Language norms are more complex than you think

Many people assume that ‘groter als’ is not correct Dutch, but some language advisers say that it’s fine. Language advisers often contradict one another, as linguist Marten van der Meulen notes in his PhD dissertation on language advice in the twentieth century, which he will defend at Radboud University on 16 January 2023.

“Language rules are more complex than many people think,” says Van der Meulen. The linguist investigated how language recommendations changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how linguistic rules related to everyday language use. “We often think of language norms as absolute, but in fact they’re constantly changing. There is much more flexibility than you’d think.”

More and less rigid

For instance, according to many contemporary language advisers, ‘een hele saaie moppentapper’ and ‘een heel saaie moppentapper’ are both correct. The rules for this construction in Dutch have become more lenient, while other rules, for example ‘groter als’ versus ‘groter dan’, have become stricter. Van der Meulen: “There is actually no clear pattern in which rules become stricter, and which less strict. Also, what sounds OK to one language adviser may be wrong for another.”

What the researcher did notice is that rules often became stricter if people are more aware of them. You can see this now still. “We attach great importance to compliance with the ‘groter dan’ rule. I can be as eloquent as I like, but if, at any point, you hear me say ‘hij is groter als mij’, you will immediately take me less seriously.”


Van der Meulen also investigated how often the mistakes described by linguists actually occurred. For example, he studied statements by nineteenth-century Dutch language expert and first Professor of Dutch Matthijs Siegenbeek. Van der Meulen tested Siegenbeek’s claims in practice. “For example, he claimed that writers were increasingly using the Germanism ‘vervolledigen’ when, according to him, the correct term was ‘volledig maken’. So I looked to see if I could indeed find this mistake in books and journals of the time.”

Unlike many later language advisers, Siegenbeek really did have a sense of how often an incorrect form was used, says Van der Meulen. Indeed, in studying twentieth and twenty-first century language advice books, the researcher observed that many language advisers suffered from what is known as frequency bias: the phenomenon whereby you devote so much attention to something that it seems to occur much more often than it actually does. “Statements like ‘you hear it a lot’ turn out to rarely be true in practice.”

To determine whether a construction is commonly used, the linguist looked at large collections of written and spoken texts, and compared how often the incorrect and the correct form collection occurred in relation to each other.

Do language recommendations work?

There has been little to no research on language recommendations so far, because the consensus has long been that advice books have little impact on language use, Van der Meulen explains. “But even if language recommendations have no effect on our behaviour, they still helps us become aware of language rules. How this works exactly is something that we could investigate further. With this thesis, I hoped to put together a kind of menu of potential directions for future research on language advice.”

“There is always a lot of commotion around language,” he continues. “Everyone has their own normative system, which may differ from the standard dialect. Of course, as a linguist, I’m not saying that anything goes, but we could certainly do with a slightly broader perspective on language issues: Why is it that some constructions allow for multiple forms, for example ‘Ik zag dat hij gegaan was’ or ‘Ik zag dat hij was gegaan’, while with ‘een aantal mensen is gegaan’, the ‘zijn gegaan’ variant is not allowed? These rules are sometimes very arbitrary.”

Contact information

More information? Please contact Marten van der Meulen, marten.vandermeulen [at] (marten[dot]vandermeulen[at]ru[dot]nl) or the Radboud University team Science Communication +31 (0)24 361 6000 or media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl)

Organizational unit
Centre for Language Studies