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The Ultimate Guide to Russian Grammar

on March 16, 2017

This guide is designed to help you quickly learn the basics of Russian. While it will not turn you into a famous Russian author in one month, it will give you the knowledge you need to communicate effectively in everyday situations, e.g. while traveling in Russia. It can also serve as a foundation for your continued study of Russian; links to additional resources will be provided for you to explore the language further and deepen your understanding of it.

 

This guide is broken down into short sections that are easy to digest. You can learn at whatever pace is comfortable for you, reading as many or as few sections at a time as you like. Initially, it’s recommended that you read them in order, since later sections build on the material contained in earlier ones. Later, you can return to specific sections to refresh your understanding of the material.

 

The Russian alphabet

Unlike the English alphabet, composed of twenty-six letters of the Latin script, the Russian alphabet uses thirty-three letters of another script, known as Cyrillic. (You may have seen some Cyrillic letters, such as Я and И, used to create a “fake Russian” look.) The alphabet is as follows:

 

Аа Бб Вв Гг Дд Ее Ёё Жж Зз Ии Йй Кк Лл Мм Нн Оо Пп Рр Сс Тт Уу Фф Хх Цц Чч Шш Щщ Ъъ Ыы Ьь Ээ Юю Яя

 

For more information on the Russian alphabet, check out this post.

 

Russian pronunciation

Pronunciation is an important part of learning a language. Clear, correct pronunciation helps others to understand you easily. With that said, nobody expects you to sound like a native Russian speaker after only three or four weeks of learning the language, so don’t worry if some sounds are difficult for you in the beginning. Practice makes perfect.

 

Additionally, consider your reasons for learning Russian when setting goals for your pronunciation. If you’re learning Russian for a vacation in St. Petersburg, you don’t need to worry about your pronunciation as much as someone who’s planning on living and working in Russia for several years.

 

Personal pronouns, “to be”, and plurals

Russian has more or less the same set of personal pronouns as English does:

  • я “I”
  • ты “you (familiar)”
  • он, она́ “he, she”
  • мы “we”
  • вы “you (pl., respectful sg.)”
  • они́ “they”

 

Note that вы is both “you” when speaking to more than one person and a formal “you” when speaking to one person. Strangers are generally addressed as вы, while friends are generally addressed as ты. Children are taught to address adults as вы, while adults will address children as ты. In most other situations, both parties will use the same form to address each other—so if someone calls you ты, you may call them ты as well. If you’re unsure of the correct form to use, вы is the safe choice. If you use ты incorrectly, you may risk coming off as disrespectful.

 

In writing, вы may be capitalized when referring to one person respectfully.

 

Russian verb “to be” and forming plurals

In Russian, the verb “to be” is usually omitted in the present tense: Я тури́ст. “I’m a tourist.” Literally, you just say “I tourist.”

Some words, like тури́ст, can take a special form if they refer specifically to a female: Она́ тури́стка. “She’s a (female) tourist.”

Most nouns in Russian have plurals that end in either Ы or И, depending on the word’s last letter: words ending in Г, К, Х, Ч, Ш, or Щ usually have a plural ending in И, and other words usually have a plural ending in Ы: Мы тури́сты. “We are tourists.”

If a word ends in a vowel, drop the vowel and use the letter before it when deciding how to form the plural: Они́ тури́стки. “They are (female) tourists.”

 

Grammatical gender and plurals

Russian, like many other languages, has a system of grammatical gender. Russian has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Every Russian noun belongs to one of these three genders. For words that refer to people, the gender of the noun usually corresponds to the gender of the person: тури́ст is masculine and тури́стка is feminine. Words that don’t refer to people may still be any of the three genders, a concept which may seem unintuitive: стол “table” is masculine, even though there is nothing inherently masculine about a table; and маши́на “car” is feminine, even though there is nothing inherently feminine about a car.

 

You can usually guess the gender of a word by looking at its ending. Most words that end in a consonant are masculine, most words that end in А, Я, or Ь are feminine, and most words that end in О or Е are neuter, like окно́ “window”.

 

While the plural forms of masculine and feminine words typically end in Ы or И, the plural forms of neuter words usually end in А (from final О) or Я (from final Е). This is sometimes accompanied by a change in stress: о́кна “windows”.

 

Asking questions in Russian

Here are some basic question words in Russian:

  • кто? “who?”
  • что?* “what?”
  • как? “how?”

 

* что is pronounced as if it were written што.

 

Using these words, your knowledge of “to be” in Russian, and the pronoun э́то “this”, you can construct some simple questions:

 

— Что э́то? “What is this?”

— Э́то я́блоко. “This is an apple.”

— Кто это? “Who is this?”

— Это Юрий. “This is Yuri.”

 

Asking “What’s your name?” in Russian

Using как, you can ask someone’s name:

— Как Вас* зову́т? “What is your name?”

— Меня́* зову́т Мари́на. “My name is Marina.”

 

* меня́ and вас are forms of я and вы which will be discussed in greater detail at a later time.

Literally, the question is “How are you called?”, i.e. “What do people call you?” In an informal situation (e.g. a conversation between classmates or tourists at a hostel), you could replace Вас with тебя́, a form of ты.

 

The prepositional case in Russian

Thus far, you have seen nouns in the nominative case. This is the form of nouns which are the subject of a sentence. It is also the “default” form you’ll find in dictionaries. Now, we’ll introduce the prepositional case, as well as two prepositions: в and на. You can use the prepositional case with these words to tell where something or someone is.

 

The prepositional case is very easy to form: for most words, regardless of gender, drop the final vowel (if there is one) and add Е. If the word ends in Е, Ь, or Я, drop that letter and add И instead.

We’ll also introduce a new question word: где? “where?”

 

— Где ты? “Where are you?”

— Я в магази́не. “I’m at the store.”

— Где А́нна? “Where is Anna?”

— Она́ в апте́ке. “She’s at the pharmacy.”

— Где Никола́й и Еле́на? “Where are Nikolai and Elena?”

— Они́ на стадио́не. “They’re at the stadium.”

 

Here, магази́н “store”, апте́ка “pharmacy”, and стадио́н “stadium” are in the prepositional case, preceded by the prepositions в and на.

 

в or на?

The difference between these two words is not immediately clear from the examples, where they both were used to mean “at”. The literal meaning of в is “in; inside (of)”, while the literal meaning of на is “on; on top (of)”. In most situations, the choice is easy:

 

  • Кни́га на столе́. “The book is on the table.” (correct)
  • Кни́га в столе́. “The book is inside the table.” (incorrect)

 

In the case of стадио́н, the correct word (на) is somewhat less intuitive. Fortunately, these exceptional cases are relatively few in number. Many of them are a result of the language lagging behind changes in the world; at one point in time, a “stadium” was a more open space (something to stand on), rather than an enclosed building (something to go inside). Other unintuitive cases worth remembering include в па́рке (парк “park”), на по́чте (по́чта “post office”), and на ры́нке (ры́нок “market”, a word with some irregular forms).

 

Russian verbs and the present tense

Next, we’ll introduce two verbs: рабо́тать “to work” and говори́ть “to speak”. These are the infinitive forms of these words, the “default” forms you’ll find in a dictionary. To use them in a sentence like “I work at the post office”, we need to change them to their present tense forms:

 

Example: рабо́тать “to work

 

  • я рабо́таю
  • ты рабо́таешь
  • он(а) рабо́тает
  • мы рабо́таем
  • вы рабо́таете
  • они рабо́тают

 

Example: говорить “to speak

  • я говорю́
  • ты говори́шь
  • он(а) говори́т
  • мы говори́м
  • вы говори́те
  • они говоря́т

 

These forms are worth committing to memory, since they work for the majority of verbs ending in -ать or -ить.

 

Now you can ask where someone works, or tell someone where you work:

 

— Где Вы рабо́таете? “Where do you work?”

— Я рабо́таю на по́чте. “I work at the post office.”

— Где О́льга рабо́тает? “Where does Olga work?”

— Она́ рабо́тает в апте́ке. “She works at the pharmacy.”

 

With говори́ть, you can ask whether or not someone speaks a language, or tell someone what language you speak:

 

— Вы говори́те по-ру́сски? “Do you speak Russian?”

— Да, я говорю́ по-ру́сски. “Yes, I speak Russian.”

— Вы говори́те по-англи́йски? “Do you speak English?”

— Нет, я не говорю́ по-англи́йски. “No, I don’t speak English.”

 

The genitive case in Russian

Next, we will introduce a third case, the genitive case. This case has several functions, but for now, we’ll focus on one very important one: the concept of having something. To say that someone has something, that person must be put in the genitive case. The six personal pronouns in the genitive case are as follows:

 

  • меня́
  • тебя́
  • его́*, её
  • нас
  • вас
  • их**

 

его, её, and их are written and pronounced него, неё, and них after certain words that end in a vowel.

* Historically, (н)его was pronounced as written. Today, it is pronounced as if it were written (н)ево́ instead.

 

The general formula for “(A) has (B)” in Russian is “У (A) (B)”, with (A) in the genitive case:

 

У меня́ па́спорт. “I have a passport.”

У него́ ручка́. “He has a pen.”

У нас ша́пки. “We have hats.” (ша́пка “hat”)

 

The literal meaning is roughly “At me is a passport.”

 

To form the genitive case of most masculine nouns, add А. For feminine nouns, replace the final А, Я, or Ь with Ы or И, following the same rule as when forming plurals. For neuter nouns, replace final О with А, or final Е with Я.

 

Not having something

If you do not have something, the formula changes slightly: “У (A) нет (B).” Both A and B must be in the genitive case:

У меня́ нет па́спорта. “I don’t have a passport.”

У неё нет ручки́. “She doesn’t have a pen.”

У нас в ко́мнате нет окна́. “Our room doesn’t have a window.” (ко́мната “room”)

“Do you have…?”

 

When asking whether or not someone has something, add the verb есть to the formula: У Вас есть маши́на? “Do you have a car?” есть is a form of “to be” in Russian. (In modern Russian, the other present tense forms are mostly obsolete and left out entirely, as explained earlier.)

 

Here are some additional examples:

 

— У тебя́ есть ку́ртка? “Do you have a jacket?”

— Да, у меня́ ку́ртка. “Yes, I have a jacket.”

— У них есть газе́та? “Do they have a newspaper?”

— Нет, у них нет газе́ты. “No, they don’t have a newspaper.”

 

When not asking a question, есть is optional, and is typically left out.

 

A note about “a”, “an”, and “the”

You may have noticed that Russian sentences do not appear to include words corresponding to “a”, “an”, or “the”. Indeed, Russian lacks these words entirely. The intended meaning is apparent from the context and word order; a word can be emphasized or deemphasized by changing its place in the sentence:

 

У них газе́та. “They have a newspaper.”

 

Газе́та у них есть. “They do have the newspaper.”

 

The exact meaning depends on the context and intonation as well, so the second sentence might be used to contrast the newspaper with an item that isn’t available, for example.

 

Russian pronunciation: Soft and hard sounds

Many learners of Russian initially give themselves away as foreigners because of what are known as “soft” and “hard” sounds. The “soft” sounds are accompanied by a movement of the tip of the tongue toward the palate, as if to pronounce the beginning of the word “yes”; “hard” sounds lack this.

 

In Russian, the letter Ьь, called мя́гкий знак “soft sign”, shows that the consonant before it is soft. The distinction doesn’t really exist in English, but it is approximated at times. The P in “computer”, for example, comes close to the sound of “пь”. The Ñ in “piñata” comes close to “нь” (in fact, the Spanish pronunciation is nearly identical). Besides the soft sign, the “soft vowels” also cause the consonant they follow to be pronounced as soft. They are Я, Е, Ё, И, and Ю; their “hard” counterparts are А, Э, О, Ы, and У.

The letter Ъъ, called твёрдый знак “hard sign”, shows that the consonant before it is hard. In modern Russian, the hard sign occurs infrequently, in words like съезд “descent; exit”, where it separates the С from the soft vowel Е.

 

The accusative case in Russian

Next, we’ll introduce a fourth case, the accusative case. It is used for the direct object of a verb; that is, the person or thing being acted upon. As it turns out, you already know most of the accusative case forms:

  • Most masculine nouns, as well as all neuter nouns, remain unchanged in the accusative case; that is, it is identical to the nominative case.
  • Masculine nouns referring to living things (e.g. people, pets) have accusative case forms that are identical to the genitive case forms.
  • Feminine nouns ending in А or Я have accusative case forms ending in У or Ю, respectively.
  • Feminine nouns ending in Ь do not change.

We’ll also introduce a new -ить verb:

люби́ть “to love”:

  • я люблю́*
  • ты лю́бишь
  • он, она лю́бит
  • мы лю́бим
  • вы лю́бите
  • они лю́бят

* Note that люблю́ “I love” is slightly irregular, with an extra Л appearing before the ending.

 

You can use the accusative case to specify whom or what you love:

 

Я люблю́ его́. “I love him.”

Ты меня́ лю́бишь? “Do you love me?”

Он лю́бит рабо́тать. “He loves to work.”

Asking questions with the accusative case

 

The question words что and кто also have accusative forms. Because что refers to inanimate objects, its accusative form remains unchanged; and since кто refers to living beings, its accusative form is identical to its genitive form: кого́ (pronounced as if it were written ково́).

 

— Кого́ ты лю́бишь? “Whom do you love?”

— Я люблю́ Ива́на. “I love Ivan.”

— Что ты лю́бишь де́лать? “What do you love to do?” (де́лать “to do”)

— Я люблю́ говори́ть по-ру́сски. “I love to speak Russian.”

 

Whew! That was a long post. I didn’t realize it was going to take up so many words when I started, but I just couldn’t help myself. If you like what you read, feel free to check out some of my other posts on the Russian language below.

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