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Describing States of the Body in Russian Posted by on Jan 22, 2019 in grammar, vocabulary

You might have noticed that, to talk about physical sensations or afflictions in Russian, you often use an impersonal construction, where the person not feeling well is technically not the subject of the sentence. Here are some of the most common patterns for these sayings.

medical provider taking blood pressure

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Dative noun + predicative expression

First, what’s a predicative expression? In Russian, they are often called specifically слова́ состоя́ния (“words of condition”) and describe how something or someone is or what the situation is like (e. g. мне ве́село — “I’m happy, I’m having a great time). They often look the same as the short form of an adjective, ending in -о.

  • Вам хо́лодно? (Are you cold?)
  • Нам стра́шно (We’re scared).
  • Мне жа́рко (I’m hot).
  • Ма́ме ста́ло пло́хо (My mother started feeling ill).

Accusative noun + 3rd person neuter verb

This construction is often used for unpleasant sensations and states of the body. The logic behind it is that the person is not doing to themselves. They include such things as:

  • Тебя́ зноби́т (You have chills).
  • Его́ трясёт (He’s shaking).
  • Меня́ рвёт (I’m throwing up).
  • Ребёнка тошни́т (The child is sick to their stomach).

If you need to use the past tense, use a neuter verb, e. g. меня́ вы́рвало.

plush toys in bed with a thermometer

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У + Genitive + Nominative

Many phrases use the “have” pattern: у меня, у тебя… (I have, you have…).

  • У меня́ температу́ра (I’ve got a high fever).
  • У него́ поно́с (He has diarrh[o]ea).
  • У больно́го озно́б (The patient’s got chills).

“Classic” Subject + Verb

Does all of this mean that Russian never uses a personal construction (one where the person is the actual subject of the sentence) to describe physical states? Not at all. Here are some phrases that use a more conventional syntax.

  • Я боле́ю (I’m ill).
  • Ко́шка ика́ет (The cat has hiccups).
  • Она мно́го поте́ет (She sweats a lot).

Which of these phrases have you heard or used? Which ones do you find surprising?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.