This sentence by Connie Palmen exposes a gap in the grammar: …would have liked to belong somewhere…

This sentence by Connie Palmen exposes a gap in the grammar: …would have liked to belong somewhere…

There has been some excitement among Dutch linguists about a sentence recorded from the mouth of Connie Palmen, in a recent interview in de Volkskrant. Palmen said about Ischa Meijer’s supposed loneliness: “A form of loneliness that is the result of wanting to belong somewhere and not being able to do so, for whatever reason.”

She used a past tense of the infinitive (‘had’), which is officially not possible in Dutch. But apparently it does happen sometimes. Some readers thought Palmen’s sentence was crazy, others did not. Most readers didn’t even notice. That’s remarkable. Two linguists, Ronny Boogaart and Henk Wolf, subsequently wrote extensively about it on

“If you look for it, it turns out to happen more often,” says Boogaart. For example, he found: ‘1 in 10 young people say they only enter into relationships digitally and 1 in 5 say they would like to do so.’ ‘Should’ is another past tense infinitive here. If Boogaart had just happened to read this somewhere, he might not have even noticed it, he says. “It sounds very natural that ‘I would like to’. And it is also clear what it wants to express: something tentative, something hypothetical. ‘Will’ doesn’t work in this sentence.”

He found all kinds of examples on the internet with ‘had’, ‘would’ and ‘were’. “Those three, that’s what it’s all about.” An example with ‘were’ is: ‘After initially falling behind, Jari Litmanen and Patrick Kluivert turned the score into a victory.’ “It always concerns sentences, sentence constructions, in which an infinitive is needed, but in all cases that I found, the normal infinitive does not fit well.”

It could have happened

Infinitives are by definition neutral in terms of tense, but because of their form you sometimes associate them, apparently, with a present tense. There is sometimes a need to express a past tense in that infinitive, even though that is not actually possible.

“A gap in the grammar of Dutch,” says Boogaart. In Connie Palmen’s sentence, and in many other sentences with such an infinitive in the past tense, the past tense is the form, but not the meaning. The meaning is that it is hypothetical: it could have happened, but it didn’t happen. Or, as it is grammatically called: an irrealis. “Of course there are people who simply think these sentences are wrong,” says Boogaart. And if you call it wrong, you don’t have to think about it anymore.

“But as a linguist I look more: how does that sound to me? And: why is this happening?” Couldn’t it just be contamination? That you accidentally mix two different constructions together. A contamination of ‘they wanted to belong somewhere’ with ‘they wanted to belong somewhere’? Boogaart: “It is indeed possible that something like this could arise this way. That you start the sentence with a construction with ‘that’, but halfway through the sentence you switch to a construction with ‘te’.

Henk Wolf, the other linguist who has written about this, says: “Thanks to this sentence by Connie Palmen, we learn a little more about the grammar of Dutch. It’s something that wasn’t described anywhere. You might think that we know everything by now, but no.”

Also in other languages

There is a scientific description of the grammar of Dutch that spans seven large volumes. This phenomenon is not mentioned anywhere. Wolf: “It’s not just a slip of the tongue, is it? I find it especially psychologically interesting. We always thought there were two types of verb tenses. Forms with tempus: you can put them in the present or past tense. And forms without tempus: the infinitive, the imperative mood, the participles. But apparently it’s not that simple after all. Apparently with such an infinitive there is sometimes a need for a past tense.”

Wolf also found examples of this phenomenon in our surrounding languages. In German: ‘You don’t have any luck at all.’ ‘Möchten’ is the past tense of ‘mögen’. In English: ‘We are sorry to have deemed it right to publish it.’ All of those sentences that some readers easily miss.

It has been known for some time that the imperative mood can also occasionally be put into the past tense: ‘I shouldn’t have driven so fast!’ ‘Then I would have gone home on time!’ These (rare) forms are already listed in Dutch grammars. And you also sporadically come across examples of the participle on the internet in the past tense, although they are very striking and quite strange: ‘I walked around with it at the time, thinking it was all normal.’ ‘Luna came to live with us in August, not knowing that our Lizzie was ill, but we don’t regret it at all.’

It could be that the writers are doing it here as a joke, as a kind of figure of speech. Wolf points out that you can only do this with strong verbs: verbs in which the stem (the vowel) changes in the past tense. ‘Thinking’, ‘thinking’. ‘Knowing’, ‘knowing’. But turning ‘cycling’ into ‘cycling’ is really not possible, not even as a joke or figure of speech.