Nightmares of er

Nightmares of er

To a lot of foreigners er is a very confusing word. Not only can it mean a lot of things (like there, it, or just nothing), it is also hard to study since it is mostly pronounced as d’r, ‘r or even as hardly anything at all. Besides, it can also be found at several places in thesentence.

First a few examples:

  • Woon je in Amsterdam? Ja, ik woon er al drie jaar. (Do you live in Amsterdam? Yes, I’ve already lived there for three years.)
  • Er staat een paard in de gang. (There’s a horse standing in the hall)
  • Hoe gaat het ermee? (How are you?)
  • Hoeveel kinderen heb je? Ik heb er drie. (How many children do you have? I’ve got three.)
  • Je ziet er goed uit. (You’re looking good.)

Only in the first two examples er is literally translated – in the other ones it could be translated, but that would mostly produce a weird sentence. Nevertheless, the use of er could very well be explained by it’s different possible meanings if you don’t take ‘meanings’ to literal.

1 – Er means there/here

This could be (a) a not emphasized place, or (b)a non-particular subject.

(a) In the sentence Ja, ik woon er al drie jaar you could replace er by either hier (‘righthere’) or daar (‘over there’) if you’re pointing somewhere, but you’re not doing that in this case.

(b) In the sentence Er staat een paard in de gang, you could do the same. If you want to say Right here – and not over there – there is a horse standing in the hall, you would indeed use hier and daar: Hier – en niet daar – staat een paard in de gang.

Note however, that we are talking about een paard –a horse, so a non-particular subject. If it would be het paard – the horse, we couldn’t use er. We would either use daar or hier, or – even better – just start with the subject: Het paard staat (hier/daar) in de gang.

2 – Er means it or them

Consider these sentences, where the object is replaced:

  • Ik zie de film – ik zie hem (I see it)
  • Ik zie het programma – ik zie het (I see it)
  • Ik zie de boeken – ik zie ze (I see them)

You see that for things you can use hem referring to de words, het referring to het words and ze referring to plurals.

Now consider these:

  • Ik kijk naar de film – ik kijk ernaar (I look at it)
  • Ik kijk naar het programma – ik kijk ernaar (Il ook at it)
  • Ik kijk naar de boeken – ik kijk ernaar (I look at them)

So when there’s a preposition, we use er to refer to de words, het words or plurals. And we place it not only before the preposition, but also attached to it (like ernaar, erin, erop, ervan etc.). There can however, in more complex sentences, be something (like a ‘when’, ‘where’or ‘how’ statement, or simply niet) between er and the preposition:

  • Ik kijk er niet naar.
  • Ik kijk er vandaag liever niet naar.

Watch out, though: er is only used for things – for persons we use the appropriate pronouns:

  • Ik kijk naar hem/haar/jou/…

3 – Er means of them when counting

When something is counted and not mentioned, you use er to refer to the object. You can use van meaning of, but you don’t have to and mostly a Dutchman wouldn’t think of using it:

  • Hoeveel kinderen heb je? Ik heb er drie.
  • Hoeveel auto’s zie je? Ik zie er tien.
  • Hoeveel huizen heb je? Ik heb er een.
  • Heb jij een auto? Nee ik heb er geen.

So while in English you have the choice between I have ten or I have ten of them, in Dutch the current thing to say is only Ik heb er tien (for most English speaking students it somehow feels weird saying this and they need to practice it for a while to get it ‘into the system’).

4 – Expressions

A lot of Dutch phrases containing er are merely to be taken as expressions and not to be translated literally. In a grammatical sense er would have a meaning like mentioned above (here/there/it/them/…), but that doesn’t always fully explain the form.

Take, for example Hoe gaat het ermee? It could be translated as How goes it there with? or even just How goes it with it, but that doesn’t explain why this sentence is used this much (besides Hoe gaat het).

Or Je ziet er goed uit: it could be translated as something like You look good out of it – but that still doesn’t make much sense.

So, in those cases, an expression is better just taken as it is without to much questioning about the grammatical form.

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