Dutch Language Blog

Simple past and present perfect Posted by on Oct 10, 2008 in Dutch Language

Sometimes a new topic just falls right into your lap. Today, this happened to me.

I was mailing with someone about the Dutch grammar for a certain project.

So, when it came down to verbs, I mentioned that our tenses system is similar to the English system:

Verleden tijd à Past

Tegenwoordige tijd à Present

Toekomende tijd à Future

Voltooid tegenwoordige tijd à Present perfect

Voltooid verleden tijd à Past perfect

Voltooid toekomende tijd à Future perfect

Gebiedende wijs à Imperative

The rules are pretty much the same, but of course there are still differences.

Let’s take a look at the rule: ‘when do we use the simple past tense?’

Answer: We use the present perfect for past actions and events.

Now let’s take a look at the rule: ‘when do we use the present perfect tense?’

Answer: We use the present perfect for past actions and events.

Ehm… two same answers for two different questions? That can’t be right, can it?

Yes, it can. But it gets even better! You see, in a matter of tenses, we Dutch seem to prefer the tense present perfect over simple past. So, it happens a lot that while a sentence in English uses simples past, the Dutch translation uses present perfect.

But, not always! Isn’t that fun?

Don’t worry, even the Dutch get confused sometimes. If you get annoyed by these lack of clear instructions, just look at the bright side: You’ll not be completely wrong very often!

In Dutch, we often combine the simple past with present perfect. The present perfect sets the event in the past, the simple past describes what went on during that event.

First, let’s take a look when we DO use simple past. We use the simple past:

1. to refer to events that took place in the past and do not have any relevance to the present

2. to describe what went on during a certain past event

3. when we introduce a past action or event by ‘toen’ (when)

1. Past events that have absolutely no relevance to the present

It we talk about an event or action that happened in the past, but is still relevant to the present time, the Dutch prefer to use the present perfect tense. Of course, the relevance of the past to the present is in the eye of the beholder. It is important however, to keep in mind that when you refer to past events or actions, the present perfect is much more common than simple past.


Tegen het einde van de Tweede Wereldoorlog, schoot Hitler zichzelf neer.

Near the end of World War 2, Hitler shot himself.

De Titanic zonk door een botsing met een ijsberg.

The Titanic sank due to a collision with an iceberg.

2. Describing what went on during a certain past event

When we refer to an event that took place in the past, all information surrounding that event is set in the simple past.


Vorig jaar was een milde winter. Er viel weinig snow.

Last year was a mild winter. There was little snow.

Op de begrafenis condoleerden we de weduwe en na de tijd dronken we koffie met de nabestaanden om herinneringen op te halen aan de overledene.

At the funeral, we gave our condolences to the widow and afterwards we had coffee with relatives to bring back memories about the deceased.

Stage setting in the past. If we recount actions and events in the past the Dutch usually prefer present perfect. All events and actions related to it, are described in simple past.


Gisteren zijn we uit eten geweest. Ik nam de biefstuk en Piet nam de vis.

Yesterday we went out for dinner. I had the steak and Piet had the fish.

Vorig jaar zijn we op vakantie geweest. Eerst sliepen we in een hotel en later gingen we op bezoek bij enkele vrienden.

Last year we went on vacation. First we slept in a hotel and later we visited some friends.

3. Introducing a past action or event by ‘toen’ (when)

When we talk about a past event and use the word ‘toen’ (when), we usually use the simple past tense. If we use perfect tense at all, it must be the pluperfect.

Toen ik wakker werd, scheen de zon.

When I woke up, the sun was shining.

Toen ik terug kwam van de vergadering, schrok ik me kapot: er waren sporen van inbraak!

When I came back from the meeting, I was shocked: there were traces of a burglary!

Toen ik vijf jaar werd, kreeg ik een mooie legpuzzel van Mickey Mouse.

When it was my fifth birthday, I got a beautiful jigsaw puzzle of Mickey Mouse.

Note: the word ‘toen’ is also used in the term of ‘and then’. All the above examples are used in the term of ‘when’.

So, now you know when you have to use the simple past, you can safely use present prefect in the other cases.

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