How to not like things in Dutch (Part 1)

In the previous blog, I wrote about the ways to express liking things in the Dutch language. Since negation seems to be another common problem in the early learning stages, this blog post is dedicated to not linking things in Dutch.

Next to the general word nee (pronounced as 'nay'), that gives a clear answer to your yes/no question and can be used as a sentence itself, there are two words in Dutch that negate other words - niet and geen. In English you would use one word to negate other words - 'not'. That is where the most problems for Dutch learners arise. But, as will see, there are actually more similarities between Dutch and English in this respect than differences.

The choice between niet or geen depends on the word in a sentence that you want to negate. Niet is used to negate verbs, adjectives, adverbs and definite nouns. Geen, on the other hand, negates indefinite nouns and numbers. As the scope of niet is considerably larger than that of geen, we will imagine these two negating words as two (in a way) negative characters: the grumpy cat and the cynical slug.

 The grumpy cat and the cynical slug.

The grumpy cat and the cynical slug.

Commonly, most problems for learners arise in the category that both niet and geen can negate - the nouns. In order to know when to use which one, we need to pay attention to the definiteness of the noun: if the noun is indefinite, then it will be preceded by geen; however, if the noun is definite, then it will be (commonly) followed by niet.

So, what we need to do here first is know our nouns: when they are indefinite and when definite. We will go through them in turn as we take a better look at niet and geen. Or at the grumpy cat and the cynical slug.

 Ik zie bananen en ik zie een koekje. (I see bananas and I see a cookie.)

Ik zie bananen en ik zie een koekje.
(I see bananas and I see a cookie.)

 Ik zie  geen  bananen en ik zie  geen  koekje. (I don't see bananas and I don't see a cookie. I see no bananas and I see no cookie.)

Ik zie geen bananen en ik zie geen koekje.
(I don't see bananas and I don't see a cookie.
I see no bananas and I see no cookie.)

In the above sentences, both nouns - bananas and a cookie - are indefinite nouns. We know they are indefinite because we mention them for the first time and because in Dutch:

  • Singulars take the indefinite article een (een koekje), or no article at all (e.g. tijd, vlees, water), and
  • Plurals have no article preceding them (bananen).

Negating the indefinite nouns, in singular or in plural, requires geen, as can be seen in the caption under the second image. Since the cynical slug photobombed the image, we do not see any bananas or a cookie - Ik zie geen bananen en ik zie geen koekje. The cynical slug likes to do that, hence its name. In Dutch, geen is placed before the noun, and substitutes the indefinite article een, if there is one.

If the negating word 'no' can be placed in the English translation before indefinite nouns - I see no bananas and I see no cookie - then geen could be used most certainly in Dutch as well.

To boil it all down (no pun intended towards the cynical slug), there are two rules of thumb that can help you decide whether you should use geen in Dutch:

  1. If you can use een, you can negate it with geen;
  2. If it doesn't sound too weird when you use 'no' in a similar situation in English (before the noun) - use geen.

*For more advanced learners*
When you want to place one or more adjective before the indefinite noun, then those adjectives go between geen and the noun, as in:

Ik zie rijpe bananen en ik zie een vers koekje.
Ik zie geen rijpe bananen en ik zie geen vers koekje.

Remember that, in this case, you are not negating the adjective, but still the noun. Having said that, numbers before indefinite nouns operate in general as adjectives. For this reason, we apply geen to numbers as well:

Ik heb twee broers en één zus.
Ik heb geen twee broers en geen zus(sen).

So far for the part one of How not to like things in Dutch. I hope you enjoyed it and learned new things (or just confirmed the things that you already know). See you soon at part two!

Want to learn the negation in Dutch and a lot more? Join us for a Level 1 evening or Saturday course. Or, if you are feeling extra adventurous, join our next intensive course.

Best,
Mirko

Illustration: Francesco Mottola