The Small Words of Dutch

Most languages, including English, have a number of small words like “also”, “even”, “yet”, etc., which allow the speaker to make the sentence more precise. Dutch has a considerable array of such small words and the effect of them is sometimes less than straightforward. In a grammatical sense these small words are adverbs, and they are comparable to particles in some other languages, for example Japanese.

As a native speaker of Dutch I will in this page try to cover as many of these small adverbs as I can. This page will be primarily for foreigners who already speak Dutch reasonably well and want to improve their command of it, and for those with a general interest in Dutch. And maybe even native Dutch may find here something they hadn’t realized.

I don’t yet have a complete list of these small adverbs, however, nor do I have the time to discuss all of then at once, so this page will be updated (ir-)regularly.

I will start with an especially vicious little word,


None of its meanings are related to the English word “vast”.  As a small adverb in Dutch it has two unrelated meanings, depending on whether it is stressed or not. Unstressed it means “in anticipation of something” and stressed it means that the speaker implies “I suppose this and I’m almost certain of it”. In its unstressed form it comes near the end of the sentence, before the final verb if present; in its stressed form it comes right after the conjugated verb. (Why? See my Making Sense of Dutch Word Order).


1. [de tafel dekken = to lay (set) the table]

(Unstressed) → Wij hebben de tafel al vast gedekt. = We’ve already laid the table (in anticipation of your arrival or of you finishing something else).

(Stressed) → Ze hebben vast de tafel al gedekt. = I expect they have already laid the table.

(Unstressed) → Gaan jullie maar vast. = You go ahead (in anticipation of us following).

(Stressed) → Ze zijn vast al weg. = I expect they are already gone.

2. The next pair of sentences is even worse:

[afruimen = to clear the table]

(Unstressed) → Jan en Greet hebben al vast afgeruimd.”” = John and Maggie have already cleared the table (so we can go right ahead with …)

In this sentence both “al” and “vast” are concerned with time, and they are often written as one word: “Jan en Greet hebben alvast afgeruimd.”

(Stressed) → Jan en Greet hebben vast al afgeruimd. = I think J & M may already have cleared the table (so we may be too late to help…)

In this sentence “vast” is concerned with probability (high) and “al” is still concerned with time (“sooner than expected”), and there is no special relationship between the two.

3. The stressed “vast” can easily be combined with negation:

(Stressed) → Dat gelooft vast niemand! = I don’t think anybody will believe that!

(Stressed) → Ze hebben vast nog niks gemerkt. = I’m pretty sure they haven’t noticed anything yet.

But I can’t make a sentence with the unstressed “vast” and a negation.



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