When is it DE or HET? – strange rules about the usage of DE and HET
The usage of the definite articles (de and het) in Dutch…. one of the most difficult aspects of learning Dutch.
Firstly, my advice is don’t try to focus too much on this when you are learning the basic grammar of Dutch. Because you know what? Dutch people have trouble with this as well. The difference between DE and HET is more relevant in written Dutch. Then you have the opportunity to check and Dutch people aren’t used to making or seeing mistakes when they write a text.
In most cases you just have to learn them by heart. But in this list I will give you some rules which don’t really make sense; even Dutch people haven’t heard about these rules. The list may help a little with learning the correct articles, or you can just read it to see that some of the rules are pretty random and funny.
Words with DE
There are some basic rules with DE that are easy to remember. The first one on my list is one of those. But sorry to say, these are the exceptions.
- Words with DE: Plural
There are some basic rules that are easy to remember. This one for example: plural nouns always come with DE.
- De video – De video’s (the video – the videos)
- Het boek – De boeken (the book – the books)
That’s pretty logical, right? Sorry, the logic stops here. Now, let’s take a look at some strange rules when a noun is a de-word.
- Words with DE: Trees and plants, fruit and vegetables
The names of all sorts of trees, plants, fruit and vegetables are mostly with de.
- De boom: de eik, de den, de beuk, de spar (the oak, pine, beech, fir)
- De bloem: de roos, de lelie, de anjer, de geranium (the rose, lily, carnation, geranium)
- De vrucht: de appel, de peer, de druif, de banana (the apple, pear, grape, banana)
- De groente: de tomaat, de komkommer, de wortel, de paprika. (the tomato, cucumber, carrot, pepper)
Of course, there is an exception: het witlof (the chicory)
- Words with DE: Animals
Almost all names of thousands of animals are DE-words.
- De hond, de kat (the dog, cat)
The strange thing is that ‘the animal’ is het dier. And also, almost all farm animals are HET-words.
- Het paard, het schaap, het kalf, het lam, het varken. (the horse, sheep, calf, lamb, pig.)
- Words with DE: Musical instruments
The names of almost all music instruments are de-words. For example:
- De gitaar, de drums, de viool, de saxofoon (the guitar, piano, violin, saxophone)
And yes, there are some exceptions as well:
- Het orgel, het keyboard. (the organ, keyboard.)
Maybe you figured out, ‘Hey, all instruments with keys are het’. Sorry, it’s de piano. (the piano)
- Words with DE: Words ending on –heid, –ie, –ij, – ing
Besides these first four categories, there are some suffixes that determine the article. Words that end with –heid, –ie, –ij, – ing are always combined with de.
- De waarheid, de vrijheid, de gelijkheid, de verkoudheid (The truth, freedom, equality, cold)
- De categorie, de visie, de televisie, de informatie (The category, vision, television, information)
- De maatschappij, de slagerij, de bij, de boerderij (The company, butchery, bee, farm)
- De ketting, de bevrijding, de vergadering, de begroting (The chain, liberation, meeting, budget)
Also words ending in –ade, -ede, -ide, -ode, -ude
- De kade, de limonade, de schade, de brigade (The quay, lemonade, damage, brigade)
- De vrede, de dwarsdoorsnede, de zinsnede, (The peace, cross-section, phrase)
- De piramide (the pyramid)
- De code (the code)
- De prelude (the prelude)
Those were the rules for determining if a word is a de-word. Now, the het-words.
Words with HET
As I said at the beginning of the list of de-words, there are some basic rules that are easy to remember. Let’s start with those.
- Words with HET: Diminutive
The diminutive always comes with het.
- De lamp – Het lampje (the lamp, the little lamp)
But don’t forget! Diminutive and plural, is always DE.
- De lamp- het lampje – de lampjes (the lamp, the little lamp, the little lamps)
- Words with HET: Cities, villages, provinces, countries, islands, continents
You don’t say ‘Het Amsterdam’ or ‘Het Londen’, like you don’t say ‘I’m going to the London’. But if you add an adjective, cities, villages etc. often get an article.
- Ik woon in het mooie Amsterdam (I live in beautiful Amsterdam)
- Ik ga op vakantie naar het drukke Londen (I’m going on holiday to busy London)
- Words with HET: A verb as a noun
Verbs can turn into nouns, if you do this, use het.
- Het wachten duurt lang (The wait is long)
- Words with HET: Compass points
Points of the compass are always combined with het.
- Ik kom uit het zuiden van Nederland. (I’m from the south of the Netherlands.)
- Words with HET: Words ending on –asme, –isme and –ment
- Enthousiasme (enthusiasm)
- Organisme (organization)
- Entertainment (entertainment)
In Dutch you can join two words together to get a samengesteld woord (compound word). For example when you have
- Het strand (the beach)
- De stoel (the chair)
So the chair you use on the beach is called a strandstoel. And now, what do you think? The second word determines the article. So it’s de strandstoel.
But keep in mind that it’s het strandstoeltje.
De / Het: You don’t have to choose
And of course, just because it can, in some cases both of them are correct!
- De / het matras (matrass)
- De / het deksel (lid)
- De / het pedal (pedal)
- De / het sort (kind)
Don’t forget, when you are talking about the Netherlands, you don’t use an article.
- Ik ga naar Nederland (I’m going to the Netherlands)
These were some rules concerning the usage of the article in Dutch. Like I said in the introduction. It’s a bit much to learn these by heart. This blog gives a short insight into the strange rules of Dutch, which can make it difficult to learn.
Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School