Arabic grammar

Arabic grammar

Arabic is a Semitic language. See Arabic language for more information on the language in general. This article describes the grammar of Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic.


The identity of the oldest Arabic grammarian is disputed with some sources saying Ibn Abi Ishaq and medieval sources saying Abu-Aswad al-Du'ali, the oldest known Arabic grammarian, established diacritical marks and vowels for Arabic in the mid-600s. The schools of Basra, Kufa, Sibawaih further developed grammatical rules in the late 700s.Goodchild, Philip. "Difference in Philosophy of Religion", 2003. Page 153.] Sayce, Archibald Henry. "Introduction to the Science of Language", 1880. Page 28.]

Due to the rapid expansion of Islam in the 8th century, many people learned Arabic as a lingua franca. For this reason, the earliest grammatical treatises on Arabic are often written by non-native speakers.The earliest grammarian who is known to us is "ArabDIN|ʻAbd Allāh ibn Abī Isḥāq" (died AD 735/6, AH 117).The efforts of three generations of grammarians culminated in the book of the Persian scholar "ArabDIN|Sibāwayhi" (ca. 760–793).

Traditionally, the grammatical sciences are divided into five branches:

*"ArabDIN|al-luġah" _ar. اللغة (lexicon) concerned with collecting and explaining vocabulary
*"ArabDIN|at-taṣrīf" _ar. التصريف (morphology) determining the form of the individual words
*"ArabDIN|an-naḥw" _ar. النحو (syntax) primarily concerned with inflection ("ArabDIN|iʻrāb") which had already been lost in dialects.
*"ArabDIN|al-ištiqāq" _ar. الإشتقاق (derivation) examining the origin of the words
*"ArabDIN|al-balāġah" _ar. البلاغة (rhetoric) which elucidates construct quality

The grammar or grammars of contemporary varieties of Arabic are a different question. Said M. Badawi, an expert on Arabic grammar, divided Arabic grammar into five different types based on the speaker's level of literacy and the degree to which the speaker deviated from Classical Arabic. Badawi's five types of grammar from the most colloquial to the most formal are Illiterate Spoken Arabic ('āmmiyat al-'ummiyyin), Semi-literate Spoken Arabic ('āmmiyat al-mutanawwirin), Educated Spoken Arabic ('āmmiyat al-'muthaqqafin), Modern Standard Arabic (fushā al-asr), and Classical Arabic (fushā al-turāth). [Alaa Elgibali and El-Said M. Badawi. "Understanding Arabic: Essays in Contemporary Arabic Linguistics in Honor of El-Said M. Badawi", 1996. Page 105.] This article is concerned with the grammar of Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic exclusively.


Classical Arabic has 28 consonantal phonemes, including two semi-vowels, which comprise the arabic alphabet. It also has six vowel phonemes (three short vowels and three long vowels). These appear as various allophones, depending on the preceding consonant. Short vowels are not usually represented in written language, although they may be indicated with diacritics.

"Hamzatu 'l-waṣl", elidable "hamza", is a phonetic object prefixed to the beginning of a word for ease of pronunciation, since literary Arabic doesn't allow consonant clusters at the beginning of a word. Elidable "hamza" drops out as a vocal, if a word is preceding it. This word will then produce an ending vocal, "helping vocal" to facilitate pronunciation. This short vocal may be , depending on the preceding vowel, a "kasrah" /i/, "fatḥah" /a/ or a "ḍammah" /u/. If the preceding word ends in a "sukūn" (i.e. not followed by a short vowel), the "Hamzatu 'l-waṣl" assumes a "kasrah" /i/.



Nouns (and their modifying adjectives) are either definite or indefinite (there is an article for the definite state only). A noun is definite if it has the definite article prefix (al-), if it has a suffixed pronoun (kalbu-ha l-kabīr "her big dog"), if it is inherently definite by being a proper noun (Unicode|Miṣru l-qadīmah, "old Cairo"), or if it is in a genitive construction Unicode|(Iḍāfa, status constructus) with a definite noun or nouns (bintu l-maliki, "the daughter of the king").


The article ("ArabDIN|adātu-t-taʻrīf") "ArabDIN|al-" is indeclinable and expresses definite state of a noun of any gender and number. It is also prefixed to each of that noun's modifying adjectives. The initial vowel ("ArabDIN|hamzatu-l-waṣl"), is volatile in the sense that it disappears in sandhi, the article becoming mere "ArabDIN|-l-" (although the ArabDIN|alif is retained in orthography in any case as it is based on pausal pronunciation).

Also, the "ArabDIN|l" is assimilated to a number of consonants (dentals and sibilants), so that in these cases, the article in pronunciation is expressed only by geminating the initial consonant of the noun (while in orthography, the writing "ArabDIN|alif lam" is retained, and the gemination may be expressed by putting "ArabDIN|šadda" on the following letter).

The consonants causing assimilation (trivially including ل ("ArabDIN|l")) are: ت ("ArabDIN|t), ث (ArabDIN|ṯ), د (ArabDIN|d), ذ (ArabDIN|ḏ), ر (ArabDIN|r), ز (ArabDIN|z), س (ArabDIN|s), ش (ArabDIN|š), ص (ArabDIN|ṣ), ض (ArabDIN|ḍ), ط (ArabDIN|ṭ), ظ (ArabDIN|ẓ), ل (ArabDIN|l), ن (ArabDIN|n"). These 14 letters are called 'solar letters' ("ArabDIN|ḥuruf šamsiyyāt"), while the remaining 14 are called 'lunar letters' ("ArabDIN|ḥuruf qamariyyāt"). The solar letters all have in common that they are dental, alveolar and postalveolar consonants in the classical language, and the lunar consonants are not. (ج "ArabDIN|ǧīm" is pronounced postalveolar in most varieties of Arabic today, but was actually a palatalized voiced velar plosive in the classical language, and is thus considered a lunar letter; nevertheless, in colloquial Arabic, the ج "ArabDIN|ǧīm" is often spoken as if solar.)


Arabic has three grammatical cases roughly corresponding to: nominative, genitive and accusative, and three numbers: singular, dual and plural. Normally, singular nouns take the ending "ArabDIN|-u(n)" in the nominative, "ArabDIN|-i(n)" in the genitive and "ArabDIN|-a(n)" in the accusative. Some exceptional nouns, known as diptotes, never take the final "n", and have the suffix "ArabDIN|-a" in the genitive except when the diptotic noun is in the definite state (preceded by "al-" or is in the construct state). However, case is not shown in standard orthography, with the exception of indefinite accusative nouns ending in any letter but "ArabDIN|ta marbuta" or ArabDIN|hamza, where the "ArabDIN|-a(n)" "sits" upon an ArabDIN|alif added to the end of the word (the ArabDIN|alif still shows up in unvowelled texts). When speaking or reading aloud, articulating the case ending is optional. Technically, every noun has such an ending, although at the end of a sentence, no inflection is pronounced, even in formal speech, because of the rules of 'pause'.


Arabic distinguishes between nouns based on quantity. All nouns are either singular when there is one, dual when there are two, and plural if there are three or more.

The dual is formed by adding "-āni" to the noun stem in the nominative and "-ayni" in the accusative and genitive. [Haywood and Nahmad (1965) 'A new Arabic Grammar' 2nd edition, p.40] The final "-ni" is dropped in the iḍāfa construct form (Status constructus).

The plurals are formed in two ways. The "sound plurals" are formed by the addition of a suffix. Masculine sound plurals take the forms "ArabDIN|-ūna" in the nominative and "ArabDIN|-īna" in the genitive and accusative. These do not change whether the noun is definite or indefinite. Feminine "indefinite" sound plurals take "ArabDIN|-ātun" in the nominative and "ArabDIN|-ātin" in the accusative and genitive. Feminine "definite" sound plurals take "ArabDIN|-ātu" in the nominative and "ArabDIN|-āti" in the accusative and genitive. The broken plurals are formed by altering the vowel structure according to one of about five established patterns. Some nouns have two or more plural forms, usually to distinguish between different meanings.


Arabic has two genders, expressed by pronominal, verbal and adjectival agreement. Agreement with numerals shows a peculiar 'polarity', c.f. the section on numerals. The genders are usually "referred" to as masculine and feminine, but the situation is more complicated than that. The 'feminine' singular forms are also used to express 'singulatives', which are "singulars" of collective nouns meaning irrationals of both grammatical genders.

The marker for the feminine gender is a "ArabDIN|-t-" suffix, but some nouns without this marker also take feminine agreement (e.g. "ArabDIN|ʼumm" 'mother', "ArabDIN|ʼarḍ" 'earth'). Already in Classical Arabic, the "ArabDIN|-t" marker was not pronounced in pausa. It is written with a special letter ("ArabDIN|ta marbuta") indicating that a "ArabDIN|t" sound is to be pronounced in sandhi, but not in pausa.

Adjectives and appositions

In Arabic, adjectives and appositions follow the noun and agree with the preceding noun in state, gender and case. For example:
**"'al-baytu 'l-kabīru" (البيت الكبير) "the big house"
**"raʼaytu ṣūratan ğamīlatan" (رأيت صورة جميلة) "I saw a nice picture"
**"'ar-rasūlu muḥammadun" (الرسول محمد) "the prophet Muhammad"


The "Nisba" ("ArabDIN|an-nisbatu") is a common suffix to form adjectives of relation or pertinence. The suffix is "ArabDIN|-iyy-" for masculine and "ArabDIN|-iyyat-" for feminine gender (in other words, it is "ArabDIN|-iyy-" and is inserted before the gender marker). E. g. "ArabDIN|lubnānu" "Lebanon", "ArabDIN|lubnāniyy" "Lebanese (singular masculine)", "ArabDIN|lubnāniyya" "Lebanese (singular feminine)", "ArabDIN|lubnāniyyūn" "Lebanese (plural masculine)" "ArabDIN|lubnāniyyāt" "Lebanese (plural feminine)".

A construct noun and "nisba"-adjective is often equivalent to nominal composition in English and other languages ("solar cell" is equivalent to "sun cell").


Adverbials are expressed using adjectives in the indefinite accusative, e.g.: "ArabDIN|qara’a al-kitāba qirā’atan baṭīʼatan", literally: "he read the book a slow reading", i.e., "He read the book slowly". This type of construction is known as the "absolute accusative."


A pronominal paradigm consists of 12 forms: In singular and plural, the 2nd and 3rd persons differentiate gender, while the 1st person does not. In the dual, there is no 1st person, and only a single form for each 2nd and 3rd person. Traditionally, the pronouns are listed in order 3rd, 2nd, 1st.

Personal pronouns


In the perfective (occasionally called 'perfect') form, the perfective stem "ArabDIN|faʻal" is affixed with a personal ending, e. g. "ArabDIN|kataba" 'he wrote', "ArabDIN|qaraʼa" 'he read'. The perfective expresses a completed action, i.e. mostly past tense. The second vowel is /a/ in most verbs, but /i/ in some verbs (especially intransitive) and /u/ in a few (especially verbs whose meaning is "be X" or "become X" where X is an adjective, usually naming a permanent or semi-permanent quality, e.g. "ArabDIN|kabura" 'he became big, he grew up').

The exact vocalization depends on the word form.

Common uses of those stems include:
*ArabDIN|faʻʻala is often used to make an intransitive verb transitive. Eg: "ArabDIN|karuma" is "be noble" but "ArabDIN|karrama" is "make (someone) to be noble", or, more idiomatically, to "honor".
*"ArabDIN|infaʻala" gives a passive meaning. Eg: "ArabDIN|kasara" "break" and "ArabDIN|inkasara" "be broken".
*"ArabDIN|ifʻalla" is used only to render stative verbs meaning "to be or become X" where X is a color or physical defect, eg: "ArabDIN|iḥmarra" "turn red, blush" or "ArabDIN|iṭrašša" "go deaf".

A more complete list of meanings is found at .


Every verb has a corresponding active participle, and most have passive participles. E.g. "ArabDIN|muʻallim" 'teacher' is the active participle to stem II. of the root "ArabDIN|ʻ-l-m" ('know').
*The active participle to Stem I is "ArabDIN|fāʻilun", and the passive participle is "ArabDIN|mafʻūlun".
*Stems II-X take prefix "ArabDIN|mu-" and nominal endings for both the participles, active and passive. The difference between the two participles is only in the vowel between the last two root letters, which is "ArabDIN|-i-" for active and "ArabDIN|-a-" for passive (e.g. II. active "ArabDIN|mu-faʻʻil-un", and passive "ArabDIN|mu-faʻʻal-un').

Verbal noun (Masdar)

In addition to a participle, there is a verbal noun (in Arabic, " _ar. maṣdar", literally meaning "source") sometimes called a gerund, which is similar to English gerunds and verb-derived nouns of various sorts (e.g. 'running' and 'a run' from 'to run'; 'objection' from 'to object'). As shown by the English examples, its meaning refers both to the act of doing something and (by frequent semantic extension) to its result. One of its syntactic functions is as a verbal complement of another verb, and this usage it corresponds to the English gerund or infinitive ("He prevented me from running" or "He began to run").
*verbal noun formation to stem I is irregular.
*the verbal noun to stem II is "ArabDIN|tafʻīlun". For example: "ArabDIN|taʼrīḫun" 'date, history' is the verbal noun to stem II. of ArabDIN|ʼ-r-ḫ ('date').
*stem III often forms its verbal noun with the feminine form of the passive participle, so for "ArabDIN|sāʻada", "he helped", produces the verbal noun "ArabDIN|musāʻadatun". There are also some verbal noun of the form "ArabDIN|fiʻālun": "ArabDIN|jāhada", "he strove", yields "ArabDIN|jihādun" (a struggle for a cause or purpose).
*the following are the verbal noun of the remaining common derived stems: IV, "ArabDIN|afʻala", "ArabDIN|ifʻālun"; V, "ArabDIN|tafaʻʻala", "ArabDIN|tafaʻʻulun"; VI, "ArabDIN|tafāʻala", "ArabDIN|tafāʻulun"; VII, "ArabDIN|infaʻala", "ArabDIN|infiʻālun"; VIII, "ArabDIN|iftaʻala", "ArabDIN|iftiʻālun"; IX, "ArabDIN|ifʻalla", "ArabDIN|ifʻilālun"; X, "ArabDIN|istafʻala", "ArabDIN|istifʻālun".


Genitive construction Unicode|(Iḍāfa)

A noun may be defined more closely by a subsequent noun in the genitive (Iḍāfa, literally "an addition"). The relation is hierarchical; the first term ("ArabDIN|al-muḍāf") governs the second term ("ArabDIN|al-muḍāf ilayhi"). E. g. "ArabDIN|baytu raǧulin" 'the house of a man', 'a man's house'. The construction as a whole represents a nominal phrase, the state of which is inherited from the state of the second term. The first term must "be in construct state", namely, it cannot carry the definite article nor the tanween. Genitive constructions of multiple terms are possible. In this case, all but the final term take construct state, and all but the first member take the genitive case.

This construction is typical for a Semitic language. In many cases the two members become a fixed coined phrase, the ArabDIN|iḍāfa being used as the equivalent of nominal composition in some Indo-European languages (which does not exist in Semitic). "ArabDIN|baytu-ṭ-ṭalabati" thus may mean either 'house of the (certain, known) students' or 'the student hostel'.

Word order

Classical Arabic tends to prefer the word order VSO (verb before subject) rather than SVO (subject before verb). However, the word order is fairly flexible, since words are tagged by case endings. Subject pronouns are normally omitted except for emphasis or when using a participle as a verb (participles are not marked for person). Auxiliary verbs precede main verbs, and prepositions precede their objects.

Adjectives follow the noun they are modifying, and agree with the noun in case, gender, number, and state: For example, "bintun jamīlatun" "a beautiful girl" but "al-bintu l-jamīlatu" "the beautiful girl". (Compare "al-bintu jamīlatun" "the girl is beautiful".) Elative adjectives, however, precede their modifying noun, do not agree with it, and require that the noun be in the genitive case (see below).


Case is not shown in standard orthography, with the exception of indefinite accusative nouns ending in any letter but ta marbuta or hamza, where the -a(n) "sits" upon an alif added to the end of the word (the alif still shows up in unvowelled texts). Cases, however, are marked in the Koran, children's books and to remove ambigous situations. If marked, it is shown at the end of the noun.

Nominative case

* Subjects of a verbal sentence.
* Subjects and predicates of an equational (non-verbal) sentence, with some notable exceptions.
* Certain adverbs retain the nominative marker.
* The citation form of words is (if noted at all) in the nominative case.

For singular nouns and broken plurals, it is marked as a "ḍammah" (-u) for the definite or "ḍammah" + nunation (-un) for the indefinite. The dual and regular masculine plural are formed by adding -āni and -ūna respectively (-ā and -ū in the construct state). The regular feminine plural is formed by adding -ātu in the definite and -ātun in the indefinite.

Accusative case

* The subject of an equational (non-verbal) sentence, if it is initiated with "'inna", or one of her sisters.
* The predicate of "kāna/yakūnu" "be" and it's sisters. Hence, "al-bintu jamīlatun" "the girl is beautiful" but "al-bintu kānat jamīlatan" "the girl was beautiful".
* Both the subject and the predicate of "ẓanna" and it's sisters in an equational clause.
* The object of a transitive verb
* Most adverbs.
* Internal object/cognate accusative structure
* The accusative of specification/purpose/circumstantial.

For singular nouns and broken plurals, it is marked as a "fatḥah" (-a) for the definite or "fatḥah" + nunation (-an) for the indefinite. For the indefinite accusative, the "fatḥah" + nunation is added to an alif which is added to the ending of all nouns not ending with a hamza or ta marbuta. The dual and regular masculine plural are formed by adding -ayni and -īna respectively (-ay and -ī in the construct state). The regular feminine plural is formed by adding -āti in the definite and -ātin in the indefinite.

Genitive case

* Objects of prepositions.
* All, but not necessarily the first member (the first nomen regens), of an "idafa" (genitive construction) .
* The object of a locative adverb.
* Objects of "kam" "how much/many" and "'ayy" "any".
* Elative (comparative/superlative) adjectives behave similarly: "ʼaṭwalu waladin" "the tallest boy".

For singular nouns and broken plurals, it is marked as a "kasrah" (-i) for the definite or "kasrah" + nunation (-in) for the indefinite. The dual and regular masculine plural are formed by adding -ayni and -īna respectively (-ay and -ī in the construct state). The regular feminine plural is formed by adding -āti in the definite and -ātin in the indefinite.

:"Note: diptotic nouns receive a fatḥah (-a) in the genitive and are never nunated.":"Note: there is no dative case; instead, the preposition "li-" is used."


The subject of a sentence can be topicalized and emphasized by moving it to the beginning of the sentence and preceding it with the word "inna" ~"indeed". Examples are "innaka anta jamīlun" "YOU are beautiful" or "inna s-samā’a zarqā’u" "THE SKY is blue". (In older texts, "inna" was translated "verily".)

"inna", along with its "sister" terms "anna" ("that", as in "I think that ..."), "inna" ("that" after "qāla/yaqūlu" "say"), "walakinna" "but" and "ka’anna" "as if" require that they be immediately followed by a noun in the accusative case, or an attached pronominal suffix.


Numbers behave in a quite complicated fashion. "wāḥid-" "one" and "ʼiṯnān-" "two" are adjectives, following the noun and agreeing with it. "ṯalāṯat-" "three" through "ʻašarat-" "ten" require a following noun in the genitive plural, but agree with the noun in gender, while taking the case required by the surrounding syntax. "ʼaḥada ʻašara" "eleven" through "tisʻata ʻašara" "nineteen" require a following noun in the accusative singular, agree with the noun in gender, and are invariable for case, except for "ʼiṯnā ʻašara/ʼiṯnay ʻašara" "twelve". Numbers above this behave entirely as nouns, showing case agreement as required by the surrounding syntax, no gender agreement, and a following noun in a fixed case. "ʻišrūna" "twenty" through "tisʻūna" "ninety" require the accusative singular; "miʼat-" "hundred" and up require the genitive singular. The numbers themselves decline in various fashions; for example, "ʻišrūna" "twenty" through "tisʻūna" "ninety" decline as masculine plural nouns, while "miʼat-" "hundred" declines as a feminine singular noun and "ʼalf-" "thousand" as a masculine singular noun. "miʼat-" "hundred" and "ʼalf-" "thousand" can themselves be modified by numbers (to form numbers such as 200 or 5,000) and will be declined appropriately. ("miʼatāni" and "200" "ʼalfāni" "2,000" with dual endings; "ṯalāṯatu ʼālāfin" "3,000" with "ʼalf" in the plural genitive, but "ṯalāṯu miʼatin" "300" since "miʼat-" appears to have no plural.) In compound numbers, the last number dictates the declension of the associated noun. Large compound numbers can be extremely complicated, e.g.:

*"'alfun wa-tis`u mi'atin wa-tis`u sineen(a)" "1,909 years"
*"ba`da 'alfin wa-tis`i mi'atin wa-tis`i sineen(a)" "after 1,909 years"
*"'arba`atun wa-tis`ūna 'alfan wa-ṯamānu-mi'atin wa-ṯalāṯatun wa-sittūna sanat(an)" "94,863 years"
*"ba`da 'arba`atin wa-tis`īna 'alfan wa-ṯamānī-mi'atin wa-ṯalāṯatin wa-sittīna sanat(an)" "after 94,863 years"
*"'iṯnā `ašara 'alfan wa-mi'atāni wa-ṯnāni wa-`išrūna sanat(an)" "12,222 years"
*"ba`da 'iṯnay `ašara 'alfan wa-mi'atayni wa-ṯnayni wa-`išrīna sanat(an)" "after 12,222 years"
*"'iṯnā `ašara 'alfan wa-mi'atāni wa-sanatān(i)" "12,202 years"
*"ba`da 'iṯnay `ašara 'alfan wa-mi'atayni wa-sanatayn(i)" "after 12,202 years"


Object pronouns are clitics and are attached to the verb, e.g. "arā-hā" "I see her". Possessive pronouns are likewise attached to the noun they modify, e.g. "kitābu-hu" "his book". The definite article "al-" is a clitic, as are the prepositions "li-" "to" and "bi-" "in/with" and the conjunctions "ka-" "as" and "fa-" "thus, so".


ee also

*Arabic language
*Literary Arabic
*Varieties of Arabic
*Arabic alphabet
*Romanization of Arabic

External links

* [ "Xerox Arabic Morphological Analysis and Generation"] (uses Java)
* [ Arabic verb conjugator]
* [ Classical Arabic Blog]
* [ Arabic Grammar Online]

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