Common grammar mistakes every English speaker makes in Dutch

Common grammar mistakes every English speaker makes in Dutch

Paid partnership

In this article, drawing from her own personal experience and professional insight, Kate Aemisegger from UvA Talen discusses a few examples of the Dutch language's large vocabulary and how there are usually two Dutch words for one English word. She uncovers the contextual differences to help navigate this challenging aspect of speaking Dutch!

For those of us immersed in the Dutch language, like myself, who have been living and working within the culture for the past three years, the complexities of Dutch vocabulary become increasingly apparent and more specific over time. With the Dutch dictionary possessing (what feels like) twice the number of words found in English, the use of two Dutch words for one English equivalent presents itself quite often and can be a challenge for us expats

Let's go over some of the differences that commonly confuse Dutch learners

The notorious de vs. het

Let's start off with a seemingly "easier" one: the notorious de vs. het articles. The distinction between de and het, both of which correspond to the singular English definite article "the", is very hard to master no matter what level you are in Dutch and fluent speakers often still make this mistake.

Don't get discouraged, though! I have learned from experience that the slight mistake inspires curiosity in conversation with Dutch people (i.e. to find out where you come from and what your story is). See? Good things can come out of small mistakes!

Despite a few small grammar rules, such as:

  • If the noun is plural, always use the article "de" (Example: de mensen or the people)
  • All words referring to people and professions use the article de (Example: de bakker or the baker)
  • If you use a diminutive word to refer to something small, use the article het (Example: het biertje or the small beer)

Attempting to speak fluently using all of the correct de and het articles proves extremely difficult, whereas in English, "the" is used for absolutely every article no matter if the noun is plural, singular, big or small. For example: the people, the person, the dogs, the dog. If only Dutch could be so easy!

*Singing to myself: 'cuz you don’t know what you’ve got 'till it’s gone…*

The need "to do" vs. the need "to have"

Moving on up a level, we come to the concept of needing. In English, we rely on the versatile verb "to need" regardless of whether we are referring to an action (the need to do something) or a possession (the need to have something).

For example:

  • I need to go to a doctor's appointment. (Action)
  • I need a new shirt. (Possession)

However, I hate to be the one to break it to you … the Dutch language has two separate verbs to use in these contexts, depending on if something is in fact an action or used possessively.

If you would like to describe an action in Dutch, you must use the verb moeten, and for the need to possess or acquire something, you use nodig hebben. It seems confusing, I know … but it is actually a very straightforward rule.

See the examples below:

  • Ik moet naar een afspraak bij de dokter. (Action - I need to go to a doctor’s appointment.)
  • Ik heb een nieuw shirt nodig. (Possession - I need a new shirt.)

For those of us not native to Dutch, the challenge lies in the need for extra brainpower to get our verbs just right when speaking the language, especially in fast conversation. But, I can give you some reassurance that this is not a mistake only made by non-native speakers.

These two verbs can often be interchangeable in spreektaal (spoken language) by the younger Dutch generations. However, that does not mean that it is correct! Make sure to use your verbs wisely, fellow expats.

Plus, how cool would it feel to CORRECT a Dutchie on their grammar mistake?

"Getting" the hang of things

Let's take things up a notch, shall we? The next word claims top position as one of the hardest things for me to consciously remember when mid-Dutch conversation. As in any language, this is also due to the fact that supporting verbs (also called auxiliary verbs) come into play - but we won't get into that part of the grammar just yet.

In English, the word "get" is our go-to for a multitude of situations, from physically acquiring something to understanding a concept, "You get it?" But here is when context plays an important key in the Dutch language … enter krijgen and halen, two Dutch verbs that are used as equivalents to the English, simple and versatile, "to get".

In Dutch, the verb krijgen is used when something is given or granted to you, like receiving a gift or an opportunity.

For example:

  • Je krijgt een cadeau als je meedoet. (You get a gift if you participate.)
  • Ik heb mijn certificaat vorige week gekregen. (I got my certificate last week.)

On the other hand, halen comes into play when you're actively going to get something, whether it's from a store or fetching someone from wherever they are located.

For example:

  • Ik ga een broodje halen. (I'm going to get a sandwich.)
  • Ga je Natascha halen? (Will you go get Natascha?)

As you can see in the example above, halen is used here with a supporting verb and therefore becomes a different sentence structure. However, the usage of two Dutch words for one English equivalent still prevails!

Don't be scared of Dutch grammar

Learning a language can be challenging, yet extremely rewarding when you finally cross through the scary grammar rules, like these. Although the examples I mentioned were only a few from my experience, these types of grammar differences can be seen in any language when being compared to another. It would be great dinner-table talk, toch?

Let us know what other examples you've come across in your experience learning Dutch!

Want to get a better understanding of the Dutch language just like Kate? UvA Talen is one of the biggest schools in Amsterdam, offering language courses from beginner to advanced levels. Join one of their group or specialised courses or try out their e-learning programme today!

Kate Aemisegger


Kate Aemisegger

Kate Aemisegger, employee and student at UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, writes about her experience learning the Dutch language as an American living in Amsterdam. Her...

Read more



Leave a comment