The De vs. Het Dilemma Solved… (Well, Almost) Posted by tiffany on Aug 21, 2013 in Dutch Language
The lack of hard and fast rules makes this one of life’s great enigmas.
Loads of Dutch language learners (myself included) search far and wide for an explanation.
Some trick or secret that will eliminate the de vs. het dilemma.
The thing is… there isn’t one. This is most likely something that will plague you throughout your relationship with the Dutch language.
It’s something a lot of native Dutch speakers struggle with too.
But there are some things that will help you successfully grab the correct article more often than not.
De and Het
Called ‘articles,’ de and het have the same meaning as the English word ‘the.’
In Dutch, as with many other languages, nouns have genders. You’ve got your masculine and feminine nouns, and your neuter nouns.
‘De’ is used with masculine and feminine nouns – also known as ‘common’ nouns, largely because there are more of them.
‘Het’ goes with the neuter nouns.
The problem is, there are no factors to discern whether a word is masculine, feminine, or neuter short of looking the word up in a dictionary.
So, try these tricks to help you decide.
Use ‘het’ when…
- naming a language – het Engels, het Nederlands, het Frans
- using verkleinwoorden (diminutives) – het hondje, het kindje, het knuffeltje
- discussing location – het Nederland van tegenwoordig, het machtige New York
- talking about sports or games – het voetbal, het honkbal, het Scrabble
- bringing up metals – het ijzer, het kwik, het goud
- giving cardinal and ordinal directions – het noordoost, het zuiden, het west
In most cases, ‘het’ is also used with two-syllable words that begin with…
- be- or ge-
- -ver and
It’s also a safe bet with words that end in
- -sel and
Use ‘de’ when…
- listing vegetation (plants, fruits, trees) – de bloem, de banaan, de boom
- naming rivers and mountains – de Maas, de Pyreneeën
- talking about numbers and letters – de m, de drie
- using words that denote people – de docent, de bakker, de kapster (there are some exceptions, such as het afdelingshoofd)
- words are in the plural – de boeken, de kindjes
‘De’ also goes with words ending in
- -te and -de (except for words that begin with ge-),
- -ij, -erij, -arij, and -ernij (exception: het schilderij)
- -ie, -tie, and -sie
- -iek and -ica (exceptions are het antiek, het elastiek, and het publiek)
- -teit and -iteit
- -tuur and -suur (words like postuur and avontuur are exceptions)
- -ade, -ide, -ode, and -ude (any words for items that cannot be counted, however, – chloride, for example – take the article ‘het’)
- -age (except words like percentage, corsage, and personage)
- -sis, -tis, and -xis
Although, Some Words Do Go Both Ways
Don’t get married to these rules. Some Dutch words aren’t at all picky and will happily take whichever article you give them.
Words like deksel, reliek, mozaïek, aas, cluster, eigendom, idee, intermediair, medicijn, pond, risico, soort, spits, and weblog use both ‘de’ and ‘het’ (though not at the same time, of course).
Sure, you can spend time memorizing these general rules. Yes, you can dig through textbooks and scour websites for more. Of course, there are thousands of language learning programs you can turn to.
But, the truth is your best bet is to learn the article along with the word.
Don’t learn appel. Learn de appel. Don’t learn the word kind. Learn het kind.
When you work on plurals, think de appels instead of appels and de kinderen instead of kinderen.
That’s the way native speakers figured it out, so it stands to reason it’ll work for you too.
How do you remember when to use ‘de’ or ‘het’? Share with us in the comments.