De or het?

[Available also in Dutch/Italian] Due to a renewal of the Dutch language started in the 19th century, knowing the gender (masculine/feminine) is no longer necessary [1]. However, it remains the distinction between the neuters (het words) and other words (de words), and its knowledge is not just a matter of fashionable use of the language: the separation of de/het words has consequences on the grammar, such as the corresponding adjectives and pronouns.
The are few golden rules [2]:

  • plurals (of both de and het words) are always de words (de huizen, de boeken, de tafels)
  • -ing are de words (de beslissing, de mening)
  • -ie are de words (de familie, de distinctie, de politie)
  • diminutives are always het words (het huisje, het boekje, het zusje)
  • infinite verbs are always het words (het leven, het lezen, het ontspannen)
  • words of two syllables starting with be-, ge-, ver- and ont- are always het words (het belang, het geweer, het verstand, het ontzet)
  • -isme, -asme are het words (het katholicisme, het enthousiasme)
  • -sel are het words (het mengsel, het beginsel)
  • in compound nouns (composed by two words), the second (last) word rules (het werkwoord)

In the table, I have summarized these rules and the main consequences that the de/het distinction has in the grammar. This is not the traditional way the grammar is displayed, but in my opinion it gives good overview and a better structure to the learning.

De words Het words
Rule masculines and feminines
all plurals
all diminutives
infinite verbs
Words ending with** -ing, -st
-de, -te
-theek, -teit
 Categories** fruits and vegetables
people (family members and professions)
mountains and rivers
letters and figures
trees and plants
means of transport
beverages and liquids
sports and games
countries and places
directions (N,S,O,E)
materials and metals
Definite article de het
Indefinite article een een
 Adjective  -e (def & indef)
de grote school
een grote school
geen grote school
 -e (def) & -e (indef)
het grote huis
een groot huis
geen groot huis
 Demonstrative pronouns deze (nearby)
die (further away)
dit (nearby)
dat (further away)
 Relative pronouns  die  dat

** Pay attention to exceptions

Remember always that in plural form, also the het words belong to the column on the left hand side. For the rest, de & het need to be memorized by heart as part of the vocabulary. My favorite reference are the classic Dutch vocabulary, Interglot and this website, to learn by playing.

Peculiarity: some words can even get either de or/and het, and that is sometimes linked to nuances in the meaning. But that belongs to another post!

To conclude, I can not help finishing reminding the fact that more than 70% of the words are de words. But be careful, Murphy’s laws may be lurking around! 😉


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