The Swedish Teacher

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Den or det?


Many of you readers have been asking for help with  “den” and  “det”, so my mission for this post is to clarify not only when to use which one but also how they have an effect on definite and indefinite form (bestämd och obestämd form).


First of all “den” is a personal pronoun (personligt pronomen in Swedish) and means “it” when it refers to an en-word. Like this:

Jag ska se en film ikväll. Den heter “Män som hatar kvinnor”. Har du sett den?

(I am going to watch a movie tonight. It is called “Men who hate women”/”The girl with the dragon tatoo”. Have you seen it?)

“Den” also have the function of a freestanding definite article. And what is THAT?? you might be thinking now. Well, as you know in Swedish just like in English, you need to have either a indefinite or definite form of nouns. A indefinite form can look like this:

en hund

(a dog)

ett hus

(a house)

The en/ett in Swedish and a (and sometimes an) in English is  with a grammar term called indefinite article. The definite form of the noun looks like this:


(the dog)


(the house)

You can see here that in Swedish the definite article is an ending attached to the noun, -en or -et. This is the most common way to make definite form, but it also happens that we use a freestanding definite article and it can be den, det or de. Here are some examples:

Jag vill köpa den röda klänningen.

(I want to buy the red dress.)

Vi bor i det röda huset.

(We live in the red house.)

De röda klänningarna var slutsålda.

(The red dresses were sold out.)

Have you noticed something that these three examples have in common? That’s right, all of them have an adjective (röda) before the noun, and that is when we use the freestanding definite article – den, det or de. But wait a second! Isn’t “klänningen”, “huset” and “klänningarna” also definite form?! Yes they are, and this is a very special and maybe irritating feature of Swedish – we sometimes use a so called double definite form (dubbel bestämning). We use both the freestanding definite article (den, det, de) and the regular definite article (-en, -et, -na).

den röda klänningen

det röda huset

de röda klänningarna

This construction is quite special for Swedish, you don’t find it in Danish for example. As if it wasn’t enough with double definite form the den/det/de also controls the form of the following adjective, which basically means that you have to use -a on your adjective after all these three. In other cases you only use -a on the adjective when it is combined with the plural form of the noun. Take a look:

en röd klänning

(a red dress)

ett rött hus

(a red house)

röda klänningar

(red dresses)

Compare this to:

den röda klänningen

det röda huset

de röda klänningarna

A grammarian would say that we also have a definite for of the adjective (röda) here, but it might be easier to just remember to have -a on the adjective after den/det/de. It is all up to you.


“Det” is first of all, just like “den”, a personal pronoun (personligt pronomen) referring to an ett-word. An example:

Jag har köpt ett nytt hus. Det är gult.

(I have bought a new house. It is yellow.)

“Det” can also have the function of a freestanding definite article as we just saw above.

det röda huset

OK, that is not so complicated, but “det” can have several other functions and that is probably what my questioners have noticed.  Just like “det” refers to only one word, the noun with gender “ett”, it can refer to a whole clause or a part of a clause. Take a look at this:

Tågen från Uppsala till Stockholm är ofta försenade. Det upprör många resenärer.

(The trains from Uppsala to Stockholm are often delayed and that upsets many travelers.)

– När har vi rast?  –Det vet jag inte.

(When do we have a break? – I don’t know that.)

– Kan du spela piano?   – Ja, det kan jag.

(- Do you know how to play the piano?   – Yes, I do.) or literally  (-Do you know how to play  the piano?   -Yes, that I know.)

Another function of “det” is the so called formal subject (in Swedish “formellt subjekt”). In such a case there is a formal subject (det) and the actual subject which can be a noun or a verb phrase. Here are some examples:

Vem är det? Det är Anders.

(Who is that? /Who is this? That is Anders./It is Anders. )

“Anders” is the so called actual subject of the sentence and “det” is the formal subject.

Vad är det? Det är en iPhone.

(What is that? That is an iPhone/It is an iPhone.)

“en iPhone” is the so called actual subject and “det” is the formal subject.

Det är roligt att spela fotboll.

(It’s fun to play football.)

“Att spela fotboll” is the actual subject and “det” is the formal subject.

Det var bra att du kom.

(In English: It‘s good that you came.)

“Att du kom ” is the actual subject and “det” is the formal subject.

In Swedish, just like in English, there is a linguistic phenomenon called “subjektstvång”. I am not sure of the English term for this but it means “need of subject”. Basically, in Swedish as well as in English we must always have a subject to construct a complete sentence. This type of subject is sometimes called “platshållarsubjekt” meaning” in-place-keeper-subject”. You see the word order is so important in Swedish so we always need a subject to figure out where to place the other parts of the sentence. Let me show you with an example:


(rains/is raining).

You can probably see that this isn’t a complete sentence.We don’t know if you mean:

Det regnar.

(It is raining/It rains.)

or if you are trying to say:

Regnar det?

(Is it raining?/Does it rain?)

So you can see that little “det” plays a very important part.

Finally it is also common to use “det” as a subject when you don’t know who is doing something. Note that it is also all right to use another subject like “någon” (someone) or “något” (something) in these cases but “det” is more common. Examples:

Det ringer på dörren.

(There is someone at the door.)

Det luktar illa i kylskåpet.

(Something in the fridge smells bad.)

All right, let’s hope that I was able to clarify when to use “den” and “det”. Why don’t you take the quiz and let me find out:

Lycka till!

Sara the Swedish Teacher

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