Russian Language Blog

Make Every Single Word Count Posted by on Dec 9, 2010 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners


My aunt is visiting from Russia «через пару недель» [in just a couple of weeks] and I’m seriously contemplating asking her to bring me a pair of «валенки», the traditional Russian felt boots. «Зима [It’s winter!] «Подмораживает» [It’s getting frosty].

One of the beautiful things about Russian language is that you can build a grammatically correct sentence with a single word or «односложное предложение». What’s more, such a sentence will be not just grammatically correct, but beautiful or at least full of meaning.

Let’s say you’re on your way to a New Year’s party at a friend’s house and you’re running late. Your friend buzzes you on «мобильник» [mobile phone] and asks «Идёшь?» [are you on your way?]. «Иду [I’m on my way!] you respond with a single-word sentence. If you feel talkative, you might even say «Иду, иду!».

«Опаздываешь?» [are you running late?] further inquiries «неугомонный» [restless] friend. «Опаздываю» [I’m running late] you admit honestly. «Поторопись» [hurry up] replies your «нетерпеливый» [impatient] friend.

Once you arrive at a friend’s «квартира» [apartment] for a party on a cold night he inquiries «Ну как погодка?» [So, how’s the weather?]. Your response can be a single-word «Морозит!» [It’s nippy], a response that explains to all present that «красные от мороза щёки» [cheeks flushed from the cold] are temporary and not due to overuse of «румяна» [make-up blush].

«Штрафную опоздавшим!» [a penalty shot for those arriving late to a party], demands «гостеприимный» [hospitable] friend and the guests «вторить» [chime in] «Штрафную!». Next thing you know, you are downing a shot of vodka before you get a chance to even sit down, let alone have a bite of «закуски» [appetizers] to eat.

Russian New Year’s parties can last through the night. After such marathon partying there isn’t much energy left for long speeches. Once again, single-word sentences come to the rescue of the weary. Someone might look out of a window and note «Светает.» [The day is breaking]. And after a pause, they might add «Пора [It’s time!], meaning that it’s time to go home.

So how exactly can one transform a single word into a single-word sentence? You’ve probably already guessed from the examples in my little story. There are two basic ways:

  • Say it with feeling – think of the word «пожар» [fire]. By itself, straight out of a dictionary page, it’s flat. Now imagine someone screaming «Пожар!» [Fire!] and you will understand the difference. Whether you exclaim («Иду) or inquire Идёшь?»), you make it a sentence simply with «интонация» [tone of voice].
  • Be lazy – think of a long sentence with all (or most) of the traditional parts – subject, verb, object – present. For example, you can tell your friend «Я иду к тебе на вечеринку» [I’m coming to your party] or «На улице морозит» [It’s cold outside]. Now drop everything after the verb so it becomes «Я иду and «На улице морозит.» respectively. Finally, drop everything before the verb to arrive at «Иду and «Морозит.». Of course, such sentences work only when you use them to address a particular person in a particular situation (i.e. to your friend in a phone conversation; to your friend who asks you specifically about the weather outside).

The same strategy can be used with nominal predicates such as «Пора.»: «Кажется уже пора идти домой.» [Looks like it’s time to go home] can be shortened to «Кажется пора and then again to «Пора

In writing, it’s important to remember to capitalize your single-word sentence and end it with one of the «знак препинания, используемый в конце предложения» [punctuation mark used to denote the end of a sentence].

You can write a whole story using mostly single-word sentences:

«Горячий чай. Кресло. Одеяло. Приятное тепло по телу…» [Hot tea. An arm chair. A blanket. Pleasant warmth spreading through my body…] (read more here)

Or even a dialogue:

«— Что за дьявол! Смотри! смотри, Панас!..

— Что? — произнес кум и поднял свою голову также вверх.

— Как что? месяца нет!

— Что за пропасть! В самом деле нет месяца.»

[- What the devil! Look! Look, Panas!..

– What? – said the godfather and also lifted his head up.

– What do you mean what? The moon isn’t there!

– Doggone my buttons! Indeed the moon isn’t there.]

(Can you name the literary work that features this dialogue? Although technically the author was not Russian and the story doesn’t take place in Russia, it’s been long held as a classic example of Russian literature. Either way, it is a great story to read on Christmas Eve – that, by the way, is a HUGE hint.)

«Прочитали? Интересно?» [Did you finish reading? Was it interesting?] «Комментируйте. Обсуждайте. Дополняйте.» [Leave comments. Discuss. Add your thoughts.]

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  1. Saint Facetious:

    I haven’t a clue on the author, but I’m going guess you’re going with your co-writer’s theme, and from the description of “not technically Russian”… I’ll say it’s Gogol.

    • yelena:

      @Saint Facetious Saint, I’m surprised that you aren’t sure. But you’ve guessed right – it is Gogol. Specifically, “Ночь перед Рождеством”. And I can’t recommend this short story highly enough! Бегом в библиотеку! 🙂

  2. Annick:

    Jajaaaaa Christmas Eve… Thanks to PANAS 🙂
    (Didn’t read it though… not yet)

  3. Sarah:

    Ja mogu tol’ko upast’ na kolenii v blagodarnosti za “udaren’nije” ..(podcherkivanie etoi chasti slova..)


    Komu shto nyzhno, da? 😉

  4. Maria:

    Н.В. Гоголь “Ночь перед Рождеством” 🙂

    • yelena:

      @Maria Kudos! Yes, it’s “Ночь перед Рождеством”.

  5. Minority:

    And there’re a lot of people who’s trying to joke about it. For example, check this:
    But do not use everything from this video, ’cause it has a lot of grammar mistakes =))

    • yelena:

      @Minority Oh, I love the KVN show (it’s a competition of improve comedy teams). This video is very funny and I like the challenge of telling the story using only nouns.