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1. Grammar and Spelling
2. Punctuation
3. Measurements and Abbreviations
4. Hyphenation
5. Miscellaneous Peculiarities
6. Geographic Distribution
7. Character Set

Section One – Grammar and Spelling

1. Gender and Case:

Dutch has 3 genders: masculine – feminine – neuter
Male and female nouns have the article ‘de’, whereas neuter nouns have ‘het’.

e.g. de man
      de vrouw
      het geschenk

Genders are not always ‘logically’ attributed so it can be confusing
e.g. the girl = het meisje; neuter
In the Netherlands more and more people tend to ‘masculinize’ de-words in spoken language, but in Flanders the ‘de’ distinction is kept.

English words used in Dutch tend to be preceded by ‘de’
e.g. de update
      de software
      de modem, although het modem is also correct

Dutch no longer uses cases, however, traces of them do remain, eg.

* in the pronoun wiens = old genitive

The man whose book I borrowed = De man wiens boek ik heb geleend.
(wiens = van wie, which is prefered these days to express possession - >
De man van wie ik het boek heb geleend)

* op den duur

2. Articles:

De, het = definite
Een = indefinite

3. One-letter words or other unusual words:

Apostrophe + lower case s (‘s) can often be found at the beginning of a sentence, e.g.

’s Avonds/’s Ochtends/’s Namiddags …

This derives from the old Dutch ‘Des avonds’ in which ‘des’ is an inflected article meaning ‘in the evening/morning/afternoon…’

4. Accents:

4.1 Accents with upper case:

Do not use an accent on an upper case letter, except if the whole word is written in capital letters.

e.g. Eén is geen

4.2 Accents with foreign words:

There has been a tendency recently to leave out all accents in foreign (mostly French) words. They are only used with ‘e’ and even then only when necessary for correct pronunciation.

e.g. seance

4.3 Accents for emphasis

Accents on Dutch words are only used when the writer really wants to emphasise something:

e.g. The man stands in front of the window.
      De man staat vóór het raam.

In this sentence it is stressed that the man is not sitting behind the window - if there is no space for misinterpretation, accents should not be used.

e.g. That is the ultimate way to do it!
      Dat is dé manier om het te doen!

5. Plurals:

‘-en’ or ‘-s’ at the end of a word mark the plural.

e.g. 1 boek, 2 boeken (book)
1 tafel, 2 tafels (table)

However, sometimes:

• when the syllable of the singular word is ‘open’, it drops one of the vowels before adding the ‘-en’
e.g. 1 meer, 2 meren (lake)

• when the syllable is ‘closed’, the consonant is doubled
e.g. 1 kat, 2 katten (cat)

• words take apostrophes (’s); this is usually the case when there is a danger of pronouncing words in the wrong way. [vowels –a, -e, -i. –o, -u can either be pronounced long or short; when they are pronounced long they mostly take an apostrophe in plural and genitive]
e.g. 1 camera, 2 camera’s

• some words have irregular plurals
e.g. 1 kind, 2 kinderen (child)
1 doos, 2 dozen (box)

6. In-capped letters:

‘U’, the formal form of address used to be written with a capital, but that is no longer the case.

Some other forms of address do still use capitals:

mijnheer/mevrouw de Minister
Aan Hare Majesteit de Koningin/Aan Zijne Majesteit de Koning

Section Two – Punctuation

1. Full stops: Full stops are used in the following ways:

Headings, titles or subtitles: Normally no full stops at the end

Bullet points: When the bullet points are full sentences they start with capitals and end with full stops. When the bullet points are parts of sentences, they start with small letters and end with a semi colon, the last in the list being followed by a full stop.

Addresses: No full stops

Mevr. Janssen
Velveken 60
1230 Larum

Mr. Bos
Geuzenkade 13
1127MP Amsterdam

3. Speech marks: Speech marks are used in the same way as in English.

4. Apostrophes: Apostrophes are used in the following way:

Some words take apostrophes in the plural - this is usually the case when there is a danger of pronouncing words in the wrong way. [vowels –a, -e, -i, –o, -u can either be pronounced long or short, when they are pronounced long they mostly take apostrophe in plural and genitive]
e.g. 1 camera – 2 camera’s

Some words take apostrophes when forming the genitive – again, this is usually the case when there is a danger of pronouncing words in the wrong way. [vowels –a, -e, -i. –o, -u can either be pronounced long or short, when they are pronounced long they mostly take apostrophe in plural and genitive]
e.g. Oma’s wagentje.

Archaic ’s
’s Avonds/’s Ochtends/'s Middags (Dutch), ’s Namiddags (Flemish),
’s Gravenhage
(see above)

5. Colons, Semi-colons and Ellipsis:

5.1 Colons - Mostly in front of:
a citation;
an enumeration;
direct speech.

5.2 Semi-colons – Used as something inbetween a comma and full stop.
Also used when bullet points are parts of sentences.

5.3 Ellipsis (…) - When a piece of text has been omitted or when there is a pause.

6. Brackets: Brackets are used for:

something that has been added;
reference; (year of publication…)
alternatives; (plural form, feminine form …)

To outline how text in brackets is punctuated is not easy. Usually the full stop is placed after the second bracket, but the use of full stops within brackets should really be considered for each case separately.

7. Capitalisation:

In Headings - Mostly only capital for first word.

Product names - Mostly capital for first word BUT product names are often left in English so it is hard to set basic rules.

Sentences - Mostly only capital for first word.

Proper names - Capitals for all the components of the name. Surnames starting with a preposition or an article are often written differently in the Netherlands and Belgium:

(NL) When name or initials precede, one tends to write it with a small letter;
e.g. de heer J. van den Berg
      de heer Van den Berg

(BE) In Belgium the name is written as it appears on the identity card, which is mostly with a preposition or article with a capital.
e.g. de heer Jan Van den Berg

Names of days/seasons/months - No capitals

Section Three – Measurements and Abbreviations

1. Measurements: The Metric system is used.

Commas are used to denote decimals
Full stops or spaces are used in numbers with more than 4 digits

e.g. 4,5 cm
      50.000 or 50 000


10.30 am - 10.30 uur
noon - middag = 12.00 uur
4.30 pm - 16.30 uur
midnight - middernacht = 0.00 uur


20 februari 2004


Space before measurement abbreviation – e.g. 5 kg
No space before a % symbol – e,g. 10%
Space before °C – e.g. 30 °C


The ‘€’ is written in front of the amount. There is a space between the sign and the amount. When written as ‘EUR’ it can go before or after the amount (with spaces). In the Netherlands one tends to put it in front of, in Belgium after the amount.

¥, £ and $ are written in front of the amount.

The letter code depends: sometimes in front, sometimes after
e.g. DM 50,00
      80 fr.

2. Abbreviations:

N/a N.v.t.
No. (nos.) Nr.
e.g. Bijv. / B.v.
1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th 1e, 2e, 3e … (e on same line as number)
Mr. / Mrs. Dhr. (Dutch), Mr. (Flemish) / Mevr.
Miss Juffrouw/Mejuffrouw (Mej.) (in titles, addresses)
Dear Sir / Madam Geachte heer / mevrouw

Please note: According to the Belgian Instituut voor Normalisatie (which sets the BIN-normen) there is NO comma after it at the beginning of a letter. However, according to the Nederlandse Normalisatie Instituut (NNI) there should be one!

m (for metre) m
cm (for centimetre) cm
lb (for pound weight) (lb)
g (for gram) g
km (for kilometre) km
EMEA (Europe, Middle-East & Asia) EMEA
Days of the week/ month/seasons - Not normally abbreviated.

Section Four – Hyphenation

Words are mostly broken down by syllabic structure, although that is not always easy. The best way to work out how to hyphenate a word is by ‘chanting’ it out loud.

However, hyphenation should be avoided as much as possible, especially in advertisements. If it cannot be avoided, it is best to hyphenate somewhere in the middle of the word as it does not look good to end or begin a line with only 2 or 3 characters of a (long) word.

e.g. perso-nages rather than persona-ges

Linking words with a hyphen is not that common in Dutch. It is done in compounds where the two components are equally important.

e.g. vertaler-tolk
      winst- en verliesrekening

Acronyms, symbols, letters and numbers are joined to words by hyphens:

e.g. tv-kijker

Compounds linking two ‘clashing’ vowels (vowels that result in mispronunciation when they are linked to each other) get a hyphen, whereas derivations get a diaeresis where two ‘clashing’ vowels are linked.

e.g. warmte-isolatie (=compound)

compared to

beïnvloeden (=derivation)

-a + achtig (would normally make a derivation but get a hyphen)

The tendency in Dutch is to link words together to form compounds.
Sometimes, when more than 3 or 4 words are linked together and there is a chance of mispronunciation or misunderstanding, a hyphen is used to clarify.
This is often the case when one of the components of the word is English.

e.g. driekleureninktpatroon (drie + kleuren + inktpatroon)

Some prefixes are joined to words with a hyphen, some are not.

With hyphen:

Without hyphen:

Suffixes are not joined to words with hyphens.

Dutch normally uses ‘N’ dashes (–).
Dashes are used:
to interrupt a sentence with another (smaller) one,
to put an extra emphasis on a particular part of the sentence,
to indicate an unexpected turning of the sentence.

e.g. We promise you – if you fill in the form today – that…

(half a) space comes before and after the dash.

Section Five – Miscellaneous Peculiarities

Most Dutch/Flemish place names have an English translation:
e.g. Den Haag - > The Hague
Brussel - > Brussels

But some don’t:
e.g. Amsterdam

Some English place names are different in Dutch
e.g. London - > Londen

Surnames are given after the first names. Surnames are often written in upper case in bibliographies (although rules on this differ).

Section Six – Geographic Distribution

Dutch is spoken by the 15 million inhabitants of the Netherlands, and is also the official language of Surinam in South America, and of the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. It is also spoken in northern Belgium but there the language is generally referred to as Flemish. Dutch, like English, is one of the Germanic languages, and thus part of the Indo-European family. It stands about midway between English and German and is the closest to English of any of the major languages.

Dutch is spoken/used in the following countries: Aruba (Dutch), Belgium, Canada, Netherlands (Holland), Netherlands Antilles, Suriname, United States of America.

Language Family
Family: Indo-European
Subgroup: Germanic
Branch: Western

Source: http://www.worldlanguage.com/Languages/Dutch - Copyright © Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World, Published by Routledge.

Breakdown of languages spoken in Belgium:

Dutch (Flemish) - 56%
French - 32%
German – 1%
(Remainder = bilingual)

Section Seven – Character Set

[ ] = Alt key codes

a à [0224] á [0225] â [0226] ä [0228] A
b B
c C
d D
e è [0232] é [0233] ê [0234] ë [0235] E
f F
g G
h H
i ì [0236] í [0237] î [0238] ï [0239] I
j J
k K
l L
m M
n N
o ó [0243] ô [0244] ö [0246] O
p P
q Q
r R
s S
t T
u ù [0249] ú [0250] û [0251] ü [0252] U
v V
w W
x X
y Y
z Z


By McElroy Translation Company,
Austin, Texas 78701 USA


McElroy is continuing this series of interviews that highlight some of the characteristics of languages used in doing business globally. This month, we look at Dutch.

Dutch is a West Germanic language spoken by around 24 million people, 22 million of whom are from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname, but also including smaller groups of speakers in parts of France, Germany, and several former Dutch colonies. It is closely related to other West Germanic languages (e.g., English, West Frisian, and German) and somewhat more remotely to the North Germanic languages.

This month we dive into this language and learn some of the characteristics that are unique or different from English and/or other languages, pitfalls to avoid, and the influence that English has had over Dutch.

What are some pitfalls specific to Dutch to avoid that a client should be aware of when translating into this language?

The first question a client should ask is "Who is my target audience?" There is Dutch for the Netherlands and Dutch for Belgium. Basically, the language is one and the same. We use the same dictionaries and grammar books, which cannot be said of American English and British English, for example. So a Flemish translator—Flemish refers to the people NOT the language—can translate for the entire Dutch-speaking community and vice versa. Of course, there are regional idioms, but everything is very well documented in the explanatory van Dale Dutch dictionary. An expression or word or usage that is typically Belgian is indicated as such. However, there are instances such as for patient questionnaires wherein it is highly recommended to use a native speaker from the target country. For example, walk is translated as lopen in Dutch. In Belgium, however, people might think of running when they see lopen and answer that they are not able to run, despite being capable of walking, thus they answer incorrectly.

Another difference is the way our two countries are organized. Belgium has a federal government, and when you run into text such as: local and state, industry regulations, state can be translated as gewestelijk/regional. In the Netherlands this does not make any sense, and often it is translated as provinciaal (provincial).

Now, speaking of differences between Dutch and English: a major difference is the use of the imperative in English manuals. In Dutch the use of auxiliaries is more prevalent. In addition to moeten (must), in manuals the less strong-sounding dienen te is also used. Example: Voordat een volgende pallet ingevoerd kan worden, dient de resetknop bediend te worden. In English: Press the reset button on the control panel before feeding the next pallet. This sentence leads to another matter: the English gerund. Feeding is translated here as can be fed. The use of the gerund in English makes the language very concise, e.g., loading in computer lingo. In Dutch this becomes: Bezig met laden…. There are more words and it literally means: in the process of loading. What I also find interesting is, e.g., the translation of restrictions or requirements such as No and Not allowed. No smoking is not niet roken, but rather verboden te roken. For Not allowed, e.g., Dogs not allowed, it is honden verboden.

Another difference is the use of you in English. In Dutch we have the formal u and the informal je and jullie. Je is singular and jullie is plural. U is singular as well as plural. In English source texts it is not always clear whom is being addressed: one person or more than one person, and should they be addressed formally or informally?

What are characteristics of Dutch that are unique or different from English and/or other languages?

Dutch is a Germanic language. We have de (both feminine and masculine) and neutral het words. It is not always clear which is which, and Dutch-speaking people use the explanatory Dutch dictionary quite often to look up the proper gender. Some words can be de and het, e.g., filter. Het filter is not used in Belgium, but it is used in the Netherlands.

Inverted sentences are characteristic for Dutch. Normally, a sentence starts with the subject: Ik kom morgen (I come tomorrow). However, if, e.g., a time clause precedes the subject, the sentence is constructed as follows: Morgen kom ik (literally: Tomorrow come I). Another phenomenon is the separable/inseparable verbs: e.g., opbellen (call): Mijn vriend opbellen (this is the infinitive and means: to call my friend). In the first person this becomes: Ik bel mijn vriend op (I call my friend). Op and bellen are now separated by the object. Sometimes a single verb has a different meaning depending on its separable or inseparable use. An example of this is overrijden. Drive across is the first meaning: But, Hij rijdt het plein over (He drives across the square). Hij overrijdt een kat (He runs over a cat).

How do these characteristics make it important to use properly qualified, professional translators?

The use of properly qualified, professional translators is an absolute must. The masses are confronted with English on a daily basis because all the shows that come from abroad are subtitled. Since everybody is exposed to English all the time, people adopt it, and as a result you hear a lot of literal translations from English on the streets. This has gone so far that most people don’t realize that the origin of these phrases is English: e.g., we gaan ervoor (we go for it). In this case, grijp je kans (literally: get your chance) would be a better solution. Another example: Je geeft te veel informatie (you give too much information). Je onthult/zegt te veel is more correct Dutch.

In the business realm, plenty of marketing information comes from the United States. I'm thinking of advertising, newsletters, etc. Typical business terms that are very common are a challenge to translate. Even the word challenge should not always be translated literally. Although challenge can be translated as a challenge, it can also be translated as a topic for discussion, an assignment, or even a problem in Dutch, depending on the context. Examples of marketing words that are themselves a challenge are business, commit (see example below), create, focus, opportunity, proper, etc. When I see create, the first translation that comes to mind is creëren, but if you use this translation in all instances, poor Dutch would be the result.

Example with commit
English: Never commit or discuss an offer until you’ve had time to consider it.
Dutch: Accepteer of onderhandel niet over een salarisbod voordat je de tijd hebt gehad er over na te denken.
Here, commit is translated as accept.

English: Companies commit to comply with the Code of Conduct.
Dutch: Bedrijven verbinden zich tot het naleven van de Gedragsregels.
Here, a more firm promise is expressed which requires the use of another verb (zich verbinden).

The translation of to also requires professional skills and creativity. e.g., To take the course, go to the following website address. To is om, and you can start a sentence with om, e.g., Om de cursus te volgen gaat u naar het volgende websiteadres. A more inviting translation is: Als u klaar bent om de cursus te volgen gaat u naar het volgende websiteadres (When you are ready to take the course, go to the following website address). The message is clear: you want people to go to this site; the tone of the message is important.

Do you know of examples where translation or localization mistakes have occurred with Dutch, such as problems with text expansion, date/time formats, counting errors, character encoding, etc., or mistakes with the translation itself? Perhaps you’ve been asked to review a translation that did not seem to be the work of a properly qualified, professional translator.

In Dutch we use commas where periods are used in English and vice versa. $50,000.00 becomes $50.000,00 in Dutch. Dates are different too. The most common format is dd/mm/yyyy. For time, a period is used: 18:15 is 18.15 in Dutch. In general, this is well rendered in translations.

However, what I do see is that, because the Netherlands and the Dutch-speaking areas are so tiny and because we have to speak other languages to do business with our neighboring countries, there are companies that do not invest in professional translations to the extent that they should. Very often employees are asked to do the translation, and not only into their native language, but sometimes into up to four languages, with the result that clients who receive the message might be insulted or confused and may have to call to ask what is meant. Everyone speaks English, French, German, or Spanish and we are eager to speak foreign languages, but of course that means that it is very tempting to eliminate the translation expense from the budget. However, more and more companies are becoming aware that professional translations are good for their image and reputation and that the translations are more than merely "communications in another language"—or "typing in another language" as managers sometimes call it. The growth of the EU is another factor. The markets have become more competitive and companies want to stand out, and quality language is a vehicle for standing out.

Of course, I have seen mistakes. For example, State Department. The first translation that comes to mind is staatsadministratie (state administration). In Dutch we use buitenlands to indicate that the department works with countries from abroad. When seeing the words State and Department, foreign does not come to mind at first sight. Thus, a thorough knowledge of the source language and the source country is a must.

Relate an example or two of times you found a website page or form difficult to use because it was poorly localized. How might a business lose money, prestige, or incur legal risk due to this bad translation?

One common example is the manuals for appliances/devices manufactured in upcoming markets. There, the concept of providing properly translated documents with the devices is not well understood yet. Dutch and Belgian people who know several languages try to figure it out themselves using not only the poor Dutch translation, but also the poor English, French, or German manuals that are usually included. Yes, we get them all. In the end, it is time wasted. Another issue is safety. After all, you want to use your appliance safely.

As I mentioned earlier, some companies use multilingual employees to translate websites and other materials, but the result is not always appealing, and to attract clients from abroad or from even the other side of the country—in the case of Belgium—you want to present the correct language and address your clients in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

If possible, provide one example of a particular phrase or concept that only a properly qualified, professional translator would be able to correctly communicate.

Challenging are expressions such as push the envelope, in limbo, state-of-the-art. Such expressions require a thorough knowledge of the source language. Literal translations would be just awful! The word exciting, which is used all the time, requires professionalism and creativity to correctly render the intended meaning, although it seems so easy at first sight.

False friends are another challenge, and it takes a professional to be aware of the differences. A common false friend is the word family. In English it is, on the one hand, the family unit consisting of a father, a mother, or both, and children, and on the other hand grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. In Dutch the first group is translated as gezin, the latter as familie.

Context is also important. A nursery can be a daycare center for children, but it can also be a place where plants are grown. We have two different words for the two different meanings of nursery. It is imperative to understand what is meant and not just look up the term in the dictionary.

Published - October 2008

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