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Four aspects of learning Swedish that baffle English speakers (and one easy one)

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Four aspects of learning Swedish that baffle English speakers (and one easy one)
Why do you say 'mer kaffe', but 'flera kakor'? Photo: Martina Holmberg/TT

Learning a language is a minefield of embarrassment, frustration and potential rudeness. From struggling to get the gender right to wrestling with inverted word order, here are some of the perils of learning Swedish.


Every language has its snares that certain nationalities are destined to get caught in at some point on their journey to fluency.

Here are just some of the ones that any of us who have had a punt at learning Swedish will have experienced, and if you haven’t yet, the points below may save you from making the same mistakes we did – varsågod.

Let’s start with the most obvious, and frankly irritating, subject of...


Many languages apply gender to inanimate objects, but if your first language is English – where this isn’t the case – it can be hard to get a grip on.

The version of noun gendering in Swedish is not the straightforward ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ familiar from romance languages such as French or Spanish, but the even less logical ‘common’ and ‘neuter’ genders: neutrum and utrum.

For the uninitiated, gendered or common nouns use the article en (for example, en bil/bilen = a car/the car), while ungendered or neutral nouns have the article ett (for example, ett hus/huset = a house/the house).


Why is a car gendered, but a house not? Why is an animal ungendered (ett djur), but a bird (en fågel) gendered? It’s a total mystery and can only really be mastered by memorisation - although as around 75 percent of nouns are common gender, it’s sometimes easier to just learn the exceptions. 

Frustratingly, the essentially irrelevant mistake of saying something like en hus can earn you a frown of confusion from a native speaker when trying to converse in Swedish.

Inverted verb/subject order

Like English, most Swedish sentences are structured subject-verb-object (hon kör bilen = she drives/is driving the car).

However, the introduction of an adverb gives an inverted verb-subject order (with the verb being placed in front of the subject), something that doesn’t happen in English. For example, with nu kör hon bilen = 'now she is driving the car', you’ll notice the hon (‘she’) and kör (‘driving’) have swapped positions in the Swedish version.

Note this also applies when the adverb comes later in the sentence, such as in det gör jag aldrig (meaning ‘I never do that’ but words ordered as that-do-I-never).

This can easily catch out a native English speaker who is learning Swedish, who would find it natural to say something like jag städar, sen jag lagar mat, instead of the grammatically correct jag städar, sen lagar jag mat (‘I’ll clean and then I’ll make dinner’).

The former, incorrect version sounds jarring to Swedes but is a very easy mistake to make, and one that has tripped me up on countless occasions.

More or more?

There are two words for 'more' in Swedish, mer(a) and fler(a).

It’s relatively straightforward to explain the difference. Mer(a) applies to something that can’t be counted, like liquids or more abstract concepts, like money:

Har vi mer mjölk? Do we have (any) more milk?

Jag behöver mer pengar. I need more money

Fler(a), on the other hand, is used when the item is countable:

Har vi flera potatisar? Do we have (any) more potatoes?


Some items - like chocolate - are uncountable, meaning you’d use mer, but can be spoken about in a way that makes them countable - like pieces of chocolate.

You would for example say mer choklad (more chocolate), but fler chokladbitar (more pieces of chocolate).

Generally, if you’re not sure which one to use, ask whether what you’re talking about can be counted, and you’ll pick the right word.

Even more confusingly, you’ll need to know when to add the ‘a’ to mer or fler. You can usually use mer or mera interchangeably, apart from in certain set phrases like med mera (‘and others’) and mer och mer (more and more).

In the case of fler/flera, these are also usually interchangeable, with the exception of the word ‘many’ where you need to use flera.

Here’s an example: du har inga kakor, men jag har flera (you have no cakes, but I have many). 

However, if you’re comparing something and using flera to mean ‘more’, then you can use either version of the word. Both jag har fler kakor än honom and jag har flera kakor än honom (I have more cakes than him) are grammatically correct.


When to say jo

Jo, like the word ja, means yes – but knowing which of the two to use is often tricky for Swedish learners.

A reasonably simple rule to remember is that ja is used for affirmative answers to positive questions...

Pratar du svenska? Ja ('Do you speak Swedish?' 'Yes')

… and jo is used when answering negated questions in the affirmative:

Pratar du inte svenska? Jo ('Don't you speak Swedish?' 'Yes [I do]')

It is also used to contradict a previous negation, like in an argument: Nej! Jo! Nej! Jo! (No! Yes! No! Yes!).

In other words, jo is used to mark that the answer to a negative question is not what might have been expected, or to express an opinion which is different from what someone else just said.

It also has a bunch of other nuances that we won’t go into here, other than to say: it’s a lot harder than just saying ‘yes’.

It’s not all bad… the verb ‘to be’

An area of Swedish that is far easier than English is the verb ‘to be’. The infinitive form in Swedish is att vara, but then things get simple as it conjugates to är for first, second and third person present tense forms, in both plural and singular:

I am = jag är

We are = vi är

You are = du är

You (plural) are = ni är

He is = han är

She is = hon är

They are = de är

This makes the verb ‘to be’, often an obstacle course in foreign languages, incredibly simple to learn in Swedish.

On the flip side, it means Swedes often struggle to choose the right version of ‘to be’ when speaking English. Mistakes like ‘he are’ or ‘they is’ are not uncommon when Swedes speak English.

Do the examples given in this article resonate with you? Have we missed any good ones? Let us know and if we get enough suggestions, we’ll write a follow-up to this article.

By Michael Barrett and Becky Waterton


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
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John 2024/02/08 13:43
Yes more please. I’m an old person trying to learn a new language 😊
Steven 2024/02/07 20:45
Great article - thank you! More of this type of article would be very welcome!
VS 2024/02/07 12:54
OMG! I feel so seen!Was just explaining the verb order to my swedish friend who couldn't understand why i was complaining. I struggle between english will and swedish vill .

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