Dutch vs English – Present tense

Last week I wrote about cognates in Dutch and English and had a closer look at the differences and similarities between the two languages based on vocabulary. I already pointed out at the time that these differences and similarities not only go for vocab but also for grammar. That is why, starting today, I will take you through several grammatical issues and discuss both Dutch and English examples. I will show how and where they differ, but I will also point out where they are the same. The first topic we’ll tackle are grammatical tenses. Everyone’s favorite! Since I cannot discuss all the tenses in one post I will take it one step at the time. Today we’ll kick off the series with a look at present tense in both Dutch and English and we’ll see that even something as basic as this can cause problems. I hope you find this post informative. Please leave feedback in a comment below!

When comparing the basics of Dutch & English grammatical tenses, there are quite a few similarities at the surface. Consider the following:

Ik loop naar school = I walk to school.

Just a regular present simple (English) or onvoltooid tegenwoordige tijd (Dutch). However the Dutch sentence can have two different meanings. When in Dutch you say: ik loop naar school, you either mean that you do it every day, it’s a routine, something you do frequently. On the other hand, ik loop naar school, can also be used to indicate that the one uttering the sentence is performing the action right at that moment.

In English, it unfortunately doesn’t work that way. If in English you would like to indicate an action which is going on right now, at this very moment, you have to use not present simple, but present continuous like so:

Dutch: Ik loop naar school

English: I walk to school. (present simple = frequently, every day, routine, always etc)

English: I am walking to school. (present continuous = right now, at this moment)

So for instance, when talking on the phone and someone asks you what you are doing, in Dutch it is perfectly acceptable to answer with: ik schrijf een brief, whereas in English you have to use: I am writing a letter.

Now Dutch is not void of this continuous construction. In fact you have two options for present continuous in Dutch:

1.) Ik loop naar school -> Ik ben naar school aan het lopen.

2.) Ik schrijf een brief -> Ik zit een brief te schrijven.

Option 1 uses a form of ‘zijn’ (to be) + [… …] + aan het + infinitive of the action performed. This one is most like the English one, as English also uses a from of to be + infinitive + ing. Examples:

I am working -> Ik ben aan het werk(en).

I am writing a letter -> Ik ben een brief aan het schrijven.

I am smoking a cigaret -> Ik ben een sigaret aan het roken.

I am riding my bicycle -> Ik ben aan het fietsen. (Note that ‘Ik ben op mijn fiets aan het rijden’ sounds very archaic and forced to Dutch ears)

Option 2 uses a position of your body + [… …] + te + infinitive of the action performed. Postions are zitten (to sit), staan (to stand), liggen (to lie). Also actions such as lopen (to walk) can be used in this construction. Some examples:

I am working -> Ik sta te werken.

I am writing a letter -> Ik zit een brief te schrijven.

I am smoking a cigaret -> Ik zit een sigaret te roken/ Ik lig een sigaret te roken/ Ik sta een sigaret te roken

I am making a phone call -> Ik loop te bellen.

Pretty much the rule of thumb here is that you only use option 2 if you want to emphasize in what position you are in while you are performing the action.

So in Dutch you have not one, but THREE options of indicating present continuous.

Ik rook een sigaret 

Ik ben een sigaret aan het roken

Ik zit/sta/ lig een sigaret te roken

Sometimes though, certain constructions don’t work as well as they sound archaic or old-fashioned. Since using present simple is shortest, it’s the one that’s used most often nowadays. It’s simply easiest to blurt out. The other two are still in existence and you will encounter them from time to time but they are used less and less slowly but surely. So just know that Dutch present tense has two equivalents in English: present simple & present continuous.

In English the tenses are easy to identify. Apart from a different appearance they are also used differently and as you can tell from the rest of this blog, English is much more strict than Dutch in how these tenses are used. If you find it difficult to know whether something is present simple or present continuous, just keep in mind the following:

Dutch: ik werk op kantoor = either English: I work at the office or I am working at the office.

‘I work at the office’ is a present simple. It means you do it every day, every week, every year, always, sometimes or never. There has to be some indication or meaning that the action performed has some sort of frequency or regularity to it. Note: this can also be in a negative way. Because also when you never do something it’s still a frequency of sorts. These words, such as every, always etc are called signal words which automatically indicate your sentence should be present simple.

– every week, every day, every year, every time, every month

– always, mostly, most of the time, frequently, often, sometimes, seldom, rarely, never (there are tons more, but these are used most often). Always = 100% of the time, sometimes is 50% of the time, never = 0 % of the time

– also: when a sentence indicates a fact you also get present simple = The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

– in Dutch these signal words also hold true and indicate present simple. Please note: every = elk(e)/ ieder(e). As far as I know you can use these interchangeably: elke dag/ iedere dag is the same.

‘I am working at the office’ is a present continuous. This indicates that you are doing something right now, at this moment. It’s usually the answer to the question: What are you doing? Oh I’m working on my blog. Here, you thus need an indication or meaning that the action performed is happening right at the very moment that you are also speaking. Signal words that automatically give you present continuous:

– now, right now

– at this moment, at present

– currently/ presently

– at the same time

– In Dutch these signal words do not make differences between using present simple or continuous. As pointed out above, you can also use a present simple construction to indicate continuous in Dutch, even when you use these signal words! Example: Wat ben je nu aan het doen? Ik loop naar huis. But also correct are: Ik sta te bellen. Ik ben naar huis aan het lopen. So again you still have three options.

Just to close off the post I would like to point out the difference in verb construction in these tenses. I will take werken (to work) as an example:

Dutch English
  Present simple Present continuous Present simple Present continuous
Ik Werk Ben aan het werken I Work Am working
Jij/ u Werkt Bent aan het werken You Work Are working
Hij/ zij/ het Werkt Is aan het werken He/ she/ it Works Is working
Wij Werken Zijn aan het werken We Work Are working
Jullie Werken Zijn aan het werken You Work Are working
Zij Werken Zijn aan het werken They Work Are working

I can talk another time about verb conjugation if there is any interest for that sort of thing. Just leave me a comment below to let me know what you thought of this post, whether it was useful and what you would like to see more of in the future. Thank you for your time.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Niki says:

    Thanks. I didn’t think of English as present simple / present continuous, nor did I understand that Dutch tend to use present simple more. The most useful fact was ‘aan het [infinitive]’ construction, in case I see that while reading. Which I will. 🙂

    1. indiequeen84 says:

      No problem! Glad it was helpful.

  2. Wesley King says:

    Great as usual. Thanks. 🙂

    Breaking the habit of wanting to “ik ben aan het (verb)” everything was a tough one for me. I have mostly broken that habit, but it’s merely been replaced by similar challenges in other tenses.

    As you know, most of my “speaking” (well, writing) practice is via my journal, which is 80% past tense narrative, and presents its own set of challenges. Among them are things like, in reference to something which occurred yesterday, is it, “ik heb het gedaan” or “ik had het gedaan”—or just “ik deed het.” (Obviously these are not complete example sentences; I want only to present the tense construction clearly.)

    Intellectually I know those are not interchangeable, but I do not yet have good command of what to use and when, and using positional elements (signal words, e.g., yesterday, last night, etc.) I know changes the “correct” choice of what to use, when, or in what order.

    I’d say that is, at the moment, one of my biggest challenges. That, and word order, which I also grasp intellectually, and which still eludes me in practice as you have personally seen. 😉

    Thanks as always.

    1. indiequeen84 says:

      Well guess what will soon be on the list? Present perfect! So keep checking this spot.

  3. Jessica says:

    This was such a helpful post! You clarified a couple things in my mind that I didn’t fully understand until reading the above. Thanks for taking the time to tackle the subject.

    Grateful,
    a native English speaker learning Dutch (stapje voor stapje…)

    1. indiequeen84 says:

      Ooh succes! Learning a new language is so much fun.

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