• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show full table of contents form and function of the relative elements

The relative element linking a relative clause to a matrix clause can take many forms. Table 3 gives an overview of the various relative elements that will be discussed in this section. The list is not intended as exhaustive, but simply illustrates some typical cases. The mark <f> indicates that the form in question is part of the formal register of the language.

Table 3: Relative elements in Dutch
type form features of the antecedent subsection
Pronouns die -neuter, singular or ±neuter, plural I
  dat +neuter, singular  
  wie +human  
  wat -human, +neuter, singular, AP, VP or CP  
  welke<f> -neuter, singular or ±neuter, plural  
  hetgeen<f> AP, VP or CP  
Possessive pronouns wiens<f> +human, +masc, singular II
  wier<f> +human, +fem, singular or
+human, plural
R-pronouns waar (+P) no restrictions III
Adverbial phrases waar
+temporal or +manner
Particle dat +temporal V

Table 3 shows that the choice normally depends on certain features of the antecedent, such as number and gender. In (87), for example, the relative pronoun dat can only occur if the antecedent is a singular, neuter noun like boek'book'; if the antecedent is plural or non-neuter, the relative noun die must be used.

Example 87
a. Het boek dat ik gekocht heb, gaat over de oorlog.
  the book  that  bought  have  goes  about the war
  'The book Iʼve bought is about the war.'
b. De boeken die ik gekocht heb, gaan over de oorlog.
  the book  that  bought  have  goes  about the war
  'The book Iʼve bought is about the war.'
c. De man die naast mij woont, speelt goed piano.
  the man  who  next.to me  lives  plays  well  piano
  'The man who lives next to me plays the piano well.'

In other cases, it is the function of the antecedent in the main clause that determines which element can or must be used. The relative pronouns dat and die in (87), for example, cannot occur as the complement of a preposition; in these cases we use the relative pronoun wie or the R-pronoun waar in (88a&b). Similarly, possessive relative pronouns can only be used if they function as the possessor of a noun phrase.

Example 88
a. De vriend aan wie ik mijn fiets heb geleend, woont hiernaast.
  the friend  to whom  my bike  have  lent  lives  next.door
  'The friend I lent my bike to lives next door.'
b. De auto waarmee ik op vakantie ben geweest, is gestolen.
  the car  where-with  on holiday  am  been  is stolen
  'The car that Iʼve been on holiday with has been stolen.'
c. De vriend wiens fiets ik heb geleend, woont hiernaast.
  the friend  whose bike  have  borrowed  lives  next.door
  'The friend whose bike Iʼve borrowed lives next door.'

Relative elements that function as adverbial phrases come in various sorts. Some examples are given in (89): in (89a), for example, the relative element takes the form of the R-pronoun waar, and in (89b) the form of the relative particle dat.

Example 89
a. Ik herinner me nog de dag waarop het gebeurde.
relative adverb
  I remember  refl  still  the day  where-on  it  happened
  'I still remember the day on which it happened.'
b. De week dat ik op vakantie was, was het mooi weer.
relative particle
  the week  that  on holiday  was  was  it  nice weather
  'The week I was on holiday the weather was nice.'

The following subsections will discuss these relative elements. The discussion concludes in Subsection VI with an overview of the circumstances in which the elements in Table 3 can be used.

[+]  I.  Relative pronouns

This subsection discusses the relative elements from the first row in Table 3, that is, the colloquial relative pronouns die, dat, wie, and wat, as well as the more formal forms welke and hetgeen. As is indicated in Table 3, the relative pronoun wat can also be used with non-nominal antecedents, and the relative pronoun hetgeen is even used so exclusively. As our present concern is with postmodification of the noun phrase, a discussion of these pronouns in constructions such as (90) would, strictly speaking, fall outside the scope of the present subsection. However, as such a strict approach would leave the discussion of relative elements in Dutch incomplete, and since the constructions in question have much in common with the other ones dealt with in this subsection, we will include these constructions in our discussion.

Example 90
a. [Jan was niet op tijd], wat/hetgeen erg vervelend was.
  Jan was not on.time  what  very annoying  was
  'Jan wasnʼt on time, which was very annoying.'
b. Ik probeer [(om) op tijd te komen], wat/hetgeen misschien lukt.
  I try  comp on time to come  what  maybe  succeeds
  'Iʼll try to be on time, which I may succeed in.'
c. Jan [kocht een nieuwe auto], wat/hetgeen Peter ook wel wou.
  Jan  bought a new car  what  Peter  also  prt  wanted
  'Jan bought a new car, which Peter also would have liked to do.'
d. Jan is [zeer intelligent], wat/hetgeen Peter niet is.
  Jan is  very intelligent  what  Peter not  is
  'Jan is very intelligent, which Peter is not.'

Most relative pronouns can be used both in restrictive and in non-restrictive relative clauses. In what follows, restrictive relative clauses will be used as examples in those cases in which both types can be used. When a particular (use of) pronoun is restricted to one of the two types, this will be explicitly mentioned.

[+]  A.  Die/dat'that'

The relative pronouns die and dat can be seen as the standard pronouns in relative clauses with nominal antecedents. Relative clauses introduced by the pronouns die/dat can be given the global structural representations in the examples in (91); the concrete examples exemplify this for the case in which the relative pronoun functions as the subject of the clause. In this subsection, we will focus on the properties of the relative pronouns.

Example 91
a. Restrictive relative clause: [DP D [NP [... N ...]i [RC RELi .... ti ....]]]
[DP de [NP studenti [RC diei [DPti ] mijn boek heeft geleend]]]
  the  student  who  my book  has borrowed
  'the student who borrowed my book'
b. Non-restrictive relative clauses: [DP D [NP ... N ...]i , [RC RELi .... ti ....]]
[DP de [NP student]i , [RC diei [DPti ] mijn boek heeft geleend]]
  the  student  who  my book  has borrowed
  'the student, who borrowed my book'
[+]  1.  Features of the antecedent

The pronouns die and dat can be used with antecedents referring to both human and non-human referents. Which of the two pronouns is used depends on the gender and number of the antecedent: die is used for -neuter, singular or ±neuter, plural antecedents, whereas dat can only be used in the case of a +neuter, singular antecedent. In other words, dat can only be used with antecedents that take the neuter definite article het, and die is used in all other cases. This is illustrated in Table 4. Note that we gloss die/dat as who when the antecedent is +human and as that when the antecedent is -human, in accordance with the preferred English rendering of the pronoun.

Table 4: Antecedents of the relative pronoun die/dat
  singular plural
[-neuter] [+human] de man die daar loopt
the man who there walks
‘the man who is walking there’
de mannen die daar lopen
the men who there walk
‘the men who are walking there’
  [-human] de bal die daar ligt
the ball that there lies
‘the ball that is lying there’
de ballen die daar liggen
the balls that there lie
‘the balls that are lying there’
[+neuter] [+human] het kind dat daar speelt
the child who there plays
‘the child who is playing there’
de kinderen die daar spelen
the children who there play
‘the children who are playing there’
  [-human] het boek dat daar ligt
the book that there lies
‘the book that is lying there’
de boeken die daar liggen
the books that there lie
‘the books that are lying there’

Note, however, that in informal language the pronoun die is increasingly used with +neuter, singular antecedents if the antecedent has a +human or +animate referent. Thus, instead of the expressions in (92a&b), we may find the corresponding primed examples.

Example 92
a. het/een meisje dat daar woont
  the/a  girldim  that there lives
  'the girl who lives there'
a'. het/een meisje die daar woont
b. het/een hondje dat daar loopt
  the/a  dogdim  that there walks
  'the little dog that walks there'
b'. het hondje die daar loopt

It is not entirely clear what the scope of this use is. Haeseryn et al. (1997: 330) provides a couple of examples that involve non-restrictive relative clauses with nouns referring to a person, including an example involving the diminutive of a proper noun; cf. http://taaladvies.net/taal/advies/vraag/208.

Example 93
a. Kareltje, die gejokt had, kreeg een standje.
  Kareltje  who  fibbed  had  got  a reproach
  'Kareltje, who had been telling a fib, got a reproach.'
b. Zijn meisje, die bij ons werkt, is met vakantie.
  his girlfriend  who with us works  is on vacation
  'His girlfriend, who is working with us, is on vacation.'
c. Het hoofd van de afdeling, die hier al jaren werkt, is ontslagen.
  the head of the department  who here already years works,  has.been fired
  'The head of the department, who has been working here for years, has been fired.'

Still, it is not the case that this use is restricted to non-restrictive relative clauses: it is easy to find examples involving restrictive relative clauses on the internet. Two clear cases are given in (94): the first is the title of a story on You tube and the second is part of a review of a theatrical performance.

Example 94
a. een verhaal over een meisje die dacht dat liefde echt was
  a story  about a girl  who  thought  that love true was
  'a story about a girl who thought that love was true'
b. Hij was het jongetje die in het oefenpartijtje scoorde.
  he  was the boy  who  during the exercise  scored
  'He was the boy who scored during the exercise.'

It has been suggested that the examples such as (92a) are common due to the fact that the neuter gender of the nominal head clashes with the sex of the referent of the noun phrase; cf.http://onzetaal.nl/advies/diedat.php. This might indeed be relevant, but it cannot be the whole story given that examples such as (92b') can be found in contexts that provide no indication of the sex of the dog: in this case, it seems the grammatical gender of the stem of the diminutive form that is the determining factor. It seems clear that more research is needed before we can say anything definitive about this phenomenon.

[+]  2.  Quantified antecedents

The relative pronouns die and dat can combine with various types of quantified antecedents. This is shown in (95) for existentially quantified noun phrases, and in (96) for universally quantified noun phrases.

Example 95
a. iemand/niemand die ik ken
  somebody/nobody  who  know
  'somebody/nobody I know'
b. iets/niets dat ik gezien heb
  something/nothing  that  seen  have
  'something/nothing I saw'
Example 96
a. alle jongens die ik ken
  all boys  who  know
  'all boys I know'
b. elke jongen die ik ken
  each boy  who  know
  'each boy I know'

In archaic and literary (poetic) Dutch, the relative pronoun die can also take the quantified pronoun al'all' as its antecedent, resulting in such constructions as Al die dit leest is gek'all who read this are mad'. In (formal) Dutch, however, the relative pronoun wie is preferred in this context; cf. Subsection B2, below.

[+]  3.  Free and semi-free relative constructions

The relative pronoun die can also be used in so-called semi-free relative constructions, that is, restrictive relative clauses with an antecedent that has little semantic content and no independent reference. In these constructions, die is used with the antecedents degene(n) and diegene(n)'the one(s)', both of which are used for +human referents only.

Example 97
a. Wil d(i)egene die zijn auto voor de ingang heeft geparkeerd deze a.u.b. verwijderen?
  wants  the/that.one  who his car  in.front.of the entrance  has parked this  please  remove
  'Would the person who parked his car in front of the entrance please remove it?'
b. D(i)egenen die zich hebben ingeschreven krijgen spoedig bericht.
  the/those.ones  who  refl  have  registered  receive  soon  news
  'The/those persons who have registered will soon be informed.'

The relative pronoun dat does not seem to be favored in these constructions: the -human antecedent dat must be followed by the relative pronoun wat, which is probably motivated by the fact that use of dat would lead to haplology. But with datgene as well the use of wat seems much favored, although numerous examples with dat can be found on the internet.

Example 98
a. Dat wat/*dat ik gisteren gekocht heb is nu alweer kapot.
  that  which/which  I yesterday  bought  have  is now  already  broken
  'What I bought yesterday is already broken now.'
b. Datgene wat/%dat ik gisteren gekocht heb is nu alweer kapot.
  that  which/which  I yesterday  bought  have  is now  already  broken
  'What I bought yesterday is already broken now.'

Since the antecedent in semi-free relative constructions does not have independent reference, relative clauses of this type are always restrictive. For completeness’ sake, example (99) shows that neither die nor dat can be used in free relative constructions, that is, these relative pronouns always require an overtly realized antecedent.

Example 99
a. * Die dit leest is gek.
  who  this  reads  is mad
b. * Die te laat komt wordt gestraft.
  who  too late  comes  is  punished
[+]  4.  Syntactic function of the relative pronoun

In (100), it is shown that the relative pronouns die and dat can have the same syntactic functions as a regular noun phrase, namely, as the subject or an object of the relative clause.

Example 100
a. de student die mijn boek heeft geleend
  the student  who  my book  has  borrowed
  'the student who has borrowed my book'
b. de student die ik gisteren heb ontmoet
direct object
  the student  who  yesterday  have  met
  'the student I met yesterday'
c. de student die ik gisteren een boek heb gegeven
indirect object
  the/a student  who  yesterday  a book  have  given
  'the/a student I gave a book to yesterday'

The examples in (101) show that the relative pronouns die and dat cannot function as the complement of a preposition, regardless of whether the PP is an argument, as in (101a&b), or an adverbial phrase, as in (101c&d). In this respect these pronouns behave like personal pronouns that refer to inanimate entities; cf. Section P5.1.

Example 101
a. * de student [PP aan die] ik mijn boek heb gegeven
  the student  to whom  my book  have  given
b. * het boek [PP van dat] ik de kaft heb gescheurd
  the book  of which  the cover  have  torn
c. * de vriend [PP met die] ik op vakantie ben geweest
  the friend  with whom  on holiday  have  been
d. * het huis [PP in dat] ik geboren ben
  the house  in which  born  am

Note that stranding of the preposition, as in (102), does not improve matters, which is of course consistent with the fact that Dutch does not allow preposition stranding by extracting a noun phrase; cf. Section P5. Note in passing that mee in (102c) is the stranded form of the preposition met.

Example 102
a. * de student diei ik mijn boek [PP aan ti] heb gegeven
b. * het boek dati ik de kaft [PP van ti] heb gescheurd
c. * de vriend diei op vakantie [PP mee ti] ben geweest
d. * het huis dati ik [PP in ti] geboren ben

This means that Dutch must appeal to other means to express the intended meanings. Subsection B below will show that, in the case of +human antecedents, this can be done by replacing die/dat by the pronoun wie. An alternative option, which is also available if the antecedent is -human and which will be discussed in Subsection III, is to use a (split) pronominal PP waar ... P.
      The examples in (103) and (104) show that die/dat can also be used in restrictive relative clauses with an antecedent functioning as a complementive. This is possible regardless of whether the relative pronoun functions as an argument or a predicate in the relative clause. This is shown in the (a)- and (b)-examples, respectively. Relative clauses of this sort will be discussed more extensively in Section, sub IC.

Example 103
a. Ik ben niet de dwaas die men denkt dat ik ben.
  am  not  the fool  who one thinks that I am
  'Iʼm not the fool people think I am.'
b. Ik ben niet een dwaas die altijd doet wat hem gezegd wordt.
  am  not  a fool  who always does what him said is
  'Iʼm not a fool who always does as he is told.'
Example 104
a. Ik vind Jan niet de dwaas die men denkt dat hij is.
  find  Jan not  the fool  who one thinks that he is
  'I donʼt consider Jan the fool people think he is.'
b. Ik vind Jan een dwaas die altijd doet wat hem gezegd wordt.
  find  Jan  a fool  who always does what him said is
  'I consider Jan a fool who always does as he is told.'
[+]  5.  Possessive use

In some varieties of spoken Dutch, the relative pronoun die is sometimes used in possessive constructions such as (105a), in which it is followed by the reduced possessive pronouns zʼn'his' or dʼr'her', which can also be found in possessive constructions like Jan zʼn boek'Janʼs book' and Marie dʼr boek'Marieʼs book'. Example (105a') shows that the resulting construction, which is considered substandard and is not acceptable to all speakers of Dutch, is restricted to the singular, which may be related to the fact that the third person plural possessive pronoun hun'their' does not have a reduced form; cf. the discussion in Section, sub I. Example (105b) shows that the relative pronoun dat markedly differs from die in that it can never be used in this way.

Example 105
a. % de docent die zʼn boek ik heb geleend
  the teacher  who his book  have  borrowed
  'the teacher whose book Iʼve borrowed'
a'. * de studenten die hun examens ik heb nagekeken
  the students  who their exams  have  corrected
  'the students whose exams Iʼve corrected'
b. * het meisje dat dʼr moeder ik ken
  the girl  who her mother  know
[+]  B.  Wie'who'

The relative pronoun wie differs sharply from die/dat in that it is typically used as the complement of a PP, as in the structures in (106). The indices indicate the relations with the structure: the index i indicates that the full PP has been moved into the initial position of the relative clause, and the index j indicates that the noun (phrase) modified by the relative clause acts as the antecedent of the relative pronoun. The relative pronoun can sometimes also be used as a nominal argument in the relative clause, that is, with the structure in (91), but its use is then more restricted than that of die/dat.

Example 106
a. Restrictive relative clauses: [DP D [NP [... N ...]j [RC [PP P wiej ]i ... ti ...]]]
[DP de [NP studentj [RC [aan wiej]i ik [PPti ] mijn boek heb gegeven]]]
  the  student  to who(m)  I my book  have  given
  'the student to whom I gave the book'
b. Non-restrictive relative clauses: [DP D [NP ... N ...]i , [RC [PP P wiej ]i ... ti ...]]
[DP de [NP student] j , [RC [aan wiej]i ik [PPti ] mijn boek heb gegeven]]
  the  student  to who(m)  my book  have  given
  'the student, to whom I gave the book'
[+]  1.  Features of the antecedent

The relative pronoun wie is restricted to +human referents and can be used regardless of the gender, number or definiteness of its antecedent. This is illustrated in examples (107).

Example 107
a. de/een studentnon-neuter aan wie ik gisteren een boek heb gegeven
  the/a student  to who  yesterday  a book  have  given
  'the/a student who I have given a book yesterday'
b. het/een meisjeneuter aan wie ik gisteren een boek heb gegeven
  the/a girl  to whom  yesterday  a book  have  given
c. de studenten/meisjes aan wie ik gisteren een boek heb gegeven
  the students/girls  to whom  yesterday  a book  have  given
[+]  2.  Quantified antecedents

Example (108) shows that it is not easy for wie to take an existentially or universally quantified antecedent: the pronoun die is generally the strongly preferred option in that case. This is shown by (108).

Example 108
a. (n)iemand die/*?wie ik ken
  no/somebody  who/who  know
  'no/somebody I know'
b. iedereen die/*wie ik ken
  everyone  who/who  know
  'everyone I know'

      The examples in (109a&b) show, however, that the pronoun wie can be used to modify the universally quantified pronoun al'all' if this pronoun is used to refer to persons, although this particular use is characterized by a high degree of formality. Note that the antecedent and pronoun can both be interpreted either as singular or (perhaps somewhat marked) as plural, as shown by the form of the finite verbs of the main and relative clause.

Example 109
a. Al wie aanwezig was, werd ondervraagd.
  all who present was  was  interrogated
b. ? Al wie aanwezig waren, werden ondervraagd.
  all who present were  were  interrogated

Example (110a) shows that the universally quantified pronoun al cannot be used without the relative clause introduced by wie. This also explains why it cannot be used with a non-restrictive relative clause, as shown in (110b). For more details on the quantifier al, see Section

Example 110
a. * Al werd/werden ondervraagd.
  all  was/were  interrogated
b. * Al, wie aanwezig waren, werden ondervraagd.
  all who present were  were  interrogated
[+]  3.  Free and semi-free relative constructions

Relative clauses introduced by the pronoun wie can readily be used as free relatives, that is, without a phonetically expressed antecedent. Some examples are given in (111). Free relatives occur most frequently as the subject of a generic matrix clause like (111a&b), but (111c) shows that it is certainly not impossible to use a free relative subject to refer to a specific individual.

Example 111
a. [Wie dit leest] is gek.
  who  this  reads  is mad
  'Whoever reads this is mad.'
b. [Wie te laat komt] wordt gestraft.
  who  too late  comes  is punished
  'Whoever comes late will be punished.'
c. [Wie daar staat] is erg knap.
  who  there  stands  is very handsome
  'The person standing there is very handsome.'

In (111) there is matching in syntactic function between the free relative in the main clause and the relative pronoun in the relative clause, but it is also possible to have a mismatch between these two functions. In (112a), for example, the free relative functions as the subject of the main clause, whereas the relative pronoun functions as the direct object of the relative clause. The acceptability of (112a) contrasts sharply with the ungrammaticality of the German example in (112b) (cf. Van Riemsdijk 2006: 353), which is generally attributed to the fact that, unlike Dutch, German has morphological case: the relative pronoun in the German example must be accusative in order to be able to perform its role within the relative clause, but nominative in order for the free relative clause to perform its role in the main clause: this morphological clash, which is absent in Dutch, causes the ungrammaticality of (112b).

Example 112
a. [Wie hij niet kent] is onbelangrijk.
  who  he  not  knows  is unimportant
  'Who he doesnʼt know is unimportant.'
b. * [Wen/wer Got schwach geschaffen hat], muss klug sein.
  whoacc/whonom  God  weak  created  has  must  clever  be
  'Who God has created weak must be clever.'

      The examples in (113) show that free relatives can also function as direct objects; again the free relative can have a generic or a specific interpretation. These examples show again that Dutch is not subject to a matching restriction: the free relative clauses in (113) function as direct objects of the main clauses whereas the relative pronouns function as subjects of the relative clauses. In German, examples such as (113) are reported to be ungrammatical or archaic; see Van Riemsdijk (2006: 355-6) for discussion.

Example 113
Direct object
a. Ik bewonder wie zoiets kan.
  admire  who  such.thing  can
  'I admire whoever is able to do such a thing.'
b. We straften [wie dat gedaan had] streng.
  we  punished   who  that  done  had  severely
  'We have punished the person who did it.'

Example (114a), taken from the internet, shows that a free relatives can also be used as the complement of a preposition, although it should be noted that using a free relative as part of an indirect object introduced by aan'to', as in (113b), seems less favored than using a nominal indirect object.

Example 114
a. Het is een hel als je wacht op [wie er het eerste dood gaat].
  it is a hell  if  one waits  for   who  there  the first  dead  goes
  'Itʼs hell if one waits for who will die first.'
b. Ik zal [(?aan) wie daar om gevraagd heeft] een exemplaar toesturen.
  I will      to  who  there  for  asked  has  a copy  prt.-send
  'Weʼll send a copy to whoever asked for one.'

      A free relative is normally analyzed as a noun phrase headed by a phonetically empty antecedent for the relative pronoun noun wie, and not as a clause (Van Riemsdijk 2006). Evidence in favor of this claim is that the free relatives with wie have the syntactic distribution of noun phrases, and not that of clauses: they must precede the verbs in clause-final position, even if an anticipatory pronoun is present. This is illustrated in (115) by means of free relatives functioning as the subject and the object of the clause, respectively.

Example 115
a. dat [wie dit leest] gek is.