Modal particle

In linguistics, modal particles are always uninflected words, and are a type of grammatical particle. They are used to indicate how the speaker thinks that the content of the sentence relates to the participants' common knowledge[1] or add mood to the meaning of the sentence.[2] Languages that use many modal particles in their spoken form include Dutch, Danish, German, Hungarian, Russian, Telugu, Nepali, Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese.[3] The translation is often not straightforward and depends on the context.



The German particle ja is used to indicate that a sentence contains information that is obvious or already known to both the speaker and the hearer. The sentence Der neue Teppich ist rot means "The new carpet is red". Der neue Teppich ist ja rot may thus mean "As we are both aware, the new carpet is red", which would typically be followed by some conclusion from this fact. However, if the speaker says the same thing upon first seeing the new carpet, the meaning is "I'm seeing that the carpet is obviously red", which would typically express surprise.


In Dutch, modal particles are frequently used to add mood to a sentence, especially in spoken language. For instance:[2]

  • Politeness
    • Kan je even het licht aandoen? (literally: "Can you turn on the light for a short while?")
      Even here indicates that the requested action does not take much time or effort to fulfill: "Could you quickly turn on the light for me, please?"
    • Weet u misschien waar het station is? ("Do you perhaps know where the train station is?")
      Misschien here denotes a very polite and friendly request: "Could you tell me the way to the train station, please?"
    • Wil je soms wat drinken? ("Do you occasionally want a drink?")
      Soms here conveys a sincere interest in the answer to a question: "I'm curious if you would like to drink something?"
  • Frustration
    • Doe het toch maar. ("Do it nevertheless, however.")
      Toch here indicates anger and maar lack of consideration: "I don't really care what you think, just do it!"
    • Ben je nou nog niet klaar? ("Are you still not ready yet?")
      Nou here denotes loss of patience: "Don't tell me you still haven't finished!"

Modal particles may be combined to indicate mood in a very precise way. In this combination of six modal particles the first two emphasise the command, the second two are toning down the command, and the final two transform the command into a request:

  • Luister dan nu toch maar eens even.[4] ("Listen + at this moment + now + just + will you? + only once + only for a while", meaning:"Just Listen, will you?")

Because of this progressive alteration these modal particles cannot move around freely when stacked in this kind of combination. However, some other modal particles can be added to the equation on any given place, such as gewoon, juist, trouwens. Also, replacing the "imperative weakener" maar by gewoon (indicating normalcy or acceptable behavior), changes the mood of the sentence completely, now indicating utter frustration with someone who is failing to do something very simple:

  • Luister dan nou toch gewoon eens even! ( "For once, can you just simply listen for a minute?")

See also


  1. Fabian Bross (2012): German modal particles and the common ground. In: Helikon. A Multidisciplinary Online Journal, 2. 182-209.
  2. "Modal particles: even, eens, nou, maar, misschien, ..." Zichtbaar Nederlands. November 29, 2018.
  3. Dutch Grammar:politeness - Beleefdheid Modal particle - Modale partikels retrieved 2009-01-01 and Modal Particles By Keith Robinson, Wang Lingli retrieved 2015-08-04
  4. Hulshof, H. "Forum der Letteren. Jaargang 1987 · dbnl". DBNL (in Dutch). dbnl. Retrieved 27 July 2019.
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