All You Need To Know About the Dutch Tussen-n Posted by Sten on Apr 19, 2021 in Dutch Grammar
It’s Monday, so let’s talk about everybody’s favorite language subject: Grammar! I’m kidding of course, it’s nobody’s favorite. But it’s a pretty important part to convey what you want to say in Dutch. Today, let’s discuss something that even confuses native Dutch speakers at times. Let’s talk about the tussen-n (“in between-n”).
The general rule
So what is the tussen-n?
In samenstellingen (compound nouns) in Dutch, you may have come across a -n-, or lack thereof. For example, pannenkoek (pancake) seems fine, but what about pannekoek? Is it grachtegordel or grachtengordel (canal belt)? Or aktetas or Aktentas (briefcase)? That -n- there, that’s the tussen-n.
As with many grammar things, the tussen-n has a hoofdregel (general rule).
In the example above, you can see that the first part of the sentence are the words pannen (pans), grachten (canals) and akten (documents) respectively. Generally, the tussen-n is required if the meervoud (plural) of a word can only be written with a -n at the end. For some words, the meervoud can also have an -s at the end, for example dame, dames (lady, ladies). If a word can have either an -s or -n at the end, you don’t write the tussen-n. Akte is a word like that, where the meervoud can either be aktes or akten. So, it’s aktetas!
There are more rules that you could attach to this. The Woordenlijst van de Nederlandse taal (Word list of the Dutch language), better known as the Groene Boekje (Green Booklet) because of its green cover, has the official rules. You can check them out here. This is a general rule to follow for those in government agencies and the educational sector.
However, the official rules for the tussen-n are convoluted and difficult. Many words do or don’t have a tussen-n simply because they’re versteende samenstellingen (set-in-stone compounds). But how would you know this as a language learner?
The website Onze Taal, which gives excellent Dutch language advice, has different advice on the tussen-n for this reason. They give some rules of how the tussen-n is used in practice, but they’re no exact science. Take them more as general guidelines. And, they say, if your taalgevoel (sense of language) feels right, you probably are with the tussen-n.
Their rules are as follows.
Usually, there is a tussen-n, if:
- The compound has a pretty literal, concrete meaning, such as krokodillentranen (crocodile tears), boekenbon (book voucher), hondenhok (doghouse);
- The compound immediately reminds you of multiple concrete examples of the first part: messenrek (knife rack – knives!), secondenlang (second-long – seconds!), zondenlijst (sin list – sins!);
- The first part of the compound refers to one or more people: artsenpost (doctor’s post), mensenhand (human hand), pilotenlounge (pilot lounge), ziekenwagen (“sick people’s car”, ambulance).
Those rules are manageable. Here are the ones when there usually isn’t a tussen-n. I’m sorry in advance.
Usually, there is NO tussen-n, if:
- The first part is an abstract word or a collective term that has no plural, or that has a rarely used plural, such as benzine (gasoline), tarwe (wheat) or rijst (rice): benzinestation (gas station), tarwebrood (wheat bread), rijstevlaai (rice vlaai (cake));
- The first part is not a zelfstandig naamwoord (noun): platteland (“flat land”, countryside);
- A part of the compound or the entire compound is not used anymore in its original meaning: apekool (“ape cabbage”, nonsense), hanepoten (“rooster legs”, unreadable handwriting);
- The compound immediately reminds you of a single concrete example of the first part: ruggegraat (“back bone”, spine);
- The word ends in -lijk, -achtig, -lings or -ling: ellendeling (wretch), landelijk (nationwide), redelijk (reasonable), sekteachtig (sect-like);
- The word ends in -loos: achteloos (careless), vormeloos (shapeless), hopeloos (hopeless); However:
- if the compound reminds you of multiple concrete examples of the first part, a tussen-n is more common: conceptenloos (concept-less), ideeënloos (idealess);
- if using the tussen-n makes the compound more literal: wolkeloze dagen (“cloudless” days, worriless days) or wolkenloze dagen (cloudless days).
Quite a lot of rules!
Onze Taal also provides amazing tests to see if you have a good taalgevoel. I have to say, though, that I didn’t do so well when I tried! Are you up for the challenge?
Has the tussen-n bothered you? What other Dutch grammar has given you headaches, or which grammar is rather easy in your opinion? And what was your score on the tests? I’m super curious, so let me know in the comments below!
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