Dutch Language Blog

Dutch Formal and Informal Pronouns Posted by on Dec 23, 2009 in Dutch Language

In Dutch, as in many languages, there is an informal way of addressing people and a formal way of addressing people.  I’m going to provide some general rules for when to use them.  Bear in mind that these are general rules based on my experiences in Amsterdam, which tends to be a more informal city.  Other regions of the country might use the formal tense more often, and I’m honestly just not sure how it works in Belgium.  But here are some basic rules to go by.

U is Formal

U is the formal way of referring to both one other person, and a group of other people.  Therefore, it is the second person singular formal pronoun, and the second person plural formal pronoun.

Gaat u naar Frankrijk?

-Are you going to France?

Heeft u een leuke tijd gehad?

-Have you all had a nice time?

But how do you know if you should refer to someone more formally?

1. If that person is a stranger or acquaintance and is a bit older than you.

2. If that person is in a position of authority.

3. If the person is a stranger and you want to be polite. For example, offering a seat on the tram, or speaking to your server in a restaurant.

4.  When writing a formal letter or email.  Business communications, cover letters, letters to your housing corporation, a letter to the manufacturer of the camera you bought that doesn’t work…these should all be written more formally.

Being more formal can also be used to stress a distance between you and the person you are speaking with, whether it be in positions of authority, or familiarity.  Therefore, my mother-in-law has made it quite clear that she does NOT want to be referred to formally because she loves me, we’re close, and it makes her feel old. On the other hand, many of my other in-laws, who I see less frequently and don’t share such a close relationship with, should be referred to more formally.

The general rule is, if you don’t know the person very well, and that person isn’t a child, teenager, or a lot younger than you, stick with being more formal just to be polite.  I know that it’s called a “formal” pronoun, but I tend to look at it as the more polite pronoun. By doing this, I am more likely to remember to use it since my native English doesn’t come equipped with it.

Je/Jullie is less formal

Je and jullie are the more generalized ways of referring to people. Keep in mind that they have the same meaning as sentences where you use U.

Ga je naar Frankrijk?

-Are you going to France?

Hebben jullie een leuke tijd gehad?

-Have you all had a nice time?

And how do you know if you are allowed to refer to someone less formally?

1. If you are speaking to a child or a teenager, you’re pretty safe to be less formal.  In most normal situations, it might even be a bit odd to refer to a child more formally.

2.  When speaking with most friends, family, acquaintances and people in your social circles.  — Be aware, it is not uncommon for some people to refer to their parents, grandparents or older relatives in a more formal tense as a way of being respectful. I think this is going out of fashion generally, but it’s not unusual to hear either.

3. Letters, postcards, emails to friends, family, loved ones, children and pets. Yes, some of us write Christmas cards for our pets….but without getting off topic, these are completely safe to write informally.

Like I said before, these rules are not written in stone.  They vary depending on region, and even social or business status.  Just keep in mind that if you want to be polite and respectful but not chummy, you should be more “formal”. If you’re ever not sure, stick with starting off being more formal, the other person will probably tell you it’s not necessary if they are comfortable being referred to more informally.

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  1. sarah:

    Hi guys! A bunch of people noticed a mistake in this post. Sorry about that, we’re all suspect to the occasional brain freeze. Thanks to all who noticed it, it’s been updated to keep it correct.

  2. Dale:

    Hi Sarah,
    I’ve just found your blog and have been reading through your fantastic posts – you cover a lot of different topics! Great work.

    I have a question:
    Above, where you have the examples for the use of U (Heeft u een leuke tijd gehad? — Have you all had a nice time?), Because it is the plural U, should heeft be hebben?

    Hebben U een leuke tijd gehad?

    I’m trying to learn all of these rules 🙂


  3. sarah:

    Hi Dale,

    Great question! Actually in the first “edition” of this post I had written “u hebben” out of habit. Even my own personal native Dutch speaker didn’t pick up on that one! But in fact, it is always “u heeft.” You can also use “jullie hebben” and be perfectly polite. Using “U” when referencing a group is not necessarily as common, at least where I live, but it is possible.

    Usually the context and your tone of voice will make it clearer that you are referencing the group, but if you are unsure how to use it, you can stick to “jullie.” I’ve gotten the impression that using “U” this way is going out of style a bit, but then again people speak mostly informally where I live. If you aren’t sure of the local customs, you can always ask those around you. I have actually never found cause to use it myself.

  4. Ellen:

    Hoi, I follow your posts by email. I love your vision on the Netherlands and the language. Very accurate and sometimes funny. My husband is American and I am Dutch, living in CA.


  5. sarah:

    Hi Ellen,

    Glad to hear you are enjoying the blog! What I often find so interesting is hearing how differently people can view the exact same thing. For example, things I love about living here other people hate, and of course, vice versa. We have a friend who just moved to CA from the Netherlands, and it’s interesting to hear his observations on my culture. I consider it his well deserved revenge after listening to me pick apart his culture. 🙂

    Groetjes van Amsterdam!

  6. Ellen:

    I have to say, I love the american culture. It is friendly and polite. Far more than we Dutch are used to. I do think the Dutch have their own culture indeed. But if it is that nice…….not sure..But as any other Dutch person, I am still proud to be a Dutch woman 🙂 Btw, have you ever hear the song, “15 miljoen mensen,” I do not know the performer’s name, but it is the best Dutch song ever, to my opinion.

    Groetjes van Ellen uit California.

    ps. say hi to your Dutch friend who now also lives in CA.


  7. sarah:

    Hello again Ellen!

    Funny you should mention that song. My Dutch boyfriend made me listen to it about a month ago. For our other readers, here’s a youtube video (admittedly it is just a touch cheesy):


    But shouldn’t the song be “16 miljoen mensen” by now? 😉

    I think no matter where we roam, we should always be proud of who we are. I’m most definitely an American chick in Amsterdam, and quite happy to be as such.

  8. Ellen:

    Thanks for the Video. Watched it and became silent. It is so typical Dutch, And cheesy, not sure, it is some kind of ode, as the American people have Coming to America from Neil Young, which I love!!! 😉

    See you next time!

  9. Mark Stroili:

    Actually it is Neil Diamond that sings ‘Coming To America.” Not Neil Young

  10. sarah:

    Oh yeah! It is Neil Diamond. Now the song is stuck in my head. Argh.