An existential question

In most cases, casually noting that something is present in English just uses the verb “to be”, whereas “to exist” is reserved for assertions where the opposite is conceivable.

Dinosaurs no longer exist. (Fair enough. What if they still did?) If the ozone layer didn’t exist, we’d get fried. But the Dutch verb bestaan can usually be translated with “to be”.

  • There exists a remedy for…
    Starting sentences that way is particularly Dutch.
  • No simple answer to the question of …. exists
    Right: there is no simple answer to it.
  • But even in the cases above, there are perfectly good alternatives: there are no longer any dinosaurs, if there wasn’t an ozone layer…
  • And bestaan uit (to comprise or consist of) is something else altogether: using exist for that is always completely wrong: This documents exists of seven chapters.

It’s one of those cases where the Dutch word is used a lot more widely and so Dutch authors tend to blindly use a one-for-one equivalence that doesn’t really hold water.

Prevalence: very high. For “bestaan”, every time.
Frequency: medium. Sounds nice and flowery, doesn’t it? Well, more often than not: no. It just sounds clunky.
Native: no. We need a reason to use anything more complex than “to be”.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

3 thoughts on “An existential question

    1. Indeed. That’s more “bestaan uit” than just “bestaan” but it’s particularly ugly. I’ll add that as another example – thanks!


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