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Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are clitics and free words that are used to refer to a person, animal, thing, substance or abstract entity mentioned or otherwise supplied in the previous discourse. Grammatically, they distinguish number (singular and plural) and case (nominative and oblique). The second person pronouns mark politeness, and the third person pronouns show a three-way gender distinction. The main uses are called anaphoric and deictic. Anaphoric pronouns refer to a discourse entity already introduced, as in Jan is mijn vriend, ik ken hem al jaren Jan is my friend, I’ve known him for years, whereas deictic pronouns introduce a new referent, generally by a locational adverb and/or a pointing gesture Hij daar is mijn vriend Jan Him over there is my friend Jan.The neuter pronoun het stands out for its many special uses.


Dutch personal pronouns have different forms depending on gender, number and case. Furthermore, they appear in stressed (also called “full” or “strong”) and unstressed (“reduced” or “weak”) forms. The unstressed forms may be clitics; they are often spelled with an apostrophe.

Table 1
Singular Plural
Nominative Oblique Nominative Oblique
1st person ik [ɪk], 'k [ək] [k] mij [mɛɪ], me [mə] wij [ʋɛɪ], we [ʋə] ons [ɔns]
2nd person informal jij [jɛɪ], je [jə] jou [jɑu], je [jə] jullie [jʏli] jullie [jʏli]
formal u [y] u [y] u [y] u [y]
3rd person masculine hij [hɛɪ], 'ie [i] hem [hɛm], 'm [əm] [m] zij [zɛɪ], ze [zə] hen [hɛn], hun [hʏn], ze [zə]
feminine zij [zɛɪ], ze [zə] haar [har], (d)'r [dər] [ər] [r] zij [zɛɪ], ze [zə] hen [hɛn], hun [hʏn], ze [zə]
neuter het [hət], 't [ət] [t] het [hət], 't [ət] [t] zij [zɛɪ], ze [zə] hen [hɛn], hun [hʏn], ze [zə]
The second person singular shows a politeness distinction. Its usage is briefly described in ANS. A widespread regional variant is gij /gɛi/ (weak form ge /xə/), which is typical of the southern dialects of the Netherlands and the Dutch spoken in Belgium. This pronoun either replaces the Northern nominative u or it constitutes the only nominative second-person pronoun, regardless of formality. Gij can be singular or plural. In archaic Dutch, gij was used as a formal pronoun of greater formality than u.

There are regional variants for all pronoun forms.

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The spelling of forms such as 'm or ‘ie suggests that the clitic pronouns are all enclitics. However, the forms ‘k and ‘t can occur as both as pro- and enclitics. Compare, for example ik zal I will, which can become /ksɑl/, and the inverted zal ik will I which can be realised as /zɑlk/. The first contains a proclitic variant of the reduced 1st person singular nominative, the second an enclitic variant. (See Booij (1996) for a discussion of clitics in Dutch. Other relevant references are Berendsen (1983), Berendsen (1986), Booij (1987), Booij (1995, 1996), Zonneveld (1994) and Van Oostendorp (2000).

As shown in the overview of forms above, the third person plural oblique has three forms which are used varyingly.

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Speakers vary in their use of the various forms for the third person plural oblique. In informal speech, ze is often used, but this form is dispreferred in more formal registers. The distinction between hun and hen, which some linguists analyse as a dative-accusative distinction although it differs in distribution from the historical dative and accusative, is an artefact and is mastered only by a fraction of the speakers. In prescriptive grammars, hen is advised for direct objects and after prepositions, while hun is for indirect objects. In informal speech, hun is more frequent than hen. Moreover, hun is increasingly spreading towards the subject position (Van Bree 2012). Since this use is restricted to human referents, it allows speakers to distinguish grammatically between human and non-human or inanimate agents. For example, observing a group of people on the street one could say Hun staan daar al de hele dag They have been standing there all day, while of a collection of boxes one might say Ze staan daar al de hele dag They have been standing there all day. This usage is typical for the spoken language and is not officially accepted in writing. The use of an oblique pronoun in a nominative context is not unusual. For instance, in Afrikaans, a daughter language of Dutch, the subject pronoun in the plural is ons, which is the oblique form in the mother language. Another example is the formal Dutch pronoun u which was originally an accusative and dative form that later expanded towards the nominative.

[+]Use: anaphoric

The 1st and 2nd person singular refer to the speaker or the hearer, respectively. The 1st person plural means ‘speaker and or more other persons’. It is ambiguous between an inclusive and exclusive interpretation, it can refer to ‘you and me’ or ‘me and somebody else’. The 2nd person plural pronoun addresses the hearer and some other person or persons, whether present in the discourse situation or not. Third person pronouns are used to refer to conceptual entities mentioned or otherwise made salient in the previous discourse. Such entities can be persons, objects or anything else that can be expressed by a noun. In the unmarked case, the referent is first introduced by a noun called the antecedent and later picked up by the pronoun. In the example, the referent, a house, is first referred to by a noun and then by a pronoun. The pronoun agrees with the antecedent noun in gender (neuter) and number (singular).

Example 1

Het huis stond leeg omdat het bouwvallig was.
DEF.SG.N house(N) stand.2SG.PST empty because PRO.3SG.N dilapidated be.3SG.PST
The house stood empty because it was ramshackle

The use of a pronoun to take up an already established referent is known as anaphoric. Pronouns that precede rather than follow the noun, as in toen hij gegeten had ging Jos weer aan het werk after he had eaten, Jos went back to work, are called cataphoric. Anaphoric or cataphoric usage is different from deictic usage.

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Occasionally, an anaphoric pronoun is used without an overt antecedent. Such usage is possible when linguistic context and/or human interaction narrow down the range of potential discourse referents to such an extent that there is only one likely candidate. In the following example, from the Corpus Gesproken Nederlands, the verb pinnen to withdraw money from a cash machine so strongly activates the concept of cash machines that this can be picked up by a pronoun.

Example 2

Weet je dat je tegenwoordig ook op het station heel dicht bij ons kun-t pinnen? – Ja maar die zijn nog niet in gebruik.
know.2SG.PRS PRO.2SG that PRO.2SG nowadays also on DEF.SG.N station(N) really close to us can-3SG.PRS withdraw_money.INF yes but PRO.3PL be.3PL.PRS yet not in use
Did you know that you can now withdraw money at the station, really close to us? – Yes but they are not in use yet.

The plural demonstrative pronoun diethey here unambiguously refers to cash machines, which are treated as if they had been mentioned before in the dialogue. The pronoun does not introduce a new discourse referent and is therefore not a deictic pronoun.

If several referents are active in the discourse, the gender or number information on the pronoun can help to pick out the correct referent. In the following example, both the cup and the bowl are possible antecedents for a pronoun, as can be seen in the ambiguous English translation. In Dutch, one noun is neuter and the other common, so the gender of the pronoun disambiguates the sentence.

Example 3

Het kopje viel in de schaal en toen brak het/ie.
DEF.SG.N cup.DIM(N) fall.3SG.PST in DEF.C.SG bowl(C) and then break.3SG.PST PRO.SG.N/M
The cupi fell into the bowl and then iti broke

However, ambiguity resolution by means of gender plays a limited role in actual discourse because an estimated 80% of the Dutch nouns have common gender, which means that situations as the above rarely occur. Moreover, information structure usually makes one referent a better antecedent candidate for a following pronoun than others. Another complicating factor is the striking variation in gender agreement that Dutch exhibits, which makes gender information a weak cue for pronoun resolution.

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While pronouns generally agree with their antecedent in gender, this relation can be disrupted in several ways. First, the gender distinctions available in the nominal domain do not match those available in the pronominal domain:

Table 2
Noun Pronoun
common gender de vork the fork masculine gender hij he
feminine gender zij she
neuter gender het mes the knife neuter gender het it
The masculine/feminine distinction in the pronouns is not mirrored by the nouns, which only distinguish common and neuter gender. Second, nominal and pronomimal gender do not map straightforwardly onto each other. In the spoken language, most common gender nouns take masculine pronouns. Feminine pronouns are only used with reference to female persons. However, some knowledge of the traditionally feminine gender is expected in written language. Acquiring this knowledge requires high literacy or conscious effort; therefore, speakers manage this to varying degrees of success. Inconsistent use among speakers and between registers makes feminine pronouns a marked phenomenon with pragmatic implications. Feminine pronouns, notably the possessive haar, are associated with education and sophistication and are frequently overgeneralized, even to neuter nouns, as the following example shows.

Example 4

Op deze website treft u informatie aan over het project en haar doelstelling-en
on DEM.SG.C website(C) meet.3SG.PRS PRO.2SG.POL information(C) on about DEF.SG.N project(N) and POSS.SG.F aim-PL
On this website you will find information about the project and its (lit. her) aims

However, the inconsistency in pronoun usage is not limited to feminine pronouns, nor to common gender antecedents. In fact, nominal and pronominal genders appear to combine near-randomly. The examples below, from the Corpus Gesproken Nederlands, illustrate two typical instances of divergent pronoun use.

Example 5

hier heb je mijn apparaat, ik wil ‘m opwaarderen
here have.2SG.PRS PRO.2SG POSS.1SG device(N) PRO.1SG want.1SG.PRS 3SG.M top_up.INF
Here you’ve got my telephone, I want to top it (lit. him) up
Example 6

een decanteerfles. daar stop je je wijn in en dan kan ‘t luchten
INDF.SG decanter(C) there put.2SG.PRS PRO.2SG POSS.2SG wine(C) in and then can.3SG.PRS PRO.3SG.N breathe.INF
A decanter. You put your wine in there and then it can breathe.

Corpus research reveals that the distribution is based on two competing systems: the traditional grammatical gender system and recent tighter linking of the gender system to semantics. Speakers use masculine gender pronouns for male persons, most animals and for discrete, countable referents such as objects. Feminine gender pronouns, in turn, are used for female persons. This leaves the neuter gender pronouns, which appear with unbounded entities such as substances and uncountable abstracts such as friendship or information. These semantic parameters align to a typological hierarchy of countability or individuation:

Table 3
male/female human animal bounded object/abstract specific mass unspecific mass/abstract
masculine/feminine masculine/feminine masculine masculine/neuter neuter
The demonstratives, which formed no problem to begin with, as they distinguish common and neuter gender just like the nouns, often participate in the semantic pattern (with common gender die being used for all animates and countable items and neuter dat appearing with uncountables). The semantic system is applied alongside and mixed with the traditional syntactic gender system, leading to immense variation in pronoun usage. See Audring (2006) and Audring (2009) for details. In dialects, as well as in the Dutch spoken in Belgium, the situation is different, as the three nominal genders are still in place here. Yet, even those varieties show inconsistent pronoun usage, which suggests a beginning destabilization of the traditional system (see e.g. De Vogelaer 2006, 2010; De Vos 2009).

[+]Use: deictic

The full form personal pronouns hij and zij and their case variants can also be used to introduce a new discourse referent. This usage is called deictic. Singling out the intended referent normally requires a pointing gesture. Referents are animate, preferably human.

Example 7

Hij daar is mijn nieuwe buurman/?kat/*kast.
3SG.M there be.3SG.PRS POSS.1SG new.C.SG neighbour(C)/cat(C)/wardrobe(C)
He there is my new neighbour/?cat/*wardrobe

Deictic pointing to inanimate referents is done by demonstrative pronouns.

Deictic pronouns differ prosodically from anaphoric pronouns: they always carry stress. The neuter personal pronoun cannot be used deictically because it cannot be stressed.

[+]Use: other

Next to the two major uses, anaphoric and deictic, there are a number of minor uses of personal pronouns. One of them is that the weak second and third person singular pronouns double as reflexive pronouns: ik vergis me I’m mistaken, stel je voor imagine. The same second person pronoun appears in generic reference: je weet nooit wat er gebeurt you never know what happens. The neuter pronoun is used in impersonal constructions such as het regent it’s raining, fixed expressions such as het is tijd it’s time or ik weet het niet I don't know as well as in copular constructions of the type het zijn aardige jongens they are (lit.: it are) nice boys. These and similar uses constitute 98% of the occurrences of het in a written corpus (Romijn 1996). Other constructions allow both the neuter and the masculine pronoun, as in Was dat ’et/’m? Was that it? (the inquiry of a shop assistent whether an order is complete), or indeed both, as in Waar zit ‘et ‘m in? What’s the reason?, lit. Where does it sit him in? Note that such uses are restricted to the weak forms of the pronouns. Yet another example is the use of the first person singular in constructions such as het was me toch een mooi concert boy, what a lovely concert in which the pronoun adds emotional emphasis to the message. In this use, the pronoun resembles a modal particle and often combines with other particles such as toch.

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