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The De vs. Het Dilemma Solved… (Well, Almost) Posted by on Aug 21, 2013 in Dutch Language

‘De’ or ‘het’?

 

mas abie / Flickr Creative Commons

mas abie / Flickr Creative Commons

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…

  1. naming a language – het Engels, het Nederlands, het Frans
  2. using verkleinwoorden (diminutives) – het hondje, het kindje, het knuffeltje
  3. discussing location – het Nederland van tegenwoordig, het machtige New York
  4. talking about sports or games – het voetbal, het honkbal, het Scrabble
  5. bringing up metals – het ijzer, het kwik, het goud
  6. 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
  • -ont

It’s also a safe bet with words that end in

  • -isme
  • -ment
  • -sel and
  • -um

 

Use ‘de’ when…

  1. listing vegetation (plants, fruits, trees) – de bloem, de banaan, de boom
  2. naming rivers and mountainsde Maas, de Pyreneeën
  3. talking about numbers and lettersde m, de drie
  4. using words that denote people de docent, de bakker, de kapster (there are some exceptions, such as het afdelingshoofd)
  5. words are in the pluralde boeken, de kindjes

‘De’ also goes with words ending in

  • -heid
  • -nis,
  • -te and -de (except for words that begin with ge-),
  • -ij, -erij, -arij, and -ernij (exception: het schilderij)
  • -ing
  • -st
  • -ie-tie, and -sie
  • -iek and -ica (exceptions are het antiek, het elastiek, and het publiek)
  • -theek
  • -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’)
  • -ine
  • -se
  • -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).

 

Confused yet?

I bet!

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.

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About the Author: tiffany

Tiffany Jansen is an American magazine and copywriter in the Netherlands.


Comments:

  1. Alja:

    “””giving cardinal and ordinal directions – het noordoost, het zuiden, het west”””

    The examples should be: het noordoostEN en het westEN.

    “Het zuiden” is correct.

    • tiffany:

      @Alja It’s actually used for all of the above. I only had so much room for examples, so I only selected a handful of each 🙂

  2. Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane:

    What’s so hard? I just learned it 😉 Okay, I did, but that’s because I’m Dutch. Then I learned English and now I am learning French. Yes, I did have 5 years of that in school, but now I’m really working at it. OMG! In French whether a word is feminine or masculine is equally confusing (no neuter, thank God. German has all three.) A man’s shirt is feminine and a woman’s blouse is masculine. Go figure. Anyway, no biggie if you get it wrong in either language — people will understand you.

    • tiffany:

      @Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane Haha! You know, it’s so funny, the Dutch are always telling me how difficult their language is to learn. Then I’ll have conversations with native English speakers where we’ll comment on how impossible English must be to learn. Last week, we were in France and friends of ours were going on about how difficult French is for non-native speakers (they’re French). I’m with you though – as long as people can understand you, it doesn’t matter if you make a few mistakes. Especially with articles 🙂

  3. Yuri de Groot:

    I left the Netherlands for New Zealand when I was 5 and English took over in my brain.
    When re-learning Dutch, I just learn the article with the word, as suggested.
    It was the same when I learned some French at school – instead of learning “fenêtre” I would learn “la fenêtre”, although it helped I was learning Latin and knew the word “fenestra” too.
    One thing that bugs me in Dutch, why is it “de koe” maar “het paard”?

  4. Scott Smith:

    Another thing I have been taught is that compound words generally take the article of the rightmost word in the compound, but I have found a few exceptions.

    De Ster – Zeester = Zee + Ster -> De Zeester.

    I think I have also seen words which change meaning depending upon whether they are preceeded by de or het, but I may be mistaken.

  5. Sue:

    I know of someone when looking for a school for their children was actually told by a school “we don’t bother learning the de and het’s because all Dutch people get them wrong. He didn’t choose that school!

  6. elias:

    I read that around 20% of the dutch vocabulary consists of ‘het’ words. Wouldnt it be a good idea to actually memorize only these words?
    Though, im not sure what happens next when you add all the concatinated words into the list.

  7. Formerly Known As Het:

    How about just getting rid of het altogether?