The Swedish Teacher: When to use the mysterious ‘s’

Swedish teacher Sara Hörberg explains when to use -s at the end of a verb in Swedish.

The Swedish Teacher: When to use the mysterious 's'
It's found in some of Sweden's most common phrases, but why and when? Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT


Many people learning Swedish are confused about when to use an -s on verbs in Swedish. Most verbs end with an -r in present tense and -de in simple past as you probably know already, but sometimes there is a “mysterious s”.

There are three different occasions when there is an -s. First of all, we use -s to express the passive voice of the verb. Secondly,  -s can substitute the word “varandra” (each other). Thirdly, there is a small group of verbs that always have an -s and for no particular reason.

In this blog post, I will take a closer look at all three types of using the -s.

1. -s expressing passive voice (passiv form)

Passive voice is used when we don't know who is taking action or when it isn't interesting who is doing it. In grammar terms, we can express it as that we don't have an agent in the sentence.

Passive voice is often used in newspaper articles and also news on TV and radio.  Here are a few examples from Dagens Nyheter:

17 skadades efter busskrock utanför Piteå.

(17 were injured after a bus crash outside Piteå.)

Sprängämnesstoff hittades i flickans sko.

(Explosive materials were found in the girl's shoe.)

Mordbrännare jagas i Eslöv.

(Arsonist chased in Eslöv.)

In the examples above we don't know or perhaps don't find it interesting who injured the 17 people, who found the explosives in the shoe or who is chasing the fire-raiser in Eslöv.

The passive voice is also used in instructions, recipes for example, and in formal language. You will find passive forms on a carton of milk or a bill:

Öppnas här!

(To be opened here.)

Betalas senast 170831.

(To be paid at the latest by August 31st, 2017).

As you have seen the passive voice can be used for different tenses (actually all tenses) and it's not complicated to construct the passive version of the verb. You more or less just add an -s to the regular form except for the present tense where you need to remove the -r.

READ ALSO: All The Local's articles about the 'Swedish language

Vi ses! Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB Scanpix/TT

2. -s expressing “each other” (reciprocal verbs)

You have most likely used this form of the verbs since you started speaking Swedish and we can find it in some of our most common phrases.

Vi hörs!

These two words mean something like “We'll hear from each other”. It's not stated who's going to contact who. You can compare it to “Jag ringer dig” (“I'll call you.”) where it's known from the outset who will call who.

Vi ses!

Is often translated as, “I'll see you” but means, “we'll see each other.”

Vi kan träffas klockan tre.

Means “we can meet each other at three o'clock.”

Through the years I have heard many Swedish learners saying things like “jag träffades mina kompisar” which isn't correct. It is a good rule of thumb that you can't use “träffas” when the subject of the sentence is a single person such as jag, du, han or hon.

Here are a few more examples when it is common to use -s for “each other”:

De kramas.

(They are hugging each other.)

De pussas.

(They are kissing each other.)

De slåss.

(They are fighting with each other. /They are hitting each other.)

De retas.

(They are teasing each other.)

3. -s for no particular reason

There are some verbs in Swedish that end with an -s in all tenses for no particular reason: that is simply just what the words look like. In Swedish grammar books, they are called “deponens.” These words are quite common, and we use them all the time.  Here are a few examples:

att hoppas – hoppas – hoppades – har hoppats

(to hope for)

att andas – andas – andades – har andats

(to breathe)

att lyckas – lyckas – lyckades – har lyckats

(to succeed)

att minnas – minns – mindes – har mints

(to remember, to recall)

att finnas – finns – fanns – har funnits

(to be, to exist)

att låtsas – låtsas – låtsades – har låtsats

(to pretend)

I hope I have been able to clear up the mysterious -s!

Sara Hörberg began teaching Swedish as a foreign/second language in 2001. Ask her anything about grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Read more here: Sara the Swedish Teacher.

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What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

A new study shows that more than one in five Swedes is irritated by the pronoun "hen", and the same number can't stand it when compound words are split up. Here's a rundown of the main offenders.

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

One in five Swedes dislike the gender-neutral pronoun hen

In the study, carried out by Novus on behalf of language magazine Språktidningen, 22 percent of Swedes said that the pronoun hen was the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language. 

The first reported use of the gender-neutral pronoun, to be used instead of han (he) or hon (she), was in the 1950s, when it was used by language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, but it didn’t appear in writing until linguist Rolf Dunås wrote a newspaper article in 1966 proposing the introduction of the new pronoun.

After that, use of the pronoun was mostly limited to those within the LGBT community until 2012, when a children’s book sparked debate and media attention thanks to the exclusive use of hen to refer to its characters.

In 2015, hen entered the Swedish dictionary, a move which made it more difficult for critics to argue that it wasn’t an established or accepted alternative to han or hon.

As Språktidningen’s editor-in-chief Anders Svensson points out in this article, the pronoun hen has had an ideological and political dimension since debate took off in 2012, and this is still clearly visible today.

Although 22 percent of the survey’s respondents listed hen as the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language, this number rose to a whopping 50 percent amongst respondents who identified with the Sweden Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, those sympathising with the Left Party, the Greens, the Liberals or the Centre Party were least likely to find hen irritating, with a mere 5 to 7 percent of these groups putting it in first place.

Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of polling company Novus, told Språktidningen that these results didn’t surprise him.

“The fact that hen is irritating for Sweden Democrat sympathisers more than others is not surprising. People join that party because they want things to be like they were in the past. A new word which is gender-neutral symbolises a lot of the developments these people are against,” he explained.

One in five against särskrivning

The same amount, 22 percent, stated that särskrivningar – writing compound words incorrectly as two separate words – annoyed them the most.

This may sound like a minor error, but särskrivningar (literally: “separate writing”) can lead to major misunderstandings. Just look at these amusing examples of särskrivning gone wrong:

En rödhårig kvinna: “a red-haired woman”

En röd hårig kvinna: a red, hairy woman

Kassapersonalen: “checkout workers”

Kassa personalen: “useless employees”

Barnunderkläder: “children’s underwear”

Barn under kläder: “child under clothes”

In contrast to debates over the use of the word hen, debates over särskrivning have raged since the 1800s, where they were often considered to be major mistakes if featured in a text. One reason for this, Svensson notes, is that order in itself was seen as beautiful at this time.

Maria Bylin, language advisor at the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet), told Språktidningen that she recognises this argument in modern debate on särskrivningar.

“You associate developments in the language with the country and with society,” she explained. “So whatever changes you can see in the language, you think it will happen in society, too.”

One popular scapegoat for this increase in särskrivning is the influence of English on the Swedish language. In English, we have fewer compound words than in Swedish, although they do still exist: a few examples are postbox, doorknob and blackberry. It is, however, harder to form compounds than in Swedish.

To return to the examples above, it would look strange to write “redhairedgirl”, “checkoutworker” or “childrensunderwear” as compounds in English.

So, is the rise of English to blame for mistakes in Swedish? Not according to linguist Katharina Hallencreutz, who noted when studying high school students’ English essays that they had no issues writing English compound loan words such as makeup or popcorn. 

This also wouldn’t explain the large amount of särskrivningar seen in historical texts in Sweden: they feature heavily in laws dating back to the 1200s, as well as Gustav Vasa’s Swedish bible translation, which was published in 1541.

One surprising result of the survey was the fact that young people were more likely than older people to find särskrivningar irritating:

“That surprised me a bit,” Svensson told public broadcaster SVT. “Often you hear the argument that older people think young people write carelessly and särskriver too much.”

Svensson wasn’t sure why this was, but did have a theory: “I suppose those who have recently finished school – most of them have learnt when words should be written as one word, and when they should be separate,” he told SVT.

English loanwords

The influence of English on the Swedish language was a major bugbear for a number of respondents, though. As many as 15 percent of those in Novus’ survey answered that “unnecessary English loanwords” were the most irritating thing about modern Swedish.

English loanwords were most irritating amongst Swedes over 65, where 29 percent stated they were the number one source of irritation, a number which was much lower in other age groups.

Lena Lind Palicki, a Swedish lecturer at Stockholm University, said that this could be to do with comprehensibility. She noted that irritation over English loanwords was especially high amongst older respondents who had left school at 16.

“We can assume that these people have a lower level of English, and then it’s a democratic problem, if English loanwords are used which can be difficult for many people to understand,” she told Språktidningen.

Palicki can’t imagine that English will remain as large a source of annoyance in the future as it is now, though.

“The irritation over English loanwords may have gone out of date in twenty years. Today’s youth will not start to be irritated by the same things as today’s elderly, but they’ll probably start making a symbolic issue of things they struggle with in school today,” she told the magazine.