentence. This becomes clearer if we add some adverbial expressions to the Dutch sentences

Hij gaf mij gisteren op straat het boek
Hij gaf gisteren op straat het boek aan mij
Hij heeft gisteren op straat het boek aan mij gegeven

Notice that the direct object gravitates towards the first pole. The prepositional version goes to the second.

We can swap most of the items in the sentence for emphasis, but not the indirect object one. Since Dutch has lost its case endings around 1600 in the spoken language there is only the word order to mark me as an indirect object.

In the written language there is exactly one exception: the third person plural (them) has two forms: hun for indirect objects and hen for direct and prepositional ones:

Ik gaf hun het boek
Ik gaf het boek aan hen

However, this distinction was artificially created in the 1630's by a grammarian and despite four centuries of schoolmasters hammering it in, the artificial word 'hen' will seldom be heard in the spoken language.

Prepositional objects and pronominal adverbs[edit]

There are more prepositional objects in Dutch besides the one with 'aan'. Many verbs show fixed combination with certain prepositions, e.g.:

Meewerken met iets
Deelnemen aan iets
Gebrand zijn op iets
E.g.: Hij heeft aan deze wedstrijd deelgenomen

When the noun 'wedstrijd' is to replaced by a pronoun, Dutch turns the prepositional object into a pronominal adverb:

Hij heeft hieraan deelgenomen

However, pronominal adverbs are separable and the locative part (er, hier, daar, waar) tends towards the first pole, whereas the prepositional one tends towards the second. This becomes apparent when we add adverbial expressions.

Hij heeft vaak met volle overgave aan deze wedstrijd deelgenomen
Hij heeft hier vaak met volle overgave aan deelgenomen