. 3
( 23)


consonantal root, whereas the vowels and affixes would correspond approxi-
mately to the Arabic concept of pattern. The procedure of differentiating mean-
ing by means of word-internal vowel change is known technically as “ablaut” or
“introflection,” defined as a word-internal change that signals a grammatical
change. Other examples in English include: man/men, foot/feet, mouse/mice,
know/knew, sink/sank/sunk. In English, the change usually involves just one
vowel; however, in Arabic, it can involve several, for example:

he wrote katab-a (v.) n–nànc
he corresponded kaatab-a (v.) n–nJÉc
it was written kutib-a (v.) n–pàoc
book kitaab (n.) ÜÉàpc
books kutub (n.) –oàoc
writer; (adj.) writing kaatib (n.) –pJÉc
writers kuttaab (n.) ÜÉqàoc
write! (2 m.s.) uktub! (v.) !r–oàrcoG
These words, or stems, can have inflectional suffixes such as katab-at ˜she
wrote,™ or kutub-an ˜books™ (accusative case). The root or three-consonant ordered
sequence k-t-b has to do with “writing,” and most words in the Arabic language
that have to do with writing are derived from that root, through modifying pat-
terns of vowels (and sometimes also adding certain consonants). This is a typically
Semitic morphological system. In Arabic, this root-pattern process has evolved
extensively and very productively in order to cover a vast array of meanings
associated with each semantic field (such as “writing”). A few more examples:

office; desk maktab (n.) –nàrµne
offices; desks makaatib (n.) –pJɵne
Arabic word structure: an overview 47

library maktaba (n.) án‘nàrµne
she writes ta-ktub-u (v.) o–oàrµnJ
we write na-ktub-u (v.) o–oàrµnf
writing kitaaba (n.) áHÉàpc
written maktuub (PP) Ü’àrµne
As seen in the above examples, the shifting of patterns around the consonantal
root accomplishes a great deal in terms of word creation (derivation) and to some
extent, word inflection (e.g., pluralization). The consonant root can be viewed as
a nucleus or core around which are constellated a wide array of potential mean-
ings, depending on which pattern is keyed into the root. Roots and patterns are
interacting components of word meaning and are both bound morphemes. They
each convey specific and essential types of meaning, but neither one can exist
independently because they are abstract mental representations.7

2.1 A de¬nition of root
A root is a relatively invariable discontinuous bound morpheme, represented by
two to five phonemes, typically three consonants in a certain order, which
interlocks with a pattern to form a stem and which has lexical meaning.8

The root morpheme (for example, /k-t-b/ ) is “discontinuous” because vowels can
be interspersed between those consonants; however, those consonants must
always be present and be in the same sequence: first /k/, then /t/, then /b/. The
usual number of consonants in an Arabic root is three and these constitute “by far
the largest part of the language” (Haywood and Nahmad, 1962: 261). However,
there are also two-consonant (biliteral), four-consonant (quadriliteral) (such as
z-l-z-l, b-r-h-n, t-r-j-m), and five-consonant roots (quinquiliteral) (such as b-r-n-m-j).9
The root is said to contain lexical meaning because it communicates the idea of
a real-world reference or general field denotation (such as “writing”). It is useful
to think of a lexical root as denoting a semantic field because it is within that

The fact that they are abstract does not diminish the fact that they are strong psychological reali-
ties for Arabic speakers. According to Frisch and Zawaydeh (2001, 92) “there is clear psycholinguis-
tic evidence that Arabic consonantal roots are a distinct component of the Arabic mental lexicon.”
I am indebted to Professor Wallace Erwin for this definition.
Aside from the reduplicated four-consonant root, such as w-s-w-s or h-m-h-m, which is inherently
Arabic, four- and five-consonant roots can be borrowings from other languages. Some have been
part of the Arabic lexicon for hundreds of years; others are recent borrowings (such as t-l-f-n ˜to
telephone™). The Arab grammarian al-Khalil ibn Ahmad (d.791) made an extensive study of Arabic
lexical roots and determined which were Arabic and which were not according to rules of Arabic
phonology and phonotactics. See Sara 1991 on al-Khalil™s phonology.
48 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

field that actual words come into existence, each one crystalizing into a specific
lexical item. The number of lexical roots in Arabic has been estimated between
5,000 and 6,500.10

2.2 A de¬nition of pattern
A pattern is a bound and in many cases, discontinuous morpheme consisting of
one or more vowels and slots for root phonemes (radicals), which either
alone or in combination with one to three derivational affixes, interlocks
with a root to form a stem, and which generally has grammatical meaning.11

The pattern is defined as discontinuous because it intersperses itself among the
root consonants (as in the word kaatib).12 It is useful to think of it as a kind of tem-
plate onto which different roots can be mapped.13 The “derivational affixes” men-
tioned in the definition include the use of consonants that mark grammatical
functions, such as the derivational prefix mu- for many participles, the prefix ma-
for a noun of place, or the relative adjective suffix /-iyy/. Consonants that are
included in Arabic pattern formation are: / √/ (hamza), /t/ (taa√), /m/ (miim), /n/
(nuun), /s/ (siin), /y/ (yaa√), and /w/ (waaw). These consonants may be used as prefixes,
suffixes or even infixes.14 One further component of patterning is gemination or
doubling of a consonant. Therefore, the components of MSA pattern-formation
include: six vowels (three long: /aa/, /ii/, /uu/; three short: /a/, /i/, and /u/); seven
consonants (√, t, m, n, s, y, w); and the process of gemination.15
Patterns are said to possess grammatical (rather than lexical) meaning because
they signify grammatical or language-internal information; that is, they distin-
guish word types or word classes, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They can
even signal very specific information about subclasses of these categories. For
example, noun patterns can readily be identified as active participle, noun of
place, noun of instrument, or verbal noun, to name a few. Because patterns are

Kouloughli (1994, 60) cites about 6,500 lexical roots found in a dictionary of 50,000 lexical items.
Greenberg (1950) bases his study of lexical root phonotactics on 3,775 verb roots found in Lane
(1863) and Dozy (1881).
This definition is also from Professor Wallace Erwin.
There are a few patterns that consist of just one vowel (such as _a_ _, for example, Harb ˜war™ or
nawm ˜sleep,™ and these patterns are not considered discontinuous. Most patterns, however,
involve more than one vowel.
Patterns are sometimes referred to as “prosodic templates” or “stem templates” in discussions of
morphological theory (see, e.g., Aronoff 1994, 134, Spencer 1994). For the concept of “templatic
morphology” see McCarthy and Prince 1990.
Such as the taa√ infixed between the root consonants jiim and miim in the Form VIII verb ijtama¬-a
˜to meet,™ for example, from the root j-m-¬ ˜gathering together.™ Another example is the infixing of
waaw in the word shawaari¬, the plural of shaari¬ ˜street.™ Again, the infix is inserted between the
first and second consonants of the root.
A traditional mnemonic device for remembering Arabic morphological components is the
invented word sa√altumuuniihaa ˜you (pl.) asked me it.™
Arabic word structure: an overview 49

limited to giving grammatical or intralinguistic information, there are fewer
Arabic patterns than roots.

3 Word structure: root and pattern combined
Most Arabic words, therefore, are analyzed as consisting of two morphemes “ a
root and a pattern “ interlocking to form one word. Neither an Arabic root nor a
pattern can be used in isolation; they need to connect with each other in order to
form actual words. A word such as kaatib ˜writer,™ for example, consists of two
bound morphemes: the lexical root k-t-b and the active participle pattern _aa_i_
(where the slots stand for root consonants).16 When a root is mapped onto a pat-
tern, they together form a word, “writer,” (“doer of the action of writing”). This
word can then act as a stem for grammatical affixes such as case-markers. For
example, the accusative indefinite suffix -an:

.kÉ‘JÉc ɦ∏HÉb
qaabal-naa kaatib-an.
We met a writer.

Understanding the system of root“pattern combinations enables the learner to
deduce or at least wisely guess at a wide range of word meanings through compo-
sitional semantics by putting together root and pattern meanings to yield a word
meaning. This ultimately lightens the load of vocabulary learning.17

4 Dictionary organization
Arabic dictionaries are based on lexical roots and not word spelling.18 Instead of
relying on the exact orthography of a word, Arabic dictionaries are organized by
the root or consonant core of a word, providing under that entry every word
derived from that particular root. The root is therefore often called a “lexical root”
because it is the actual foundation for the lexicon, or dictionary. The lexical root

In their work on Arabic templatic morphology, McCarthy and Prince propose separating Arabic
root and pattern components into distinct “tiers” in accordance with the “Prosodic Morphology
Hypothesis” (1990, 3“6).
It is important to note that not all Arabic word-meanings are semantically transparent, despite the
rigor of the system. Many words have come to have particular connotations due to cultural, histor-
ical, and regional factors and need to be learned through use of the dictionary. (See Bateson 2003,
1“3.) For a helpful analysis of Arabic morphology as it relates to the lexicon, see Stowasser 1981.
The roots in an Arabic dictionary are listed alphabetically according to the order of letters in the
Arabic alphabet. For example, the root k-t-f comes after k-t-b because /f / comes after /b/ in the
alphabet. Therefore, in order to find the root, one has to know the order of the alphabet. This is
dealt with further in Appendix 1. This system applies to genuinely Arabic words or words that
have been thoroughly Arabized. However, loanwords “ words borrowed from other languages “
are listed in an Arabic dictionary by their spelling. Note that pre-modern Arabic dictionaries may
have alternative arrangements of the root consonants. See Haywood 1965 on the history of Arabic
50 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

provides a semantic field within which actual vocabulary items can be located. In
this respect, an Arabic dictionary might be seen as closer to a thesaurus than a
dictionary, locating all possible variations of meaning in one referential domain
or semantic field under one entry. See Appendix 1 for a summary of how to use an
Arabic dictionary.

5 Other lexical types
5.1 Compounding into one word (naHt â«f)
Another word-formation process exists in Arabic: compounding, composing a
word by conjoining other words. There are several subprocesses or variations on
this procedure, and although it is not common in traditional Arabic morphology,
it is used in MSA for recently coined items and for loan-translations, especially
technical terms. The classic MSA example is the word ra√smaal ˜capital™ formed
from conjoining the words ra√s ˜head™ and maal ˜money.™ Another example is laa-
markaziyya ˜decentralization,™ from the words laa ˜no™ and markaziyya ˜centraliza-
tion.™ Sometimes only part of a word is used in the compound, as in the word for
˜supersonic,™ faw-SawTiyy, abbreviating the word for ˜above, super™ fawq to faw- ,
joining it with the noun SawT ˜sound,™ and suffixing the adjectival /-iyy/ ending.19

5.2 Compounding into two words (tarkiib –«côJ)
Sometimes the lexical item created is not one single word in Arabic, but a noun
phrase, such as ¬adam wujuud ˜non-existence™ or kiis hawaa√ ˜airbag,™ or a combined
participle-noun phrase such as muta¬addid-u l-√aTraaf, ˜multilateral.™ With the
necessity for rapid translation of technical and computational terms from
Western languages into Arabic, these kinds of lexical compounds have become
more prevalent over the past two or three decades. See Chapter 5, section 15.2 for
further detail on this type of lexical innovation.

5.3 Solid stems
Solid stems are words which cannot be reduced or analyzed into the root“pattern
paradigm. They consist of primarily three sets in Arabic: pronouns, function
words, and loanwords. Solid-stem words are listed in Arabic dictionaries according
to their spelling.

5.3.1 Pronouns
Arabic pronoun categories include personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns,
and relative pronouns. These categories do not fit precisely into the standard root
and pattern system, although they show definite phonological relationships to

See Stetkevych 1970, 48“55. See also Chapter 5, section 15.1.
Arabic word structure: an overview 51

each other within their categories, such as the relation between haadhaa ˜this
(m.)™ and haadhihi ˜this (f.)™.

5.3.2 Function words
Another common subset of solid stems consists of Arabic function words “ such as
prepositions and conjunctions. These are high-frequency items, and in terms of
their structure, they are usually short or even monosyllabic. For example: fii, ˜in;
at,™ √ilaa, ˜to, towards,™ or wa- ˜and.™

5.3.3 Loanwords
There are also a number of words (primarily nouns) in MSA that are borrowed
directly from other languages, and these are considered, for the most part, to have
solid stems, e.g., they cannot be broken down into roots and patterns, such as the
words raadyuu ˜radio™ and kumbyuutir ˜computer.™20
Many proper nouns fall into this category, as well, including Middle Eastern
place names such as baghdaad, ˜Baghdad™ and bayruut ˜Beirut.™21 Such words are
discussed at greater length in Chapter 5.

6 In¬‚ection: an overview of grammatical categories in Arabic
The term “inflection” generally refers to phonological changes a word undergoes as
it is being used in context. In English, some common inflectional categories are:
number (singular and plural), tense (e.g., past, present), and voice (active and passive).
Generally speaking, Arabic words are marked for more grammatical categories
than are English words. Some of these categories are familiar to English speakers
(such as tense and number) while others, such as inflection for case or gender, are
not. There are eight major grammatical categories in Arabic: tense/aspect, person,
voice, mood, gender, number, case, definiteness. Six of these apply to verbs
(tense/aspect, person, voice, mood, gender, number), four apply to nouns and
adjectives (gender, number, case, definiteness), and four apply to pronouns (person,
gender, number and “ to a limited extent “ case).
Here is a brief summary of these categories and their roles in Arabic. Details on
all these topics are found as noted under specific reference points.

6.1 Tense/Aspect
Tense and aspect can be seen as two different ways of viewing time. Tense usually
deals with linear points extending from the past into the future. Aspect sees the

A few words borrowed from Western languages, such as “film” and “bank” fit so well into the
root“pattern system that Arabic plurals have evolved for them “ √aflaam and bunuuk, respectively.
These names are not originally Arabic but derive from other languages of the region such as
Aramaic or Persian.
52 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

completeness of an action or state as central: is the action over with and com-
pleted, ongoing, or yet to occur? The points of view of the two terms are different:
one focuses on when the action occurs and the other focuses on the action itself “
whether it is complete or not. These two grammatical categories do overlap to
some extent and have in practice blended into one in MSA.22
There are two basic morphological tenses in Arabic: past and present, also
called perfective and imperfective, respectively. In dealing with the modern writ-
ten language, many linguists and teachers find it more pragmatic to describe
Arabic verbs in terms of tense, and the terms past/present (referring to time or
tense) and perfect/imperfect (referring to aspect) are often used interchangeably.
There is also a future tense, indicated by prefixing either sa- or sawfa to a present
tense form. Other tenses exist, such as the past perfect, the future perfect, and the
past continuous, but they are compound tenses involving the use of auxiliary
verbs and particles.23

6.2 Person
Arabic verbs and personal pronouns inflect for three persons: first person (I, we),
second person (you), and third person (she, he, they). There are differences with
English, however, in the gender and number of these persons. For the Arabic first
person (√anaa, naHnu) there is no gender distinction. For the second person, there
are five forms of “you”: masculine singular (√anta), feminine singular (√anti), dual
(√antumaa), masculine plural (√antum) and feminine plural (√antunna). For the third
person, there are six verbal distinctions and five pronoun distinctions: he (huwa),
she (hiya), they-two masculine (humaa), they-two feminine (humaa), they masculine
(hum) and they feminine (hunna). (See charts in Chapter 12.) Thus, the total num-
ber of person categories in Arabic is thirteen, as opposed to the seven of English
(I, you, he, she, it, we, they).

6.3 Voice
The category of voice refers to whether an Arabic verb or participle is active or pas-
sive. Generally speaking, the passive is used in Arabic only if the agent or doer of
the action is unknown or not to be mentioned for some reason. There are sets of

In his description of “the states (tenses) of the verb” in Classical Arabic, Wright (1967, I:51) says:
“The temporal forms of the Arabic verb are but two in number, the one expressing a finished act,
one that is done and completed in relation to other acts (the Perfect); the other an unfinished act,
one that is just commencing or in progress (the Imperfect)” (emphasis in original). On the same
page he gives an indication of the complexity of Arabic tense/aspect relations when he states that
“The Arabian Grammarians . . . have given an undue importance to the idea of time, in connection
with the verbal forms, by their division of it into the past (al-maaDii the present (al-Haal
«É—G or al-HaaDir ô°VÉ—G) and the future (al-mustaqbal π‘¤à°ùŸG) the first of which they assign
to the Perfect and the other two to the Imperfect.”
See Chapter 21 on verb inflection.
Arabic word structure: an overview 53

morphological inflections and syntactic constructions particular to the passive
and these are dealt with in Chapter 38.

6.4 Mood
Mood or “mode” refers to verb categories such as indicative, subjunctive, imperative,
or (in Arabic) jussive. These categories reflect contextual modalities that condition
the action of the verb. For example, whereas the indicative mood tends to be char-
acteristic of straightforward statements or questions, the subjunctive indicates an
attitude toward the action such as doubt, desire, wishing, or necessity, and the
imperative mood indicates an attitude of command or need for action on the part
of the speaker.
The issue of mood marking is a central one in Arabic grammar (along with case
marking). Moods fall under the topic of morphology because they are reflected in
word structure; they are usually indicated by suffixes or modifications of suffixes
attached to the present tense verb stem, and the phonological nature of the verb
stem determines what form the suffix will take. The mood markers are often
short vowel suffixes, for example, /-u/ for indicative and /-a/ for subjunctive.
In Arabic, mood marking is done only on the imperfective or present tense
stem; there are no mode variants for the past tense. The Arabic moods are there-
fore non-finite; that is, they do not refer to specific points in time and are not dif-
ferentiated by tense. Tense is inferred from context and other parts of the clause.
Mood marking is determined either by particular particles which govern or
require certain moods (e.g., the negative particle lam requires the jussive mood on
the following verb) or by the narrative context in general, including attitude of
the speaker and intended meaning. See Chapters 34 and 35 on verb moods.

6.5 Gender
Arabic exhibits two genders: masculine and feminine.24 For the most part, gender
is overtly marked, but there are words whose gender is covert and shows up only
in agreement sequences. The gender category into which a noun falls is semanti-
cally arbitrary, except where nouns refer to human beings or other living crea-
tures. Gender is marked on adjectives, pronouns, and verbs, as well, but is not
inherent, as it is in nouns. Gender is discussed at greater length in Chapter 7.

6.6 Number
Arabic has three number categories: singular, dual, and plural. Whereas singular
and plural are familiar categories to most Western learners, the dual is less

A very few nouns are both masculine and feminine, for example: ˜salt™ milH and ˜spirit™ ruuH
(see Chapter 7 for further discussion).
54 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

familiar.25 The dual in Arabic is used whenever the category of “two” applies,
whether it be in nouns, adjectives, pronouns, or verbs.
The concept of plural therefore applies to three or more entities. This category
interacts in specific ways with the category of gender and also with a morphologi-
cal category which is peculiar to Arabic: humanness. Both gender and humanness
affect the way in which a noun, participle, or adjective is pluralized.
Numerals themselves, their structural features and the grammatical rules for
counting and sequential ordering, constitute one of the most complex topics in
Arabic. They are discussed in Chapter 15.

6.7 Case
Arabic nouns and adjectives normally inflect for three cases: nominative, geni-
tive, and accusative. Cases fall under the topic of morphology because they are
part of word structure; they are usually suffixes attached to the word stem, and
the nature of the word stem determines what form the suffix will take.26 In gen-
eral, the case markers are short vowel suffixes: -u for nominative, -i for genitive
and -a for accusative, but there are substantial exceptions to this.27 A case-mark-
ing paradigm is usually referred to as a declension; there are eight different nomi-
nal declensions in Arabic and these are discussed in Chapter 7.
Cases also fall under the topic of syntax because they are determined by the syn-
tactic role of a noun or adjective within a sentence or clause.28 To indicate roughly
how the system works, the nominative case typically marks the subject role (most
often the agent or doer of an action); the accusative marks the direct object of a
transitive verb or it may mark an adverbial function; and the genitive is used
mainly in two roles: marking the object of a preposition and marking the possessor
in a possessive structure. For case roles and rules, see Chapter 7, section 5.

6.8 De¬niteness: determiners
Arabic has both definite and indefinite markers. The definite marker is a word
(al-) which is not independent but is prefixed to nouns and adjectives; the indefi-
niteness marker is an affix (-n), normally suffixed to the case-marking vowel on
nouns and adjectives; thus, al-bayt-u (˜the house™ “ nominative, definite), but bayt-u-n
(˜a house™ “ nominative, indefinite). The suffixed /-n/ sound is not written with the

In English, there are some words that refer specifically to two items such as “both” and “pair.”
For example, a diptote word such as wuzaraa√ ˜ministers™ will show the genitive marker as fatHa,
not kasra, because of the nature of its morphological pattern: CuCaCaa√.
The exceptions fall into two categories: exceptions determined by morphological rules (such as the
word pattern) and exceptions determined by phonological rules (such as the rule that two vowels
cannot combine).
Traditional Arabic grammar deals with case inflections as a category of syntax (naHw) rather than
morphology (Sarf).
Arabic word structure: an overview 55

letter /n/ (nuun) but is indicated by modifying the short vowel case-marker (see
Chapter 7, section 4). Whereas the definite article is visible in Arabic script, the
indefinite marker normally is not.29

7 Distribution of in¬‚ectional categories: paradigms
In terms of the distribution of the above eight categories of inflection, Arabic
verbs inflect for the first six: tense/aspect, person, voice, mood, gender, and
number. Nouns and adjectives inflect for the last four: gender, number, case, and
definiteness. Pronouns inflect for gender, number, and “ to some extent “ case.
Any verb, for example, can be analyzed as being marked for six categories; any
noun can be analyzed for four categories and any pronoun for three. This means
that word structure in MSA is complex, and that verbs have the most complex
structure of all.
Grammatical paradigms are charts or frameworks for words which show all
their possible inflections.30 In traditional Western grammars, there are two major
divisions of paradigms: verbs and nominals (nouns, adjectives and pronouns). A
verb paradigm is called a conjugation; a nominal paradigm is called a declension.
Verbs are said to “conjugate” or inflect for verbal categories of tense, person, num-
ber, gender, mood, and voice. Nominals are said to “decline,” to inflect for case,
number, gender, and definiteness.
The forms or phonological realizations that these categories take in any partic-
ular word are determined by that word™s membership in an inflectional class.31

8 MSA in¬‚ectional classes
An inflectional class contains words whose inflections (either declension or con-
jugation) are identical, or at least highly similar.
Criteria for inflectional classes: Verbs fall into several classes by virtue of their
phonological structure, which affects how they inflect (e.g., hollow verbs, defec-
tive verbs, assimilated verbs). So do nouns and adjectives (e.g., triptotes and dip-
totes). In addition, nouns and/or adjectives may fall into certain classes because of
their origins and etymology. In order to help learners with these many categories
and the forms that they take, this reference grammar provides paradigms or
The exception to this is the accusative indefinite suffix -an, which is often written into the script
with an √alif and two fatHas.
Carstairs-McCarthy points out that there is an abstract notion of paradigm (“the set of
combinations of morphosyntactic properties or features . . . realized by inflected forms of words
(or lexemes) in a given word-class (or major category or lexeme class) in a given language”) as well
as a concrete one: “the set of inflectional realizations expressing [an abstract paradigm] for a given
word (or lexeme) in a given language” (1994, 739).
I am following Aronoff™s (1994, 65) definition of inflectional class: “a set of lexemes whose members
each select the same set of inflectional realizations.” Carstairs-McCarthy gives a similar definition:
“a set of words (lexemes) displaying the same paradigm in a given language” (1994, 739).
56 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

inflectional charts for each inflectional class as well as descriptions of the main
morphophonemic processes underlying the resulting forms.

9 Case and mood: special in¬‚ectional categories in Arabic
As can be seen in the above descriptions, there are two Arabic inflectional
categories that interface with syntax: case and mood. Both of them mark this
interfacing by short vowel suffixes, called in English “moods” or “modes” when
they apply to verbs, and “cases” when they apply to nouns or adjectives. One of the
interesting features of Arabic structure is that the nominative case (on nouns and
adjectives) and the indicative marker (on verbs) are to a large extent identical:
suffixed /-u/; and the accusative and subjunctive markers are largely identical as
well: suffixed /-a/.32 It is important for learners of Arabic to know that in Arabic
grammar these two categories are referred to as one; that is, nominative and
indicative are considered one category: raf ¬ or marfuu¬, and accusative and
subjunctive are considered another: naSb or manSuub.
Because of these formal similarities, case and mood are treated as categories of
syntax (naHw) in traditional Arabic grammar, and for very sound and compelling
reasons. Moreover, there is no theoretical distinction in Arabic between case and
mood. Readers who are interested in morphological theory or in studying Arabic
grammar more extensively should keep in mind that Arabic sets these categories
apart, and that they are of great “ even central “ importance in Arabic syntactic
theory. One can certainly say that these two categories are closer to the syntactic
level of analysis than to the semantic or lexical level.33

This is, of course, a generalization. Other formal realizations of these categories exist, but this is
the major one.
See Ryding 1993 for more on this topic. See also the entries Sarf and naHw in the Encyclopedia of
Islam; and Bohas, Guillaume and Kouloughli 1990, especially Chapters 3 and 4.
Basic Arabic sentence structures

This chapter deals with very basic sentence structure and relations among
sentence elements.

1. Essential principles of sentence structure
There are two major syntactic principles that affect the structure of Arabic
phrases and clauses: agreement/concord and government.

1.1 Agreement or concord (muTaabaqa á¤HÉ£e)
Agreement or concord is where words in a phrase or clause show feature compati-
bility, that is, they match or conform to each other, one reflecting the other™s
features. For example, a verb is masculine singular if it has a masculine singular sub-
ject. A feminine singular noun takes a feminine singular adjective, and so forth. In
order to undertake this matching or agreement of features, one needs to be aware of
the rules for agreement, and of the categories that constitute feature compatibility.
Generally, in discussion of case systems, the term concord is used to refer to
matching between nouns and their dependants (typically adjectives, other nouns,
or pronouns), whereas agreement refers to matching between the verb and its
subject.1 Often, however, these terms are used synonymously. Categories of con-
cord and agreement in Arabic include: gender, number, definiteness, and case for
nouns and adjectives, and inflection for gender, number, and person for verbs
and pronouns.2

1.2 Government (¬amal πªY)
Government is a syntactic principle wherein certain words cause others to inflect
in particular ways ” not in agreement with the “governing” word (the ¬aamil
πeÉY), but as a result of the effect of the governing word.3
See Blake 1994, 186, footnote 6.
For a detailed historical overview of Arabic and Semitic agreement structures, see Russell 1984.
The term “government” as an equivalent for the Arabic term ¬amal is used extensively, but other
terms such as “operation” and “regimen” are also used in English translations. All these terms refer
to the power of one word, one structure, or one concept to affect the inflection of another word.

58 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

In his four-volume grammar of modern Arabic, al-naHw al-waafii, Abbaas Hasan
defines ¬aamil as “what supervenes on a word and thereby affects its ending by
making it nominative/indicative, accusative/subjunctive, genitive, or jussive”
(maa ya-dxul-u ¬alaa l-kalimat-i fa-yu-√aththir-u fii √aaxir-i-haa bi-l-raf ¬-i, √aw-i l-naSb-i,
√aw-i l-jarr-i √aw-i l-jazm-i).4
Typical “governors” (¬awaamil πeG’Y) in Arabic are verbs, prepositions, and par-
ticles. For example, a transitive verb takes or “governs” a direct object in the accu-
sative case. Or a certain particle, such as the negative future marker lan, requires
the subjunctive mood on the following verb; a preposition requires that its noun
object be in the genitive case, and so on.
Case (on substantives) and mood (on verbs) are the two categories affected by
government in Arabic.5

1.3 Dependency relations
Because of these essential principles that characterize the structure of words in
phrases and clauses, Arabic can be seen as a language that has a network of depend-
ency relations in every phrase or clause. These relations are key components of
the grammatical structure of the language.

2. The simple sentence
Traditional Arabic grammatical theory divides sentences into two categories
depending on the nature of the first word in the sentence. Sentences whose
first word is a noun or noun phrase are termed jumal ismiyya ᫪°SG πªL, or ˜nomi-
nal sentences,™ and sentences whose initial word is a verb are termed jumal fi¬liyya
á«∏©a πªL, or ˜verbal sentences.™ This first-word criterion is not based on whether
the sentence contains a verb, but on whether the verb is initial or not.6
In the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language, however, a different distinction
is often used for classifying Arabic sentences. This distinction is based on whether
or not the sentence contains a verb. The English term “equational sentence” is
used to refer to verbless predications. The term “verbal sentence” refers to predi-
cations that contain a verb. As Abboud and McCarus state, “Arabic sentences are
of two types, those with verbs, called verbal sentences, and those not containing
verbs, called equational sentences” (emphasis in original; 1983, Part 1:102).
Confusion sometimes arises with the term “verbal sentence” because if one
uses it to refer to the traditional Arabic term, one means “sentence starting with

Hasan 1987, I:441. The definition is given in an extensive footnote that describes the types of ¬aamil.
¦’¦©e πeÉY),
Sometimes the governor is an abstraction (¬aamil ma¬nawiyy such as the concept
“subject of an equational sentence” (ibtidaa√ For a general outline of the Arabic theory of gov-
ernment in English see Bohas, Guillaume, and Kouloughi 1991, 57-62. See also Hasan 1987 for further
description in Arabic of ¬aamil lafZiyy ˜overt governor™ and ¬aamil ma¬nawiyy ˜abstract governor.™
This theoretical distinction, however, is disputed. See Ayoub and Bohas 1983 for a counter
argument to the word-order criterion. For more on this, see Cantarino 1974, I:2.
Basic Arabic sentence structures 59

a verb.” But if “verbal sentence” is used to refer to the distinction between verbless
and verb-containing sentences, it means “sentence containing a verb.” Similarly,
sometimes the terms jumla ismiyya and “equational sentence” are taken to be
equivalents, but they are not. A jumla ismiyya is a sentence that starts with a noun,
including those that contain verbs. An equational sentence refers to a predication
that is specifically verbless. These terms are not equivalent because they are based
on different criteria.
In this text, in keeping with the terms used by Abboud and McCarus, I use the
term “equational” to refer to verbless sentences, and “verbal sentence” to refer to
those containing a verb.

2.1 Equational sentences in general
Equational sentences are verbless. The reason these sentences are verbless is
because the Arabic verb ˜to be™ (kaan-a) is not normally used in the present tense
indicative; it is simply understood. These sentences consist of a subject or topic
(mubtada√: ˜what is begun with™) and predicate (xabar: ˜piece of information;
news™). That is, they typically begin with a noun phrase or pronoun and are com-
pleted by a comment on that noun phrase or pronoun. The comment or predicate
may take the form of different classes of words and phrases: nouns, predicate
adjectives, pronouns, or prepositional phrases. These sentences are “equational”
because the subject and predicate “equate” with each other and balance each
other out in a complete proposition, or equation.

2.1.1 The structure of equational sentences
The subject or topic of an equational sentence is in the nominative case, and so
is the predicate, if it is a noun or adjective. When the predicate is a noun,
pronoun, or adjective, it agrees with the subject in gender and number, but not
in definiteness.7 Generally, the subject is the first element in the sentence, but
sometimes the order is reversed, and the predicate comes first. COMMON TYPES OF EQUATIONAL SENTENCES:
(1) Noun/adjective: Here the subject is a noun with the definite article, and the
predicate is an adjective (or adjective phrase) marked for indefiniteness.

.I’¨°U ájôb „É©dG .πj ’W ≥j ô£dG
al-¬aalam-u qaryat-un Saghiirat-un. al-Tariiq-u Tawiil-un.
The world [is] a small village. The road [is] long.

Blake (1994, 191, note 2) gives a clear description of the subject-predicate relationship for
equational sentences when he states that “the concord between a predicative noun or adjective
and a subject would normally be described as concord of the predicative word with the subject,
since it typically involves inherent features of the subject being marked on the predicate.”
60 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

.áj’b á°ùaɦŸG .ôªMCG RôµdG
al-munaafasat-u qawwiyyat-un. al-karaz-u √aHmar-u.
Competition [is] strong. Cherries [are] red.

.ádóà©e á«bô°T á«H’¦L ¬Éj ôdG
al-riyaaH-u januubiyyat-un sharqiyyat-un mu¬ tadilat-un.
The winds [are] moderate southeasterly.

(2) Noun phrase/adjective: Here the subject is a noun phrase and the predi-
cate an indefinite adjective or adjective phrase.

.º®°V ‚∏ŸGô°üb .á«°SÉ«°S „¦“aCG É¡∏c
qaSr-u l-malik-i Daxm-un. kull-u-haa √aflaam-un siyaasiyyat-un.
The king™s palace [is] huge. All of them [are] political films.

(3) Pronoun/adjective or adjective phrase:

.»cP ’g .»HôY π°UCG øe ᫵jôeCG »g
huwa dhakiyy-un. hiya √amriikiyyat-un min √aSl-in ¬arabiyy-in
He [is] intelligent. She [is] an American of Arab origin.

(4) Pronoun/noun:

.»à¤jó°U âfCG .’‘N ’g .ÜôY ø«f
√anti Sadiiqat-ii. huwa xabiir-un. naHn-u ¬arab-un.
You (f.) [are] my friend. He [is] an expert. We [are] Arabs.

(5) Demonstrative pronoun/noun:

.¦ÎaO Gòg .᪡e áHô’ √òg
haadhaa daftar-ii. haadhihi tajribat-un muhimmat-un.
This [is] my notebook. This [is] an important experiment.

(6) Demonstrative pronoun/adjective or adjective phrase:

.í««°U ’Z Gòg .ójóL Gòg
haadhaa ghayr-u SaHiiH-in. haadhaa jadiid-un.
This [is] untrue. This [is] new.

(7) Noun/noun or noun/noun phrase:

.á‘«‘W »àLhR .á«ŸÉY á¨d áYGQµdG
zawjat-ii Tabiibat-un. al-ziraa¬at-u lughat-un ¬aalamiyyat-un.
My wife [is] a doctor. Agriculture [is] a world language.
Basic Arabic sentence structures 61

(8) Noun/prepositional phrase:

.¬∏d óª—G .ºµ«∏Y „¦“°ùdG
al-Hamd-u li-llaah-i. al-salaam-u ¬alay-kum.
Praise [be] to God. Peace [be] upon you.

(9) Reversal of subject and predicate: Sometimes the predicate of an equa-
tional sentence will come before the subject. This most often happens
when the subject lacks the definite article.

.ɦeÉqªM ɦg .¿ÉJó«°S ɪ¡¦«H
hunaa Hammaam-u-naa. bayn-a-humaa sayyidat-aani.
Here [is] our bathroom. Between (˜the two of ™) them [are] two women.

(10) Expression of possession: Possession is usually predicated by means of a
preposition or semi-preposition, and it often is the first element of the
equational sentence. Because the predication is in the form of a
prepositional phrase, the item that is possessed is in the nominative case,
being the subject of an equational sentence.

.á∏µ°»e ¦ó¦Y .IQó¤dG º¡jód
laday-him-i l-qudrat-u.
¬ind-ii mushkilat-un.
I have (˜at-me is™) a problem. They have (˜at-them is™) the capability.

la-haa √arba¬-u √arjul-in.
They have (˜to-them are™) four legs.

(11) Existential predications: “there is/there are”
(11.1) With hunaaka “there is; there are”:

.¿Éª¡e ¿ÉY’°V’e ‘ɦg .I’ãc πeG’Y ‘ɦg
hunaaka mawDuu¬-aani muhimm-aani. hunaaka ¬awaamil-u kathiirat-un.
There [are] two important topics. There [are] many factors.

(11.2) With thammat-a “there is; there are”:

.á˜∏ଂ º«b áªãa
fa-thammat-a qiyam-un muxtalifat-un.
For there [are] different values.

(12) Equational sentences with definite predicates: the copula pronoun:
These require the copula or “pronoun of separation” to distinguish the
62 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

subject from the predicate.8 The pronoun agrees with the subject (or mub-
tada√) in gender and number:

.IO’©dG ’g º¡ŸG
al-muhimm-u huwa l-¬awdat-u.
The important [thing] [is] to return (˜returning™).

.πª©dG ’g º¡ŸG
al-muhimm-u huwa l-¬amal-u.
The important [thing] [is] work.

.AÉ°ù¦dG πc êP’° »g q„¦C™G
al-√umm-u hiya namuudhaj-u kull-i l-nisaa√-i.
The mother [is] the model for all women.

(13) Equational sentence with clause as predicate: In the following equa-
tional sentence, the subject is a compound one, and the predicate actu-
ally consists of another equational sentence “their source is one.”

.óMGh ɪ¡∏°UCG „¦“°SE™Gh á«««°ùŸG
al-masiiHiyyat-u wa-l-√ islaam-u √aSl-u-humaa waaHid-un.
Christianity and Islam [are from] one source (˜their source is one™).

(14) Negation of verbless sentences: Verbless sentences are usually made
negative with the use of the verb lays-a ˜to not be™ (see Chapter 37 for fur-
ther description of lays-a). When lays-a is used, it changes the predicate of
the sentence from the nominative case to the accusative case.9

(14.1) Positive statement: Negation:

.ɦà¤jó°U âfCG .ɦà¤jó°U â°ùd
las-ti Sadiiqat-a-naa.
√anti Sadiiqat-u-naa.
You [are] our friend. You are not our friend.

(14.2) Positive statement: Negation:

.’‘N ’g .G’‘N ¢ù«d
lays-a xabiir-an.
huwa xabiir-un.
He [is] an expert. He is not an expert.

Eid (1991, 33) suggests that “the copula pronoun be analyzed as a predicate expressing the relation
of identity.”
It is therefore one of what are called the nawaasix or ˜converters-to-accusative™ described in
Chapter 7, section
Basic Arabic sentence structures 63

(14.3) Positive statement: Negation:

.πj’W ≥jô£dG .“j’W ≥jô£dG ¢ù«d
lays-a l-Tariiq-u Tawiil-an.
al-Tariiq-u Tawiil-un.
The road [is] long. The road is not long.

(14.4) Positive statement: Negation:

.á‘«‘W »àLhR .á‘«‘W »àLhR â°ù«d
lays-at zawjat-ii Tabiibat-an.
zawjat-ii Tabiibat-un.
My wife [is] a doctor. My wife is not a doctor.

(15) Non-present tense indicative equational sentences: Sentences that are
equational in the present tense indicative need a form of the verb kaan-a in
other tenses or moods. The verb kaan-a, like lays-a, requires that the predi-
cate of the equational sentence be in the accusative case (see Chapter 36):

(15.1) Present: Past:
.º®°V ‚∏ŸG ô°üb .ɪ®°V ‚∏ŸG ô°üb ¿Éc
kaan-a qaSr-u l-malik-i Daxm-an.
qaSr-u l-malik-i Daxm-un.
The king™s palace [is] huge. The king™s palace was huge.

(15.2) Present: Past:
.πj’W ≥jô£dG .“j’W ≥jô£dG ¿Éc
kaan-a l-Tariiq-u Tawiil-an.
al-Tariiq-u Tawiil-un.
The road [is] long. The road was long.

(15.3) Present: Future:
.á‘«‘W »àLhR .á‘«‘W »àLhR ¿’µà°S
sa-ta-kuun-u zawjat-ii Tabiibat-an.
zawjat-ii Tabiibat-un.
My wife [is] a doctor. My wife will be a doctor.

2.2 The simple verbal sentence ( jumla fi cliyya á«∏©a á∏ªL)

2.2.1 Subject as verb in¬‚ection only
The simplest verbal sentence consists of a verb and its pronoun subject. The
subject pronoun is incorporated into the verb as part of its inflection. It is not
necessarily mentioned separately, as it is in English.10 Past tense verbs inflect with
a subject suffix; present tense verbs have subject prefix and also a suffix.

In current linguistic terms, Arabic is a “pro-drop” language. That is, its verbs incorporate their
subject pronouns as part of their inflection, and separate subject pronouns are not necessary for
indicating person.
64 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

.OÉY .±ô°»àf .â«‚ .¿’dhÉ«j
na-tasharraf-u. najaH-at. yu-Haawil-uuna.
He returned. We are honored. She succeeded. They try.

2.2.2 Speci¬cation of noun subject
When a subject noun or noun phrase is specified, it usually follows the verb and
is in the nominative case. The verb agrees with the specified subject in gender.
The subject and verb together form a structural unit, or jumla á∏ªL.

.’˜°ùdG OÉY .¢ùf’J ’˜°S OÉY
¬aad-a l-safiir-u. ¬aad-a safiir-u tuunis-a.
The ambassador returned. The ambassador of Tunisia returned.

.áe’µ—G â«‚ .Iójó·G áe’µ—G â«‚
najaH-at-i l-Hukuumat-u. najaH-at-i l-Hukuumat-u l-jadiidat-u.
The government succeeded. The new government succeeded.

2.2.3 Intransitive verbs (al-√af¬aal ghayr al-muta¬addiya; al-√af¬aal al-laazima
áeR“dG «É©aC™G ájó©àŸG ’Z «É©aC™G)
If the verb is intransitive, it does not take a direct object, but it may be comple-
mented by an adverbial or prepositional phrase:

.á«Hô©dG O“‘dG ˜ G’°TÉY .«É‘·G ≈∏Y è∏ãdG πp§r¡nj
ya-hTil-u l-thalj-u ¬alaa l-jibaal-i.
¬aash-uu fii l-bilaad-i l-¬arabiyyat-i.
They lived in Arab countries. Snow falls on the mountains.

2.2.4 Transitive verbs (al-√af¬aal al-muta¬addiya ájó©àŸG «É©aC™G)
If the verb is transitive, it takes a direct object, which is in the accusative case. It
may be a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun.

.É„«°T ±ôYCG ™ .áehɤe »¤d .¤ÉKOɬ GhôLCG
laa √a-¬rif-u shay√-an. laqiy-a muqaawamat-an. √ajraw muHaadathaat-in.
I do not know anything. He encountered resistance. They conducted talks.

.É¡à‘«¤M ¤eµ« .√ój „aQ .ácΰ»e ᦷ “qµ°T
Hazam-at Haqiibat-a-haa. rafa¬-a yad-a-hu. shakkal-aa lajnat-an mushtarakat-an.
She packed her suitcase. He raised They (two) formed
his hand. a joint committee.

2.2.5 Mention of both subject and object
If both the subject and the object of the verb are specified, the word order is
usually Verb“Subject“Object (VSO). This is the standard word order of verbal
sentences in Arabic.
Basic Arabic sentence structures 65

.¬ªa Ëôc íàa
fataH-a kariim-un fam-a-hu.
Karim opened his mouth.

.á«bɘJG ô°üe â©qbh
waqqa¬-at miSr-u ttifaaqiyyat-an.
Egypt signed an agreement.

.ádÉ°SQ ’˜°ùdG πª«j
ya-Hmil-u l-safiir-u risaalat-an.
The ambassador is carrying a letter.

2.3 Summary of basic sentence relations
The basic dependency relations in a simple Arabic verbal sentence are therefore as

(1) The subject is incorporated in the verb as part of its inflection.
(2) The subject may also be mentioned explicitly, in which case it usually fol-
lows the verb and is in the nominative case. The verb agrees in gender with
its subject.
(3) A transitive verb, in addition to having a subject, also takes a direct object in
the accusative case. This object follows the verb and any mentioned subject.
(4) The basic word order is thus VSO: Verb“Subject“Object.
(5) The word order may vary to SVO (Subject“Verb“Object) or even VOS
(Verb“Object“Subject) under certain conditions.11

2.4 Further dependency relations
There are a few issues that add to the complexity of the basic structure of syntactic
relations. These have to do with verb“subject agreement and word order.

2.4.1 Verb“subject agreement
In a verb-initial sentence or clause, the verb agrees with its subject in gender, but
not always in number. If the verb precedes the subject and the subject is dual or
plural, the verb remains singular.12 Thus a dual or plural noun subject when it
follows the verb, does not influence verb inflection for number.13 PLURAL OR DUAL SUBJECT FOLLOWING VERB: If the subject is plural or dual,
and it follows the verb, the verb inflects only for gender agreement, and not
number agreement. The verb remains singular.

See Parkinson 1981 for a study of word-order shift in MSA.
This restriction on the number inflection of the Arabic verb is sometimes referred to as “agree-
ment asymmetry.” See Bolotin 1995 for further analysis of this topic.
See Mohammed 1990 for extensive analysis of issues in subject“verb agreement in MSA.
66 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

.Ü“£dG ‚«°V
DaHik-a l-Tullab-u.
The students laughed. (˜He-laughed, the students.™)

.kÉeGôch A“‘f ¢ShôdG ô¡¶j
ya-Zhar-u l-ruus-u nubalaa√-a wa-kiraam-an.
The Russians appear [as] noble and generous. (˜He-appears, the Russians . . .™)

.¢ùeCG ≥°»eO ¤EG ¿É°ù«FôdG π°Uh
waSal-a l-ra√iis-aani √ilaa dimashq-a √ams-i.
The two presidents arrived in Damascus yesterday. (˜He-arrived, the two
presidents . . .™)

.Gµ‘N AÉ°ù¦dG ¦Î°»J
ta-shtarii l-nisaa√-u xubz-an.
The women buy bread. (˜She-buys, the women . . .™)

.É©°SGh ÉHGô°VEG ¿óŸG ¤ógÉ°T
shaahad-at-i l-mudun-u √iDraab-an waasi¬-an.14
The cities witnessed an extensive strike. (˜She witnessed, the cities . . .) VARIATION IN WORD ORDER: Occasionally, the subject of a verbal sentence
or clause precedes the verb. In that case the verb agrees with it in gender and in

(1) Subject“Verb“Object (SVO): Within the body of a text the writer may
choose to start a sentence with a noun or noun phrase for stylistic reasons
or for emphasis. This inverted word order also happens in embedded
clauses. Moreover, certain fixed expressions are in the SVO order. When
the subject precedes the verb, the verb agrees with it in gender and in
number.15 Technically, this word order converts a jumla fi¬liyya (verbal sen-
tence) into a jumla ismiyya (nominal sentence).

.É«e“°SEG ÉKGôJ ‚∏“ á¦jóŸG
al-madiinat-u ta-mlik-u turaath-an √islaamiyy-an.
The city possesses an Islamic heritage.

.Êôª¨J IOÉ©°ùdG
al-sa¬aadat-u ta-ghmur-u-nii.
Happiness overwhelms me.
Note that the subject here is nonhuman, and therefore takes feminine singular agreement.
When a noun or noun phrase is sentence-initial, the sentence is considered a jumla ismiyya even if
it contains a verb, in accordance with traditional Arabic grammatical theory which bases sentence
categories on the nature of the sentence-initial word. See also note 6.
Basic Arabic sentence structures 67

.᪶¦e á∏MQ ˜ ¿hôaÉ°ùj º¡¦e ¿h’ãc
kathiir-uuna min-hum yu-saafir-uuna fii riHlat-in munaZZamat-in.
Many of them are traveling on an organized tour.

.‚ª∏°ùj ¬∏dG
allaah-u yu-sallim-u-ka.
[May] God keep you safe.

.á«∏°SCG øY Éã«H á©°SGh á∏ªM ø°»J ¤G’¤dG
al-quwwaat-u ta-shunn-u Hamlat-an waasi¬at-an baHth-an ¬an √asliHat-in.
The forces are launching an extensive campaign to search for weapons.

.„¦ó¤dG Iôc ø°SQÉÁ ¤É«àa É°†jCG ‘ɦgh
wa-hunaaka √ayD-an fatayaat-un yu-maaris-na kurat-a l-qadam-i.
(And) there are also young women who play (˜practice™) soccer.

(2) Headlines and topic sentences: In Arabic newspapers it is often the case
that the headline will be SVO whereas the first or lead sentence in the
article, recapping the same thing, will be VSO. This shift in word order
illustrates the attention-getting function of the SVO word order.16

Headline: SVO:

.Ú«e“°SE™G Ú£°TɦdG Qqò“ É°ùfôa
faransaa tu-Hadhdhir-u l-naashiT-iina l- √islaamiyy-iina.
France warns Islamic activists.

Lead sentence: VSO:

.øjOó°»àe Ú«e“°SEG ¢ùeCG É°ùfôa ¤QqòM
Hadhdhar-at faransaa √ams-i √islaamiyy-iina mutashaddid-iina.
France yesterday warned Islamic extremists.

(3) Preposed direct object (topic and comment): For stylistic reasons, an
object of a verb or preposition may be preposed at the beginning of a sen-
tence. In this case, a transitive verb (or prepositional phrase) requires a pro-
noun object to replace and refer to the preposed noun object. The pronoun
object on the verb agrees with the noun it refers to in gender and number.

.IôgɤdG ˜ ™EG Égó‚ ™ á°Uô˜dG √òg
haadhihi l-furSat-u laa na-jid-u-haa √illaa fii l-qaahirat-i.
This opportunity can only be found in Cairo.
(˜This opportunity, we do not find it except in Cairo.™)

See Watson™s (1999) article on the syntax of Arabic headlines for more on this topic.
68 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

.É«fÉ‘°SEG IÉ««H áb“Y º¡d âfÉc Üô©dG
al-¬arab-u kaan-at la-hum ¬alaaqat-un bi-Hayaat-i √isbaanyaa.
The Arabs had a relationship with the life of Spain.
(The Arabs, [there] was to-them a relationship . . .™)

Sometimes, when this is done, the connectives √amma . . . fa- (˜as for . . . ™)
are used to identify the topic and comment on parts of the sentence:

.IôgɤdG ˜ ™EG Égó‚ “`a á°Uô˜dG √òg ÉeCG
√ammaa haadhihi l-furSat-u fa-laa na-jid-u-haa √illaa fii l-qaahirat-i.
As for this opportunity, it can only be found in Cairo.

(4) Verb“Object“Subject (VOS): In some cases, the verb will come first, and
the object will come before the subject of the verb. This is especially true
if the object is substantially shorter than the subject. In the following
sentences, the object is set in boldface type.

.¢UÉ°üàN™G ÜÉ«°UCG øe OóY Aɤ∏dG ô°†M
HaDar-a l-liqaa√-a ¬adad-un min √aSHaab-i l-ixtiSaaS-i.
A number of specialists attended the meeting.
(˜Attended the meeting a number of specialists.™)

.»˜«°U ∞dCG ¿hô°»Y É¡KGóMCG ≈q£Z
ghaTTaa √aHdaath-a-haa ¬ishruuna √alf-a SuHufiyy-in.
Twenty thousand reporters covered its events.
(˜Covered its events twenty thousand reporters.™)

.IòJÉ°SC™G øe OóY Ihó¦dG ˜ ‘QÉ°»«°S
sa-yu-shaarik-u fii l-nadwat-i ¬adad-un min-a l-√asaatidhat-i.
A number of professors will participate in the seminar.
(˜Will participate in the seminar a number of professors.™)

(4.1) Object plus adverb: Sometimes an adverb will also be placed before the
subject, especially if it is short.

.¦ô°üe óah ¢ùjQÉH ¤EG É¡L’àe „¦’«dG IôgɤdG QOɨj
yu-ghaadir-u l-qaahirat-a l-yawm-a mutawajjih-an √ilaa baariis wafd-un miSriyy-un.
An Egyptian delegation left Cairo today heading for Paris.
(˜Left Cairo today heading for Paris an Egyptian delegation.™)17

.á«LQÉÿG ôj Rh óYÉ°ùe ¢ùeCG ¿ÉªYQOÉZh
wa-ghaadar-a ¬ammaan-a √ams-i musaa¬id-u waziir-i l-xaarijiyyat-i.

In this sentence, the object (al-qaahirat-a), a short adverb (l-yawm-a), and an adverbial phrase
(mutawajjih-an √ilaa baariis) ˜heading for Paris™ have all been inserted before the subject.
Basic Arabic sentence structures 69

The assistant minister of foreign affairs left Amman yesterday.
(˜Left Amman yesterday the assistant minister of foreign affairs.™)

2.5 Doubly transitive verbs
There are a number of verbs in Arabic that take two objects. Both objects may be
expressed as nouns or noun phrases, or one or both may be expressed as a pronoun.

2.5.1 Both objects expressed as nouns or noun phrases
This occurs especially with verbs of asking, considering, requesting, and

.I’ãc á∏„°SCG Ü“£dG G’dCÉ°S
sa√al-uu l-Tullab-a √as√ilat-an kathiirat-an.
They asked the students many questions.

.G’‘c É«®jQÉJ GRÉ‚EG I’£ÿG √òg ¿’«fɪ©dG ÈàYG
i¬tabar-a l-¬umaaniyy-uuna haadhihi l-xuTwat-a √injaaz-an taariixiyy-an kabiir-an.
The Omanis considered this step a great historical accomplishment.

.¢ù˜¦dG øY ´ÉaódG øe ÉY’f „¦’©¡dG GhÈàYG
i¬tabar-uu l-hujuum-a naw¬-an min-a l-difaa¬-i ¬an-i l-nafs-i.
They considered the attack a type of self-defense.

2.5.2 One object expressed as noun or noun phrase, the other as pronoun

.¤É¦jô“ º¡`à£YCG
√a¬T-at-hum tamriinaat-in.
She gave them exercises.

.Ú∏°†˜ŸG º¡e’‚ º¡`fhÈà©j
ya-¬tabir-uuna-hum nujuum-a-hum-u l-mufaDDal-iina.
They consider them their favorite stars.

.áfɪ°V ¿hôNBG √Èà©j
ya-¬tabir-u-hu √aaxar-uuna Damaanat-an.
Others consider it an assurance.

.Qhó`H „¦É«¤dG √hó°TÉf
naashad-uu-hu l-qiyaam-a bi-dawr-in
They implored him to take a role.

2.5.3 Both objects expressed as pronouns
In this case, one object pronoun is suffixed onto the verb and the other attached to
the pronoun-carrier √iyyaah-. This occurs mainly with verbs of giving and sending.
70 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

.áªWÉa πgCG √ÉjEG ÊGógCG .ÉgÉjEG ÉfÉ£YCG
√ahdaa-nii √iyyaa-hu √ahl-u faaTimat-a. √a¬Taa-naa √iyyaa-haa.
Fatima™s family sent it to me (˜sent me it™). He gave it to us (˜gave us it™).

2.5.4 One object a noun or noun phrase, the other a predicate adjective
In this kind of double accusative, a definite noun serves as object of the verb and
an indefinite adjective describes the state or condition of that noun.

.á∏«ªL É«fódG ógÉ°T .ÉM’à˜e ÜÉ‘dG ‘ôJ
shaahad-a l-dunyaa jamiilat-an. tarak-a l-baab-a maftuuH-an.
He saw the world [as] beautiful. He left the door open.

2.5.5 Passive constructions with doubly transitive verbs
When a doubly transitive verb is in a passive construction, one object becomes the
subject of the passive verb (an in the nominative case if mentioned specifically)
and the other object remains in the accusative case:

.“£H êpq’oJ .“£H –Y“dG êqp’oJ
tuwwij-a baTal-an. tuwwij-a l-laa¬ib-u baTal-an.
He was crowned champion. The athlete was crowned champion.

.I’ãc á∏„°SCG Ü“£dG π„°S
su√il-a l-Tullaab-u √as√ilat-an kathiirat-an.
The students were asked many questions.

.ᘫ∏®∏d Éq°UÉN É‘«‘W øpq«oY
¬uyyin-a Tabiib-an xaaSS-an li-l-xaliifat-i.
He was appointed [as] special physician to the Caliph.

2.5.6 Dative movement with doubly transitive verbs
Where one of the objects of the verb is an indirect object, or beneficiary of the
action, an optional structure using the dative-marking prepositions li- or √ilaa is
possible. It is only permissible, however, if the beneficiary noun follows the direct
object, e.g.:

.⦑∏d ÜÉàµdG â«£YCG
√a¬Tay-tu l-kitaab-a li-l-bint-i.
I gave the book to the girl.

Otherwise, the beneficiary noun precedes the object noun and is in the accusa-
tive case.18

These examples are taken from Ryding 1981, 19“23.
Basic Arabic sentence structures 71

.ÜÉàµdG ⦑dG â«£YCG
√a¬Tay-tu l-bint-a l-kitaab-a.
I gave the girl the book.

2.5.7 Semantic structure of doubly transitive verbs
These verbs fall into four semantic classes: Where the second object is what would be termed an indirect object or
beneficiary of the action (“I gave Noura the book,” i.e., “I gave the book to

.¤É¦jô“ º¡``à£YCG
√a¬T-at-hum tamriinaat-in.
She gave them exercises. Where the second object is equivalent to the first (“We consider him a
great author.”) This includes evaluative verbs of deeming, judging, and
considering, such as i¬tabara.19

.Ú∏°†˜ŸG º¡e’‚ º¡``fhÈà©j
ya-¬tabir-uuna-hum nujuum-a-hum-u l-mufaDDal-iina.
They consider them their favorite stars. Where the first accusative is caused to be the second (“They appointed
her ambassador”) but both refer to the same entity. These verbs include actions
such as making, creating, naming, and appointing.

.I’˜°S Ég’¦q«Y
¬ayyan-uu-haa safiirat-an.
They appointed her ambassador. Where each object is different (“He taught the students English” “He
caused the students to learn English.”). These are usually Form II or Form IV
verbs, causatives of transitive base verbs, such as (Form II) darras-a ˜to teach™ (˜to
cause someone to study something™) or (Form IV) √araa ˜to show™ (˜to cause
someone to see something™).20

This group has a special designation in Arabic called √af¬aal al-qalb,√af¬aal qalbiyya or √af¬aal
quluub ˜verbs of the heart™ because they denote intellectual or emotional evaluations. See Chapter 7,
section 5.3.3 on accusative case.
For detailed analysis of double accusatives in MSA see Abboud and McCarus 1983, Part 2:93“96 and
for Classical Arabic, see Wright 1967, II:47“53.
72 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

.ïjQÉàdG »¦`°SqQO
darras-a-nii l-taariix-a.
He taught me history.

3. Other sentence elements
Sentence elements other than verb, subject, and object (in verbal sentences)
and subject and predicate (in equational sentences) include various types of

3.1 Placement of adverbials in basic sentences
Arabic adverbial expressions are considered “extras” in the sentence ( faDla á∏°†a)
because they give information external to the core VS or VSO structure. They are
usually quite flexible in their placement and can occur at almost any point in a
clause, especially if they consist of short words. More than one may occur in a

.I“°üdG ˜ ¬«dÉ«d »°†¤j
ya-qDii layaalii-hi fii l-Salaat-i.
He spends his nights in prayer.

.ójó·G »µjôeC™G ’˜°ùdG ¢ùeCG IôgɤdG QOÉZ
ghaadar-a l-qaahirat-a √ams-i l-safiir-u l-√amriikiyy-u l-jadiid-u.
The new American ambassador left Cairo yesterday.

.A§‘`H ’ª¦J
ta-nm-uu bi-buT√-in.
They grow slowly.

¢ùeCG ¬dÉb ɪ`d Gó«cCÉJ
ta√kiid-an li-maa qaal-a-hu √ams-i
affirming what he said yesterday

4. Compound or complex sentences
Compound or complex sentences consist of more than one predication. They
contain clauses related by means of coordinating conjunctions such as wa- ˜and,™
fa- ˜and; and so,™ or bal ˜but rather.™ These conjunctions have little or no effect on
the syntax or morphology of the following clause but build up the sentence
contents in an additive way.
Complex sentences, on the other hand, consist of a main clause and one or
more subordinate or embedded clauses. Subordinate clauses are of three main

For further discussion of this, see Chapter 11.
Basic Arabic sentence structures 73

types “ complement clauses, adverbial clauses, and relative clauses. In each case,
there is usually a linking or connective element (such as √anna ˜that™ or li-kay ˜in
order that™ or alladhii ˜who; which™) bringing the two clauses into relation with
each other. Many Arabic subordinating conjunctions have a grammatical effect
on the structure of the following clause. For example, √anna and related particles
are followed by a clause whose subject is either a suffixed pronoun or a noun in
the accusative; li-kay is followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood.
Specific compound and complex sentence types are dealt with in the following
Chapter 14: Relative pronouns and relative clauses
Chapter 18: Connectives and conjunctions
Chapter 19: Subordinating conjunctions: the particle √inna and her sisters
Chapter 34: Moods of the verb I: indicative and subjunctive
Chapter 35: Moods of the verb II: jussive and imperative
Chapter 36: Verbs of being, becoming, remaining, seeming (kaan-a wa-√axawaat-u-haa)
Chapter 37: Negation and exception
Chapter 39: Conditional and optative expressions
Arabic noun types

Arabic nouns fall into a number of different categories depending on their
morphology and their relationship to Arabic lexical roots.1 The extensive range of
noun types yields a wealth of lexical possibilities that contribute to what Charles
Ferguson has called the sense of “vastness and richness of the Arabic lexicon.”2
Two morphological criteria traditionally define Arabic nouns: they can take the
definite article and/or they can take nunation.
Most Arabic nouns are derived from triliteral or quadriliteral lexical roots, and
all nouns derived from a particular root are found in an Arabic or Arabic“English
dictionary clustered under that root entry. Some nouns, however, have restricted
roots; certain ones have only two root consonants, others have up to five root con-
sonants. Yet other nouns have solid stems, unanalyzable into roots and patterns.
This chapter is intended to give an overview of these noun types, with examples.
It is by no means exhaustive and does not go into derivational detail within
categories.3 For inflectional characteristics of nouns, see the chapter on noun
Arabic nouns are usually derived from lexical roots through application of
particular morphological patterns. The use of patterns interlocking with root
phonemes allows the formation of actual words or stems. Noun patterns them-
selves carry certain kinds of meaning, such as “place where action is done,” “doer
of action,” “name of action,” or “instrument used to carry out action.” The most
frequent MSA noun patterns are as follows.4

In traditional Arabic grammar, the term ism ˜noun™ covers a wide range of form classes. As Abboud
et al. (1997, 67) state: “Nouns are divided into five subclasses: nouns, pronouns, demonstratives,
adjectives and noun-prepositions.” In this chapter, the topic is restricted to nouns per se. Note that
the traditional Arabic definition of a noun is: kalimat-un dall-at ¬alaa ma¬nan fii nafs-i-hi, wa-lays-a
l-zaman-u juz√-an min-haa; ˜a word indicating a meaning in itself and not containing any reference
to time™ (¬Abd al-Latif et al. 1997, 9).
Ferguson 1970, 377. On the same page he points to the “very complex but highly regular and
symmetrical structure of the derivational system.”
For further analysis of Classical Arabic noun types, consult Wright 1967, I:106 ff. and Fleisch 1961,
Fleisch 1961, I:267 has a useful chart of noun types: “Tableau du d©veloppement morphologique
en arabe.”

Arabic noun types 75

1 Verbal noun (al-maSdar Qó°üŸG)
Verbal nouns are systematically related to specific verb forms and can come from
triliteral or quadriliteral roots. The verbal noun or maSdar names the action
denoted by its corresponding verb, for example, wuSuul «’°Uh ˜arrival™ from the
Form I verb waSal-a nπn°Unh ˜to arrive,™ or √idaara InQGOpEG ˜administration; management™
from the Form IV verb √adaar-a nQGOnCG/ ôjóoj yu-diir-u ˜to manage, direct.™5 Each maSdar
is systematically related to a specific verb form and can be derived from triliteral
or quadriliteral roots. Verbal nouns are often abstract in meaning, but some of
them have specific, concrete reference e.g., binaa√ AɦpH ˜building™ (either the act of
building, or the structure itself). In terms of their syntactic usage, verbal nouns
may also express in Arabic what an infinitive expresses in English.6
This section provides an outline of the typical verbal noun derivation patterns
from verb forms I“X and for quadriliterals I“IV. There is further elaboration on
these forms in each section devoted to the particular form and its derivations. In
this section also there are examples of the typical functions of verbal nouns in

1.1 Triliteral root verbal nouns
These nouns name the action denoted by the forms of the verb. The Form I verbal
noun patterns are abundant and hard to predict; the derived form verbal nouns
are much more predictable in their patterns. These patterns and noun classes are
described in detail in the chapters on the various verb forms. Examples here serve
to illustrate the extent of this noun class and the types of meaning conveyed by
verbal nouns.

1.1.1 Form I
The morphological patterns for creation of verbal nouns from Form I are many
and not predictable.7 Wright lists forty-four possible verbal noun patterns for
Form I or as he terms it, “the ground form” of the ordinary triliteral verb (1967,
I:110“12); Ziadeh and Winder (1957, 71“72) list eighteen of the most commonly

The Arabic term maSdar/maSaadir also means ˜source,™ an indication that the term for this type of
noun refers to its essential nature as the name of an activity or state. The different schools of
medieval Arabic grammatical analysis, the Basrans and Kufans, debated whether the noun or the
verb is the most basic element of language, the Basrans arguing that the verbal noun is prior, and
the Kufans that the verb is prior.
Note that the citation form of the verb in Arabic is not an infinitive but a finite, inflected verb
form (third person masculine singular past tense). The maSdar is much closer in meaning to an
infinitive, but it is not used as a citation form in Arabic.
¬Abd al-Latif, ¬Umar, and Zahran state that “The verbal nouns of the base form are many and
varied and cannot be known except by resorting to language [reference] books” maSaadir-u
l-thulaathiyy-i kathiirat-un wa-mutanawwa¬at-un laa tu-¬raf-u √illaa bi-l-rujuu-¬-i √ilaa kutub-i l-lughat-i
(1997, 83).
76 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

used ones in MSA. ¬Abd al-Latif, ¬Umar, and Zahran give an extensive list (in
Arabic) with examples and some explanations (1997, 83“86). Following are exam-
ples of some of the most common Form I verbal noun patterns found in MSA:

swimming sibaaHa ( fi¬aala) ánMÉ‘p°S
invitation da¬wa ( fa¬la) In’rYnO
forgiveness ghufraan ( fu¬laan) ¿Gôr˜oZ
clarity wuDuuH ( fu¬uul) ¬’°Voh
bravery buTuula ( fu¬uula) ánd’£oH
honor sharaf ( fa¬al) ±nôn°T
glory majd ( fa¬l) ór©en
part juz√ ( fu¬l) ArµoL
blessing baraka ( fa¬ala) áncnônH
knowledge ma¬rifa (maf¬ila) ánapôr©ne
1.1.2 Form II
Patterns: taf¬iil π«©r˜nJ and (for defective roots, especially) taf¬ila án∏p©r˜nJ; occasionally
taf¬iila á∏«©r˜nJ.8 Less common variants include taf¬aal «É©r˜J or tif¬aal «É©r˜J.
n p
strengthening ta¬ziiz µjµr©nJ
equalization taswiya ánjp’r°ùnJ
implementation tanfiidh ò«˜r¦nJ
reminder; souvenir tadhkaar QÉcrònJ
ticket tadhkira InôpcrònJ
experiment tajriba ánHpôr©nJ
1.1.3 Form III
Patterns: mufaa¬ala án∏Yɘoe and fi¬aal «É©pa
attempt muHaawala ándnhÉ«oe
debate munaaqasha án°»nbɦoe
struggle jihaad OÉ¡pL
defense difaa¬ ´ÉapO
For an extensive list of Form II verbal noun variants in Classical Arabic see Wright 1967, I:115“16.
Arabic noun types 77

1.1.4 Form IV
Pattern: √if¬aal «É©rapEG; for hollow verb roots √ifaala ándÉapEG; for defectives, √if¬aa√ AÉ©rapEG

exportation QGór°UEG

preparation OGórYEG

administration InQGOEG

abolition AɨrdEG

1.1.5 Form V
Pattern: tafa¬¬ul πt©n˜nJ; for defectives tafa¬¬-in qm „n˜nJ

tension tawattur ôtJn’J
delay ta√axxur ôtNnCÉnJ
behavior taSarruf ±tôn°ünJ
challenge taHadd-in ó«J
mq n n
wish, desire tamann-in qmønªnJ

1.1.6 Form VI
Pattern: tafaa¬ ul πoYɘnJ; for defectives tafaa¬-in ´É˜nJ
disparity tafaawut ¤ohɘnJ
mutual exchange tabaadul «oOÉ‘nJ
rivalry tanaafus ¢ùoaɦnJ
meeting, encounter talaaq-in ¥“nJ
avoidance tafaad-in mOɘnJ

1.1.7 Form VII
Pattern: infi¬aal «É©p˜rfpG; hollow verb roots, infiyaal «É«p˜rfpG; for defectives, infi¬aa√
reflection in¬ikaas ¢Sɵp©rfpG
preoccupation inshighaal «É¨p°»rfpG
compliance inqiyaad OÉ«p¤rfpG
elapsing inqiDaa√ AÉ°†p¤rfpG
78 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

1.1.8 Form VIII
Pattern: ifti¬aal «É©pàaG; hollow verb root, iftiyaal «É«àpaG; defective, ifti¬aa√
rp rp AÉ©pàra pG
acquisition iktisaab ÜÉ°ùpàrcpG
election intixaab ÜÉ®pàrfpG
choosing ixtiyaar QÉ«pàrNpG
beginning ibtidaa√ AGópàrHpG
1.1.9 Form IX
Pattern: if¬ilaal «“p©rapG

greenness ixDiraar QGôp°†rNpG
reddening iHmiraar QGôpªrMpG
crookedness i¬wijaaj êÉLp’rYpG
1.1.10 Form X
Pattern: istif ¬aal «É©r˜à°SpG; hollow root, istifaala ándɘpà°SpG; defective, istif¬aa√
pr r AÉ©r˜pàr°SpG
readiness isti¬daad OGó©pàr°SpG
investment istithmaar Qɪrãpàr°SpG
benefit istifaada InOɘpàr°SpG
exception istithnaa√ Aɦrãpàr°SpG
1.1.11 Forms XI“XV
These Forms of the verb are rare in MSA. For information about their structure see
Chapter 33.

1.2 Quadriliteral root verbal nouns
Verbal nouns from quadriliteral verbs are primarily from Forms I, II, and IV of
those verbs, as follows:

1.2.1 Form I: fa¬lal-a án∏n∏r©na
The most common Form I quadriliteral verbal noun patterns are: fa¬lala án∏n∏r©na and
fi¬laal fu¬laal fa¬laal «“r©pa «“r©oa «“r©na:

explosion farqa¬a án©nbrôna
somersault shaqlaba án‘n∏r¤n°T


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