Dutch vs English: Past Simple vs Present Perfect

It’s time to get serious again. In this post I would like to discuss the differences between two tenses that I know cause headaches to many learners of Dutch and English. The Past Simple (henceforth PS) and Present Perfect (henceforth PP) are two tenses that cause problems for both Dutch learners of English as well as English learners of Dutch. The simple reason for this is that the two tenses are used in a different way which causes confusion and thus mistakes are easily made. I hope, that by the end of this post, things will be a bit more clear. Alright, let’s get down to business!

First of all I’d like to point out that the main instigator here is Dutch. Dutch allows for some leeway when it comes to the usage of the grammatical tenses, whereas in English usage tends to be more strict. So in Dutch you can have multiple ways of saying the same thing, whereas in English there will only be one. I already showed that this is the case too between Present Simple and Present Continuous. If you would like to read that post first, please click this link.

Let’s start with past simple (PS) first. In English and Dutch PS is strictly speaking the exact opposite from the present simple. If present simple indicates the present, than past simple indicates the past. The tense is still a simple, so the formation and the reasons when and why it is used, is roughly the same as for present simple with a few changes, since it’s a past:

Where present simple uses the following signal words:

always – sometimes – never (and everything in between) -> habits/ regularity

facts

every week, every year, every day, etc.

Past simple uses the following:

always – sometimes – never (and everything in between) -> habits/ regularity but in the past

historical facts: think of years (in 1990, in the 1940s, 2011)

last week, last year, last month, etc.

2 hours ago, 2 days ago, etc.

yesterday, the day before yesterday

In Dutch the tense follows the same mojo. Signal words are:

altijd – soms – nooit (habits and regularity in the past)

years

vorige week, vorig jaar, etc.

2 uur geleden, 2 dagen geleden

gisteren, eergisteren

Even the way the verbs are shaped in past tense is roughly the same:

English: work – worked (you add -ed to the stem)

Dutch: werken – werkte

In Dutch however, depending on the last sound in the stem of the verg, the -te ending can change to -de. You find the stem by chopping off -en from the infinitive. If you’re left with a voiceless sound, the past tense takes -te, if you’re left with a voiced sound, you take -de. So:

werken -> werk -> werkte -> gewerkt (to work)

horen -> hoor -> hoorde -> gehoord (to hear)

Now this seems complicated, but if you know that Dutch plosive sounds at the end of words are all devoiced (a final d is pronounced as t, etc.) you will encounter the -te version more often than the -de one. In fact, I think, the -de ending may only be reserved for so called liquid sounds: -r, -j, -l at the end of the stem.

Things become more complicated when the verb is irregular. There is a difference between the two languages as an irregular verb in English doesn’t have to be irregular in Dutch and vice versa. How do you know something is irregular? You don’t. You will have to learn this by heart. When you’re learning Dutch you are in luck. Dutch only has about 100 of them. Sounds daunting? Well English has between 400 and 500. So count your blessings!

You can find a complete list of English irregular verbs by clicking here. For the Dutch list you can click here.

Now on to the part where it gets interesting. Till here, nothing is too different. But let’s throw in a new tense: the Present Perfect (PP). Present Perfect looks as follows:

E: I have washed the car.

D: Ik heb de auto gewassen.

As you can see both languages use a form of ‘have’ (Dutch: hebben) with a past participle (Dutch: voltooid deelwoord). In Dutch the voltooid deelwoord goes to the end of the sentence. In English the verbs always stick together. Just imagine that in English they are best friends and could never be apart, whereas in Dutch verbs are a bit like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie’s friendship: sometimes together, but most of the times apart.

The PP is used when you have an action which started in the past, but you can still see the result of your action in the present. For instance, when you wash a car: first it’s dirty, you wash it, and (unless you have the unfortunate luck of torrential rain coming down right after) your car will be clean as a result. You can then tell your friend who asked: what have you been doing (D: What heb je gedaan)? Oh I have washed the car (D: Oh, Ik heb de auto gewassen).

But here is where it goes awry. In English this the only and I mean ONLY way in which you can use a PP. In Dutch, however, it is not. In fact in Dutch you can say the following:

D: Ik heb gisteren de auto gewassen.

E: I have washed the car yesterday. (INCORRECT)

E: I washed the car yesterday. (CORRECT)

Oh oh. Now why is that? Because ‘yesterday’ in English can ONLY be used with a Past Simple (PS) and NOT with PP. In Dutch however, we can use both constructions to mean the same thing:

D: Ik waste gisteren de auto.

D: Ik heb gisteren de auto gewassen.

These two sentences make perfect sense in Dutch. I think Dutch may even use the second option, so with PP, more, than the one with PS. But in English, as I already pointed out above, you cannot use the PP because of the word ‘yesterday’ which is a signal word of PS and thus can only be used in combination with that. Here, English is more strict than Dutch.

And the complication goes further. Some of the signal words for PP in English are:

FYNE JAS: for, yet, never (D: nog nooi), ever, just, already, since

Also: still (nog steeds), until, till

I am not able of thinking up any Dutch equivalents for these I’m afraid, but I can tell you that some of these work a bit differently in Dutch. I am mostly referring to already and since. Consider the following:

E: I have already lived in London for 10 years.

D: Ik woon al 10 jaar in Londen.

Here you see one difference when using ‘already’ (D: al). As you can see, in Dutch a regular present simple is used to make this sentence correct. Why? Dutch counts that you are living there a long time and you still do, so at present you are living there and since it’s a long time, it’s a habit. So: present simple. In English the fact that you moved 10 years ago with the result that you still live there is what matters. Here, we have a difference in interpretation of what exactly is meant with the sentence.

D: Ik heb 10 jaar in Londen gewoond.

E: I have lived in London for 10 years.

As you can see from the example above, you CAN actually use PP in Dutch but than it specifically means that you DO NOT live there anymore. In English you also use PP to express this, but as can be seen from the example before this one, English also uses PP to express actions that started in the past and are STILL going on. The key word being ‘still’ which also is a signal word for PP in English.

E: I have lived there since 1999.

D: Ik heb daar sinds 1999 gewoond. (INCORRECT)

D: Ik woon daar sinds 1999. (CORRECT)

The correct translation of this English sentence is the SECOND Dutch phrase. Not the first one. The first one again means that you don’t live there any more. When you say the first Dutch translation, someone is likely to ask you: oh where do you live now then? (D: Oh waar woon je nu dan?).

However, even in English this can get confusing. With using PP there is a difference between British and American English. Compare the following:

BrE: I have just washed the car.

AmE: I just washed the car.

BrE: She has already eaten.

AmE: She already ate.

As you can see, in BrE PP is used consistently, but in AmE the signal words ‘just’ and ‘already’ trigger a PS rather than a PP.

Again, a fairly long post, but I hope it helped explain some of the inner workings and differences and similarities that occur between the two languages. As you can hopefully see, the baseline is usually very similar. They both are Germanic languages after all. It isn’t until you get more detailed and get into some more advanced stuff that it becomes more complicated. If you have any questions, comments, alterations, or suggestions please leave a comment below! Thank you for your time.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Wesley King says:

    Uitstekend als altijd.

    It’s interesting how one can read material like this from one source, and then read another source, and have it explained a bit differently, and one picks-up new angles and tips. I have the PDF version of Bieneke Berendsen’s material (you linked to her list of irregular Dutch verbs), and I’ve found it excellent on the whole. But for my purposes anyway, I find she often over-explains things that are easy to understand, and glosses over many things that justify far more detail.

    I think the only thing I’m left wondering about (primarily because I keep in a journal in Dutch, as you know, and the fact it’s mostly reflective brings it up often) is the use of past perfect (pluperfect), such as: had arrived, had missed, etc. According to Berendsen, the situations under which it’s used are (or seem to be) identical to English. But given that you use present perfect and simple past differently than we do, I’m sort of left wondering if it’s really as identical as it seems with past perfect.

    Anyway, as always, thank you.

    1. indiequeen84 says:

      No problem. Glad you enjoyed the post. And yes, different angles are always good! I may explain something in a way you think you understand but than someone else can offer you other insights. So never think: oh I get it now and stop looking things up.

      Berendsen is right. Past perfect is the ONLY tense which is the same in both Dutch & English. It’s basically a past tense further away than the past tense you are talking about. So: When I came home (yesterday at 5 PM) the dog had eaten all the food (yesterday at 3 PM). The dog eating the food happens before your coming home. Thus making it a past tense further away than the past tense. For that action you use Past Perfect in both Dutch and English.

Leave a Reply