What's the difference between hun and hen?
When learning Dutch, students will encounter two words meaning "them" — hun and hen. Both words refer to third-person plural pronouns, but they are used in distinct contexts and this can easily confuse learners. Let's dive into their meanings and proper applications.
Before we go into further detail, we'll provide a quick summary for those in a hurry.
Hun for possession
In its most common usage, hun simply means their:
Dat is hun kat. ("That is their cat.")Ken je hun broer? ("Do you know their brother?")
Hun vs hen...
Direct vs. indirect objects
Before we delve into the specifics, it's essential to understand the concepts of direct and indirect objects in grammar. In a sentence, the direct object is what directly receives the action of the verb, answering "what?" or "whom?" The indirect object, on the other hand, is the entity that indirectly benefits from or is affected by the action, often answering "to whom?" or "for whom?"
In short, the direct object receives the action directly, while the indirect object benefits indirectly from the action. For example:
She reads a book."What does she read?" The answer is "a book" — the direct object.
She gives him a book."To whom does she give?" The answer is "him" — the indirect object. The book is the direct object.
Hen for direct objects
The word hen is primarily used to denote the direct object in a sentence. Consider this example:
In this sentence, hen directly receives the action of the verb "zie" (see). They are the ones being seen.
Hun for indirect objects ...unless there's a preposition
Conversely, hun is used when referring to the indirect object. For example:
Here, the book ("het boek") is what's being given, making it the direct object. The recipients of the book are hun, making them the indirect object. They are the ones benefiting from the action but are not directly acted upon.
Hen when following a preposition
However, if it follows a preposition, you should use hen.
Common confusion & modern usage
Over time, the distinction between hen and hun has become less rigid in colloquial Dutch, leading to some confusion. In everyday speech, many native speakers use hun in places where hen would traditionally be correct. For formal writing and clear communication, understanding and maintaining the distinction is still recommended. In informal contexts, there's no need to worry — many Dutch speakers ignore the distinction. If in doubt, just use hun and you'll be fine!
Understanding the difference between hun and hen can refine your Dutch grammar skills. While the distinction may blur in casual conversations, grasping their traditional roles as indirect and direct objects will serve you well in more formal settings.