Dutch/Lesson 4/Use of articles

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The use of articles[edit]

For the most part Dutch definite and indefinite articles are used in a rather similar way as they are used in English or German, but for some learners, particularly if your mother tongue is say Russian of Polish that may not be a particularly helpful statement, because you may be struggling with them in English as well. Therefore this short explanation, giving a few Russian examples. For French speakers the differences are a bit bigger than for English or German speakers, e.g. there are no partitive articles.

Dutch nouns can be found in three forms:

  1. without article - typically for plurals or collectives
  2. with the indefinite article "een" - for singulars
  3. with the definite article "de" or "het" - for singulars and plurals

De articles "een" and "het" only occur in the singular. There is no indefinite article in the plural and the definite one is always "de" in the plural

Definite versus indefinite[edit]

Typically when the definite article is used, the speaker (pre)supposes that the listener knows which object is meant, whereas the indefinite article warns the listener that something is going to be said that he may be unfamiliar with:

Ik heb een appel -- I had not told you about this apple yet, but I have one: here it is. Now you know.
De appel is rood -- I'm talking about that specific apple I just mentioned -you know which one-, it has a color: it is red.
Een appel is niet altijd rood -- In general an apple is not always red. (I am talking about other apples now, not the one you already know)

Notice that general statements are typically indefinite.

In the plural this would become:

Ik heb appels. -- I have got some apples
De appels zijn rood. -- those apples I just mentioned
Appels zijn niet altijd rood. -- In general, apples are not always red

French speakers may note a difference here, as French would use 'les' in a generalizing statement like the last one, where English, German and Dutch will not. In the first example French would use the partitive 'des', Dutch does not have that.

Other ways of making things definite[edit]

This should be familiar even in Russian etc.

  1. Demonstratives like this, that, этот
    Deze appel is rood
  2. Possessives like my, your, мой etc.
    Mijn appel is rood

Historically, the definite articles are weakened forms of the demonstratives.

Other ways of making things indefinite[edit]

  1. Indefinite pronouns like some, any, некоторые, некоторый, какой-нибудь, какой-то, некий, кое-какой
    Enige appels, wat melk

Historically, the indefinite article is a weak form of the numeral one: één.

In English as well as in Dutch you can use the numeral to express that you are talking about a nobody, somebody whose name you know, but that's all.

  • Ene Jan Jansen - One John Johnson - Some guy called John. (какой-то Иван).

Notice that the numeral gets inflected to "ene" in this case. Another way of expressing this is with "een of ander" (one or another)

  • Een of andere kerel - Some guy.

Collective nouns[edit]

These nouns indicate something that comes in quantities rather than numbers, like milk, grain, wheat (melk, graan, tarwe). These nouns often do not have a plural and just like plurals, they do not use an indefinite article. It makes sense if you recall that "een" is a weakened form of "één" (one) and you cannot count milk.

Ik heb melk. -- you did not know that, but now you do: here is my milk
De melk is zuur -- I am talking about that specific milk I just told you about.
Melk is niet altijd zuur -- I am talking about milk in general, not the particular milk I happen to have.

The same differences with French as in the case of the plurals occur here: no "du" in the first phrase, no "le" in the last.

Occasionally Dutch does use an indefinite article with collectives of even plurals in expressions that indicate surprise over a large quantity or some property, usually with the exclamatory pronoun wat, but sometimes without as well.

Wat een melk! -- Wow! That is a lot of milk.
Wat een mensen stonden daar! Wow, the number of people was really amazing.
Wat een lekkere melk! -- This milk is really delicious.

Relationship with "er"[edit]

In lesson 8 we will discuss the use of the adverb "er" that plays a big role in Dutch grammar. At this point make a note that if it is used to create an impersonal sentence, this sentence always involves indefinite nouns.

Appendix[edit]