Whether you should use ‘Hebben’ or ‘Zijn’ as an auxiliary is not always easy to determine. It may help if you remember that, Activities – hebben, and Situations – zijn. In this context ‘situation’ can cover movement to a specific place or a change of state. However, problems may occur if a verb can indicate both an activity and a situation.

An Activity

  • Wij hebben gitaar gespeeld. We (have) played the guitar.
  • Hij heeft vandaag gekookt He (has) cooked today.
  • Zij heeft de hele dag geslapen She (has) slept all day.
  • Ik heb hem gezien. I saw him/ have seen him.

A Situation

  • Wij zijn naar Amsterdam gelopen. We (have) walked to Amsterdam (Note: this is to a specific place.) BUT: Wij hebben gelopen.
  • Wij zijn rijk geworden. We have become rich.
  • Wij hebben gegokt totdat. we rijk waren geworden We have gambled until we became rich.
  • Het meisje is gisteren geboren. The little girl was born yesterday.
  • Haar grootvader is vorig jaar overleden. Her grantfather (has) died last year.

An activity and a situation showing a change of state

  • Wij hebben tot Leiden geschaatst, en zijn toen met de bus verder gegaan. We (have) skated to Leiden, and then we went on by bus.
  • Jullie hebben vorige week gezwommen maar vandaag zijn jullie thuis gebleven You (have) swum last week but today you (have) stayed at home.

Verbs used to express motion to a place or in a specific direction use ‘zijn’. This is where the direction or destination is the significant meaning. Verbs used to express motion in general use ‘hebben’. This is where the actual movement is the significant meaning – not to anywhere in particular or in a specific direction. ‘Vergeten’ (to forget) has a special rule of its own. If vergeten is used in the sense that something that was once known has been forgotten, then it takes zijn as its auxiliary. If it is used in the sense of carelessness or negligence, then it takes hebben.

  • Ik ben haar naam vergeten. (Meaning, I no longer know.)
  • Zij heeft haar huiswerk vergeten. (Meaning, she carelessly forgot it.)