Dutch Linguistics

Syntax – the special case of 'ER'

The Dutch word ‘*er’ (henceforth: ER) more or less translates as ‘there’, but unfortunately this does not mean you can just translate English ‘there’ with Dutch ER and vice versa in all circumstances. Sometimes Dutch ER cannot be translated into English at all:

Hij heeft er drie.
He has three (of them).

and sometimes English ‘there’ doesn’t translate to Dutch ER but rather to ‘daar’:

There she comes.
Daar komt ze.

Another thing that gets in the way of direct translation is the position of Dutch ER in a sentence. Just like the Dutch verb always comes in second place, the position of ER is also very specific and not always the same as English ‘there’. We can use our knowledge of Dutch word order to describe the exact position of ER which will help us to use ER in the correct way.

In this chapter we will describe 4 different types of ER. Once you learn to identify the different types of ER, using them becomes pretty straightforward. All you need to do is practise and the use of ER will (hopefully) come as natural to you as to native Dutch speakers.

In order to understand the specific problems related to ER and the use of the word it is important to know a few things about the features of ER.

(Most of the examples and thoughts presented here are taken from >Huybregts (1991), which includes an important chapter about clitics).


>Clitics are monosyllabic (one >syllable) unstressed >pronouns. Dutch examples are:

‘ie (hij), ‘t (het), er, ‘m (hem).

Clitics have a tendency to attach themselves to a following or preceding word, as you can see in the following examples:

Heeft’ie dat boek?

(Heeft hij dat boek?)
Does he have that book?


Nee, hij heeft’t niet.

(Nee, hij heeft het niet.)

No, he doesn’t have it.


Ik wil’r niks over horen.

(Ik wil er niks over horen.)

I don’t want to hear about it.


Hij heeft’m gezien.

(Hij heeft hem gezien.)

He has seen him.


Heeft’ie’t’m gezegd?

(Heeft hij het hem gezegd?)

Did he tell it to him?

(This is a difficulty of Dutch;
3 clitics in a row!)

(Try to pronounce the difference between the sentences under A and those under B. Can you hear the difference? Do you understand why we say that clitics attach themselves to other words?)

Now consider a few regularities considering clitics in Dutch: (remember that * in front of a sentence means it is ungrammatical). All sentences are more or less translations of ‘Jan didn’t live there long’.


in SUBCLAUSES (SOV!) the clitic typically follows the subject of the clause:

a. dat Jan er niet lang gewoond heeft.
b. * dat Jan niet lang er gewoond heeft.
c. * dat Jan niet er lang gewoond heeft.


in MAIN CLAUSES the clitic typically follows the finite verb:

a. Jan heeft er niet lang gewoond.
b. * Jan heeft niet lang er gewoond.
c. * Jan heef niet er lang gewoond.


Clitics cannot take a position in front of the subject of the sentence, but non-clitical elements CAN take this position.

a. * Er heeft Jan niet lang gewoond.
b. Daar heeft Jan niet lang gewoond.
c. * ‘m heeft Jan lang niet gezien.
d. Hem heeft Jan lang niet gezien.

Why is all this important? Well, you probably guessed already that ER is considered to be a clitic (that is why we used it as an example in 1 and 2), at least in some constructions. Now we know this we can look at ER in a bit more detail.

ER – an R-clitic

It has been proposed that there are at least 5 different types of ER in Dutch. Just take a look at them and don’t worry too much about the terminology.


a. Expletief:

Er wordt gelachen.
There is laughter/People are laughing


b. Existentiëel:

Er kijken veel mannen naar Truus.
Many men are watching Truus.


c. Locatief:

Jan woont er ook.
Jan also lives there.


d. Kwantitatief:

Henk bezit er drie.

Henk owns three (of them).


e. Prepositioneel:

Wij sporen er de buurvrouw toe aan

We encourage the neighbour to do it/that.

Now consider the following sentences:



Daar wordt gelachen.
There is laughter over there.



Daar kijken veel mannen naar Truus.
Over there many men are watching Truus.



Jan woont daar ook.
Jan also lives there.



* Henk bezit daar drie.
* Henk owns there three.



Wij sporen daar de buurvrouw toe aan.
We encourage the neighbour to do that.

Note that, except in sentence d), we can replace ER with so called ‘strong’ (non-clitic) words. We chose daar, but some of the sentences are also OK with hier, ergens, nergens, overal; the so called R-words. We call ER an R-clitic, because it can be considered to be a weak form of the R-words (remember clitics are >unstressed (i.e. weak) monosyllabic words).

(note: ER relates to ergens, hier, daar etc. as ’t does to dat, dit, iets, niets etc.

Hij heeft er niet gewerkt. > Hij heeft daar niet gewerkt.
He hasn’t worked there.

Hij heeft’t niet gezien. > Hij heeft dat niet gezien.
He hasn’t seen it. )

Now let’s go back to sentence d). It turns out that >quantitative ER has no strong variant. So you can remember that if you refer to something in combination with a counting word you always use ER (not daar, hier etc.).


Heb jij kinderen? Do you have children?
a. Ja, ik heb er drie. Yes, I’ve got three.
  (Ja, ik heb er veel.) Yes, I’ve got many.
  (Nee, ik heb er geen.) No, I’ve got none.
(Ja, ik heb er een paar.) Yes, I’ve got a few.


* Ja, ik heb daar drie. ‘Yes, I’ve got there three’

Let’s take a look at sentence c) and e); >locative and >prepositional ER. Locative is so called because it refers to a location, we will talk about prepositional later.

These two sentences are grammatical with a strong R-word. It is not easy to work out when you can use ER and when you’d have to use a strong variant such as daar or hier. As a rule of thumb you can use ER when you refer back to something that has been mentioned before and is assumed to be known, as in 7).


Ken jij Amsterdam goed?  
  Nee, ik ben er maar 1 keer geweest. No, I’ve only been there once.
  Ja, ik kom er vandaan. Yes, I’m from there.
  ?? Ja, ik kom daar vandaan. Yes, I’m from there.

Now we know that ER is a clitic we also know we cannot stress the word, see 8b).


Kom jij daarvandaan?  
a. Nee, ik kom daar vandaan.
(stress on daar)
No, I’m from over there.


* Nee, ik kom er vandaan. (stress on er). No, I’m from over there

No doubt you’ve noticed that the examples in 7) and 8) are all >locative (they refer to a location) uses of the R-word. How about the prepositional variants? Again, you use ER if you refer back to something as in 9).


  Kijk jij vanavond naar dat programma? Are you going to watch that show tonight?
a. Nee, ik ga er niet naar kijken. No, I’m not going to watch it.
b. Nee, ik ga daar niet naar kijken. No, I’m not going to watch that.

We call this form prepositional because it is combined with a preposition.

a. erover, erbij, ernaast, erop, eronder etc.
b. daarover, daarbij, daarnaast, daarop, daaronder etc.

Note that in Dutch we do not say ‘over het’ where English uses ‘about it’. Instead, we always use ER, as in ‘erover’.

We talked about it.
We hadden het erover.

But wait a minute! Surely daar in 9b) refers back to ‘dat programma’ as well? It’s true, and the difference in prepositional use is not as black and white as with locative R-words. But there is a trick you can remember: generally, Dutch people will find that 9b) is stressed (as in: I’m not going to watch that!). This point becomes clearer if you move the word to the front of the sentence, generally a position for word stress.


a. Daar ga ik niet naar kijken!
b.* Er ga ik niet naar kijken! (ungrammatical!)

We can conclude that in the case of locatives and prepositionals we can use both the clitic ER or a strong R-word. Generally the strong words are used in the case of word stress.

Grammatical ER

Now we’re left with the sentences in a. and b.. As we can see we can use strong forms instead of ER in these sentences.

4a. Er wordt gelachen. - expletief
4b. Er kijken veel mannen naar Truus. - existentiëel

5a. Daar wordt gelachen.
5b. Daar kijken veel mannen naar Truus.

However, there’s something peculiar going on here. The sentences in 5 do not mean the same as those in 4. We can only understand the R-words in 5 as referring to a location, whereas ER in 4 doesn’t seem to mean anything (rather it’s inserted purely for grammatical reasons).

So we’ve found that when an R-word is inserted for grammatical reasons only, we have to use the R-clitic ER rather than a strong R-word.


What we’ve learned about ER so far

We saw that ER:

  • comes straight after the finite verb
  • comes after the subject in sentences with >inversion (sub-clause)
  • cannot take a position with stress

We learned that there are 5 different types of ER.

  • expletive - inserted for grammatical reasons
  • existential - inserted for grammatical reasons
  • locative - refers to a location
  • quantitative - refers to a number
  • prepositional - used with a preposition

Only >locative and >prepositional ER have strong variants (hier/daar). For our current purposes we can divide the other 3 types into two categories: >quantitative and >grammatical use of ER.

That means we’re left with 4 ‘types’ of ER:

  • locative
  • prepositional
  • quantitative
  • grammatical

So now we know when to use ER (i.e. in quantitative, grammatical and (unstressed) locative and prepositional use) and we know when we can choose a strong variant (hier/daar) (namely in (stressed) locative and prepositional use).


Other students before you have found the information in this chapter very useful in learning how to use ER in Dutch. We recommend that you take a good look at all the sentences and the differences between them, because details are crucial in these examples. If you’re confident you understand the different types of ER, you can do the final exercise below to test your knowledge.

After that you can either read a more in depth discussion of the specific theoretical problems of ER or you can click forward to the next topic leaving the SYNTAX part of this course behind, but taking all your new knowledge with you!

Identify the following types of ER.
:: question and answer ::

Click here to read more about ER.

(phonology and phonetics)