Some language learners believe that Russian is a very hard language to learn, especially due to its grammar. However, if you study hard and practice regularly you will have no trouble mastering it. This article represents an overview of the key notions of Russian grammar to give you an idea of what you should focus on when learning.
Russian nouns have a few distinct features that you need to pay attention to. The three main grammatical categories of Russian nouns are gender, number, and case:
Russian nouns can have one of the three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. When a noun denotes a person, the gender of the noun usually corresponds to their gender: женщина (woman) is feminine and мужчина (man) is masculine.
Otherwise, this is a purely grammatical category. It has no connection with any physical characteristics of the inanimate object: окно (window) is neuter, стол (table) is masculine, чашка (cup) is feminine.
The gender of some nouns can be signaled by their ending. For example, nouns ending with –o are mostly neuter, nouns ending with –a are generally feminine and nouns ending in a consonant are usually masculine. However, the gender of some nouns has to be memorized; more so, because other parts of speech that modify nouns, such as adjectives, inflect according to the noun’s gender.
Russian nouns can be singular or plural. The plural can be formed in several ways, for instance: кошка – кошки (cats), стол – столы (tables), окно – окна (windows). The ending depends on the gender and declension (see below) of the noun.
There are six cases in the Russian language: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional.
A noun in the nominative case is the subject of the sentence, the person or object that performs the action:
Кот ест. – The cat eats.
The genitive case is used to denote possession, in negative expressions to denote complete absence and in some time expressions.
У меня нет кота. – I don’t have a cat.
The dative case is used to denote an indirect object, in some expressions and after some verbs like верить (believe) or помогать (help).
Я дал корм коту. – I gave food to the cat.
The accusative case is used to denote a direct object, in some time expressions and after certain prepositions, like про (about) or через (over).
Он рассказал нам про кота. – He told us about the cat.
The instrumental case denotes an instrument used in the action or means by which action is carried out, after the verb пользоваться (use) or интересоваться (be interested in), prepositions like за (behind), перед (in front of), над (above) and others and in some expressions.
Он интересовался котом. – He was interested in the cat.
The prepositional case is used after prepositions of place like на (on top of) or в (inside) and some other prepositions like о (about) or при (by/of/with).
Он уснул на коте. – He fell asleep on the cat.
Russian nouns are grouped into three declensions depending on the patterns they follow when they change their case and number, while absolutely obeying the grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter).
- The first declension is used for feminine nouns ending with -а/-я and some masculine nouns having the same form as those of feminine gender, such as папа (dad) or дядя (uncle); also, common-gender nouns like задира (tease) are masculine or feminine depending on the person to which they refer.
- The second declension is used for most masculine and neuter nouns.
- The third declension is used for feminine nouns ending in ь.
Russian adjectives usually come before the nouns they modify and they agree with the nouns in case, gender, and number, except for a few adjectives borrowed from other languages.
Here is an example of how adjectives inflect according to the noun’s gender:
Красивая картина – a beautiful picture (feminine)
Красивый стол – a beautiful table (masculine)
Красивое пальто – a beautiful coat (neuter)
A lot of adverbs in Russian are formed by replacing the ending of the adjective with –o.
Тихий (quiet) – тихо (quietly)
Быстрый (quick) – быстро (quickly)
However, many other forms are present as well: вниз (down), иногда (sometimes), уже (already).
The Russian language has the same types of pronouns as English: personal (я, ты), possessive (твой, мой), demonstrative (этот), reflexive (себя), relative (который), and interrogative (кто, что).
Pronouns in Russian have the category of case as well as the nouns, with the same six cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional.
There are two types of verb conjugation in the Russian language, the 1st and the 2nd. There are the patterns that the verbs follow when they change in person, number and tense.
Tense and aspect
There are three tenses (present, past, future) and two aspects (imperfective, perfective) in Russian. The possible forms are as follows:
- Present Tense, Imperfective Aspect: Он читает книгу. – He reads a book.
- Past Tense, Imperfective Aspect: Вчера он читал книгу. – Yesterday, he was reading a book.
- Past Tense, Perfective Aspect: Вчера он прочитал книгу. – Yesterday, he read the book (complete action).
- Future Tense, Imperfective Aspect: Завтра он будет читать книгу. – Tomorrow he will be reading a book.
- Future Tense, Perfective Aspect: Завтра он прочитает книгу. – Tomorrow he will have read the book (complete action).
The basic word order in Russian is subject–verb–object. However, as the relationship between words is marked by inflections, certain flexibility is allowed and many variants of the same sentence are possible, stressing different parts of the sentence.
Я читаю книгу. Я книгу читаю. Книгу я читаю. Читаю я книгу… – All these basically translate to “I read a book” but are pronounced with a slightly different stress and shade of meaning.
Russian allows sentences that have no subject, the so-called impersonal sentences. For example:
Смеркается. – It’s getting dark.
Мне скучно. – I feel bored.
Double negatives are possible in Russian.
Я никого не знаю. – I don’t know anyone. (Both никого and не знаю are negative).
Prepositions in each language can be very peculiar and hard to master for foreigners. Russian prepositions are used a little less frequently compared to English, as the relationship between words is often shown by inflections. However, they still need to be memorized as some prepositional phrases can be quite unexpected.
This is a very brief overview of Russian grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail, as there are lots of peculiarities and exceptions. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Russian grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.