Russian Language Blog

Time to Learn Russian Declensions Posted by on Dec 19, 2011 in language, Russian for beginners

Do you remember the Gender of Russian Nouns post that appeared a few weeks ago? It generated the record number of comments and all of them contributed to the subject. So if, after reading the post itself, you have more questions than answers, then do check out the comments.

Here’s the thing though… I originally set out to write a post on declensions, following a request from one of the readers, Aurea. I decided to start off with an overview of gender, but to do cover it вкратце (briefly). Yeah, right…

Still, now that we have had time to refresh our grammar on the subject of род имён существительных (gender of nouns), it’s finally time to move on to склонения (declensions).

Knowing declensions is helpful when you are trying to memorize all the ways a noun’s ending changes as you take it through падежи (cases). Let’s start with some good news:

  1. Russian language has only три склонения (three declensions) – первое (first), второе (second) and третье (third)
  2. You really only need to concentrate on singular endings because plural endings are quite similar

And now let’s look close at the three склонения. Keep in mind that in Russian grammar Roman numerals I, II and III are used to show declensions:

Declension group I

Almost all masculine nouns fall under the first declension. The exceptions are masculine nouns that end in а and я, such as папа (dad), дядя (uncle), дедушка (grandfather), etc. These nouns decline as declension II.

Another important exception is the masculine word путь (path) which declines as nouns in group III.

Neuter nouns are also, almost all, belong to this declension. The exceptions here are the ten -мя nouns and the word дитя (a child). They all decline as nouns in group III.

Declension group II

Nouns from all three genders – masculine, feminine, and neuter – can be in this group as long as they end in а or я (the ten мя nouns and дитя are exceptions, don’t forget). Now, if you read through the comments on the genders post, you’ll see some questions about how to decline diminutives of men’s names, such as Саша (for Александр), Женя (for Евгений), Костя (for Константин), etc. These all decline as group II.

Some other masculine nouns that belong to this group are the ones ending in а or я that diminish or magnify the original group I masculine nouns they are formed from, such as

мальчонка is a diminutive of the group I masculine noun мальчик (boy)

братишка is a diminutive of the group I masculine noun брат (brother)

домина (large house) is based on the group I masculine noun дом (house)

парнишка is a diminutive of the group I masculine noun парень (young lad)

Declension group III

Feminine nouns that end in the combination of a consonant+ ь belong to this group along with the masculine путь, the ten мя nouns and the neuter дитя.

And that’s almost all there is to the fundamentals of Russian declensions. I say “almost” because of the compound words that start with пол- (half), as in полчаса (half an hour), полгода (half a year), полжизни (half a life), полпути (midway), полбутылки (half a bottle), etc.

To figure out into which group these nouns will fall (or to determine their gender), you need to look at the gender and declension of the main part, or in the case of the above:

Полчаса – masculine, group I – same as for час (an hour)


Полгода – masculine, group I – same as for год (a year)

Полжизни – feminine, group III – same as for жизнь (a life)

Полпути – masculine, group III – same as for путь (a path, a way)

Полбутылки – feminine, group II – same as for бутылка (a bottle)

However, if the compound word is used to tell time and the main part of it is formed from an ordinal adjective, as in полпервого (twelve thirty), полпятого (half past four), etc, then you are in luck since case endings don’t change, although you will hear Russians change them for Dative case in informal conversations:

Мы приедем в полвторого or Мы приедем к полвторому (we will arrive at half past one)

Она уходит с работы в полпятого or Она уходит с работы к полпятому (she leaves work at half past four)

Once you figure out which word falls into which declension group, you’ll just have to memorize declension tables. I say “just”, but I do realize this can be a frustrating and confusing task for non-native speakers.

So I have a question to those of our readers who mastered the declensions – please, share your learning experience, any tips or tricks you might have – with those of us who are just approaching this intimidating grammar topic!

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  1. Delia:

    At first, I was confused… but then I realized it’s just a different numbering. Traditionally, the first type of declension is what is described here as the second type declension: Feminine and Masculine nouns with the -A /-Я endings. But it’s just a number, everything is described well.

  2. Aurea Freniere:

    thank you so much for taking the time to write this post! I’m also looking for tips to memorize the tables. That’s been a thorn on my side ever since I started to study russian. I don’t have problems with all the declensions (prepositional, genitive, quite easy), but with the way adjetives decline (declense?). I assume for native speakers things flow easily, it’s like learning to cojugate verbs in spanish. You learn how to do it as you grow up and also at school, to learn the correct tenses and stuff. And I was wondering if there were some tricks even for native users (or is this just wishful thinking? :P)

    And thanks again!

    • yelena:

      @Aurea Freniere Aurea, unfortunately I’m not much help with useful tips for remembering declensions since I am a native speaker and they don’t seem so difficult to me. But from my experience as an adult learning English as a second language, what worked for me was to read a lot of newspapers and magazines and also to chat online (not Skype) with native speakers. It worked much better than reading works of fiction or just having a phone conversation, for some reason (maybe because I’m a visual learner). Depending on your learning style, this might work for you too. And, as David and Rob said, don’t be afraid to practice speaking Russian even with the mistakes.

  3. Aurea Freniere:

    I meant, native *speakers* (that’ll teach me to look at other web pages at the same time I’m posting here)

    • Misha:

      @Aurea Freniere Yelena, I just found this approach to make it easier. that is rearranging the order in which to study the cases, instead of Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Prepositional and Istrumental, Replace them into Nominative Accusative Genitive, Prepositional, Dative and Instrumental.
      the reason for this is that several cases can be paired. for a full interesting view about why this is, here’s the reference (I hope it doesnot shock you as a native speaker!). It’s an eye opener.

  4. David Roberts:

    I now feel reasonably comfortable with the declensions, although I can’t guarantee to get it right all the time. I think different people prefer different approaches. In my own case, I did a lot of reading, with a grammar book open at the declension tables, and in that way I gradually got to associate endings with cases – adjectives are easier than nouns, and some cases are more obvious than others, with for example adjectives in -ого/его, ому/ему, ыми/ими being instantly recognisable as masc/neut gen sing., masc/neut dat sing., any gender inst. plural. itd.

    However, regarding genders and declensions – if I get into conversation with a non-English speaking Russian (which very rarely happens, unfortunately) I think its a lot better to speak bad Russian, eg “Мой прекрасный жена шел в работа” at half normal speed than to speak near-perfect Russian at 10% normal speed! I’ve been told that to a native Russian it jars more when you get the gender wrong than when you get the declension wrong – eg to say “прекрасный жена шел” instead of “прекрасная жена шла” is more irritating than “в работа” instead of “в работу”. Русские друзья – что вы думаете?

    Деия, я очен благодарен вам за песню Снегопад. I played it a couple of weeks ago at our Русский крушок “Журавли” and handed out the words for us all to try translating for the following week. Reaction to the song was interesting. At the first playing, I asked them to mark it on a 0-5 scale – nobody liked it more than 3. A week later, when we’d looked at the words and we played it again, everybody liked it! Definitely one that grows on you.

  5. David Roberts:

    Russian declensions could be a lot worse. They are much easier than Latin, for example. Once you get into them they can even be quite fascinating. I was interested to see that native Russian Yelena refers to Declensions I, II and III for nouns. In English textbooks they usually present tables for masculine, feminine and neuter, in that order. I think the similarity between masculines and neuters (nouns and adjectives) comes over better, and makes the endings easier to learn, if we put them in the order masculine, neuter, feminine (this is not male chauvinism, it’s leaving the best to the last!).

    Here are the commonest noun endings

    Nouns Singular endings Plural endings
    Masc Neut Fem Masc Neut Fem
    Nom None о or е а or я ы or и а or я ы or и
    Acc None* о or е у or ю ы or и* а or я ы or и*
    Gen а or я ы or и ов or ев None None or ь
    Dat у or ю е ам or ям
    Inst ом or ем ой or ей ами or ями
    Prep е е ах or ях

    *For animate masculine nouns (singular or plural) and animate feminine nouns (plural only) the genitive ending is used for the accusative case.

    The masculine and neuter declensions above are what Yelena refers to as Declension I. The feminine singular above is Yelena’s Declension II. There is more variation in Declension III, but it is less common than the others.

    Some nouns have some of their endings different from these, especially in the genitive plural, in which ей is also quite common, but the majority are covered by this table. Feminines with nominative singular ending in –ь are the most numerous Declension III nouns. They do not change in the accusative, their instrumental singular ending is –ью and the dative and prepositional singular ending is и. Their genitive plural ending is ей.

    Here are the adjectives

    Singular endings Plural endings
    Masc Neut Fem All genders
    Nom ый/ий or ой ое/ее ая/яя ые or ие
    Acc ый/ий or ой * ое/ее ую/юю ые or ие *
    Gen ого/его ой/ей ых or ых
    Dat ому/ему ой/ей ым or им
    Inst ым/им ой/ей ыми or ими
    Prep ом/ем ой/ей ых or ых

    Apart from the nominative and accusative, there is no difference between masculine and neuter endings. And apart from the nominative and accusative, all the cases have the same ending for feminine singulars.
    *For adjectives associated with animate masculine nouns (singular or plural) and animate feminine nouns (plural only) the genitive ending is used for the accusative case.
    This table covers the vast majority of adjectives. The very few that are different deviate only slightly. An alternative feminine instrumental singular ending is ою/ею, nowadays found mainly in poetry and song lyrics.

    As for pronoun declensions – my recommendation would be to wait until you’re comfortable with the adjective endings before you start trying to learn them systematically. On the whole their declensions resemble the adjective pattern more than the noun pattern, and if you’re at home with adjectives the pronouns will begin to look quite logical.

  6. David Roberts:

    Unfortunately the tables of endings haven’t come out with the right spacings. But if you’re a beginner, it could be a useful exercise trying to tidy them up!

  7. Rob McGee:

    I think its a lot better to speak bad Russian, eg “Мой прекрасный жена шел в работа” at half normal speed than to speak near-perfect Russian at 10% normal speed!

    David — from experience, I would agree with you.

    My motto for anyone studying a second language is, “Sometimes it’s best if you give yourself permission to talk like Tarzan, and have faith that native speakers will understand what you mean to say.”

    Of course, I don’t want to diminish the importance of practicing the correct grammatical forms, but even so — sometimes it’s better to говорить по-тарзански at close to normal speed, than to… speak… in… pro-… -per … Rus-… -sian at a snail’s pace!

  8. Minority:

    I was confused about numeration of the declensions. We were taught that I is what you’ve described as II, and II is the I. I went to wikipedia and found out that your numeration is traditional for schools, and my numeration is traditional for linguistic.

    I don’t really know how to remember this. =)) The only thing I do when I need to decline is to remember the questions:

    (конь is I, ручка – II, тень – III)
    Именительный падеж. (есть кто, что?) Конь, Ручка, Тень
    Родительный падеж. (нет кого, чего?) Коня, Ручки, Тени
    Дательный падеж. (дать кому, чему?) Коню, Ручке, Тени
    Винительный падеж. (винить кого, что?) Коня, Ручку, Тень.
    Творительный падеж. (творить кем, чем?) Конем, Ручкой, Тенью
    Предложный падеж. (говорить о ком, о чем?) О коне, О ручке, О тени.

    But I guess this method suits only for those who knows language well and needs only to put well-known word in some particular case.

    • yelena:

      @Minority Minority, I should’ve asked you to help me out with this post! After all, this is your конёк. You’re right, the numeration I used was the one used in schools (since it was so easy for me to learn back then). As for your tip on using the questions, that’s exactly how I do it. It does work well for those who know the language well though.

  9. David Roberts:

    Minority – and other native Russian speakers. Your examples reminded me of something I have been wondering for a while. You use Конь (horse) to illustrate declension I. Another word for horse is Лошадь, which is feminine and has an irregular instrumental plural лошадьми (my Russian isn’t that good that I already knew this, I found it when I looked up лошадь to check the gender). This is just one example of the many small irregularities in Russian nouns, not all of them the sort of vocabulary you use every day. For example семя (seed) has gen.plural семян, not семён and стремя (stirrup) has gen plural стремян, not стремён. A Russian child learning its own language surely can’t hear every noun in every case, singular and plural, and may not come across all of them as it gets older and expands its vocabulary by reading.

    So my question is: how do Russians know all these irregularities well enough to speak and write them without needing to think about it? I can imagine three possibilities: 1. They don’t know all of them, and some people incorrectly use regular endings; 2. Growing up with the language they develop an instinctive feel for what sounds right and what doesn’t, and for example стремён would sound wrong; 3. They have to painstakingly learn all the irregularities at school.

    • yelena:

      @David Roberts David, interesting that you should mention this. Being a native speaker, I always thought declensions and gender were just about the easiest grammar topics. Now that I’m raising my own child (who’s 5 and is bilingual), I get a much better understanding of how this learning process works and how tough it can be for a non-native speaker to understand the complicated rules and illogical exceptions. Young children do make plenty of mistakes when speaking their native language, regardless of the language. For example, my son keeps saying дрУги instead of друзьЯ (I guess, by analogy with кнИгакнИги, мУльтикмУльтики, etc). Growing up and hearing (and reading) more and more Russian words and phrases, kids do learn. Besides, the words стремян, семян and племён are heard quite often by children through literature (i.e. стремя would be used in all those fairy tales about the Three Warriors), possibly in Pushkin’s fairy tales as well (although I can’t think of an example off the top of my head).

      But there are plenty of words that remain confusing, especially in plural. For example, Russian children are familiar with how to decline the singular кочерга (poker or fire-iron) since they hear it a lot in the fairy tales. But when it comes to the plural of кочерги, declining this word becomes confusing enough that there’s actually a really funny short story by Mikhail Zoshenko about this.

      Another category of words that confuses many Russians when it comes to case endings is personal names and place names. Some will decline, some won’t, some can do both and the rules are rather confusing too. For example, if Комарово is a name of a village, then is it correct to say Я проведу недельку в Комарово or Я проведу недельку в Комарове (here’s a good answer, although it’s quite lengthy and is in Russian)

  10. Minority:

    David, but English has a special word for male orse to – stallion (I haven’t heard this word before, but vocabulary really helped me to find it out). It’s OK to have several words of the same or close meaning in one language. =)

    About irregularities for native speakers:
    1. Most of the people use some words incorrectly (or do not use such words at all.. how often do you need to talk about stirrups, huh?). I bet some native English speakers do the same when they speak English.
    2. If we’re not sure how to say in one particular case we can reformulate our phrase. For example, you need to ask if somebody has some seeds. “У вас случайно нет семян гвоздики?” = “У вас есть семена гвоздики?”. Sometimes it really helps.
    3. Can’t tell about most of the Russians, but I have some instinctive feeling of what is right and what is wrong.
    4. We DO learn Russian for 11 years at school. But actually, I can’t say it takes so much time to learn irregularities. The greatest part of this time we’re studying punctuation ’cause it’s really important and difficult part of our language.

    I’ll give you an example that shows you how important punctuation can be. Do you know about “казнить нельзя помиловать”? This phrase needs a comma. But there’re two different phrases with opposite meanings: “казнить, нельзя помиловать” [we should put him/her to death, we can’t give him/her a pardon] vs “казнить нельзя, помиловать” [we can’t put him/her to death, we should pardon him/her] – actually, my English translation isn’t correct ’cause it should sound like a verdict and I don’t know proper English constructions for verdicts.

    Also, we have a lot of difficulties about participles, participles II, difference between participle and adjective, cases with -Н- and -НН- suffixes, sentences without Subject or without Predicate and so on. =)

  11. Aurea Freniere:

    Yelena: thank you so much for your advice. I’m rather visual regarding learning (it’s my fourth language, but so far the hardest of them all because of the declensions!) and I have to say some of them I’ve already learnt by heart, but I get a bit mixed up with some endings and get all frustrated because I don’t want to make any mistakes when talking. And of course I’m aware I will. I’m bound to, since I’m still learning. I’ll try the question tip. I was hoping though that there was some other trick for beginners. I feel that if I master declensions the rest will fall in place by its own. thanks again!

  12. Aurea Freniere:

    Yelena: Also my teacher (she’s russian) told me that besides following declension rules (gender, etc), I should really put attention to the sound of the endings.
    Like David pointed out in his comment

    “Growing up with the language they develop an instinctive feel for what sounds right and what doesn’t, and for example стремён would sound wrong; “

  13. David Roberts:

    Minority and Yelena – its good to know that native Russian speakers aren’t all complete masters of their own language! The same applies to English speakers, despite not having declensions to worry about. However, we have no problems with when and when not to use the articles, or which tense to use – these seem to get wired in early in childhood. I think in any language, the more you read and have read to you as a young child, the better your mastery of your own language. Re. Minority’s “questions apporach” to remembering declensions, I wonder – Is there a difference in meaning between конь and лошадь, or are they interchangeable?

    Говоря про конев и лошадей, я не знаю в которым языке находятся более слов для этых животных. [Talking of horses, I don’t know which language has the more words for these animals]. In English there is stallion (male) and mare (female) and foal (young horse). In Russian there are sex-specific horse names in addition to лошадь and конь (hint, a good way to remember that конь is masculine gender is to link it to the name Koniev (Kонев) – a famous general in the great Patriotic war – a lot of Russian names end in –ов or ев, and are based on genitive plurals of masculine nouns). A mare in Russian is кобыла (is this related to cob, a small horse for riding, I wonder), and a stallion is жеребец, from which is derived the word for foal, жеребёнок (plural жеребята). There are other horse words, like colt (male under 2yrs old) and filly (female, under 4 yrs old), that most English speakers would recognize but only have a hazy idea of what the exact meaning is. When I read конёк in Yelena’s comment I thought this must be yet another horse word, and perhaps it is in a roundabout way (hobbyhorse is a child’s toy horse but also refers to something someone’s particularly interested in).

  14. Minority:

    >>Re. Minority’s “questions apporach” to remembering declensions, I wonder – Is there a difference in meaning between конь and лошадь, or are they interchangeable?
    I didn’t catch what’s the subject of this phrase. =) If you want to know if questions for “конь” are the same as for “лошадь” – yes, they are the same. If about meanings of “конь” and “лошадь” – no, they aren’t. “Конь ” is always a male horse. “Лошадь” may refer to any horse, it’s a name of a genus.

    >Говоря про конев и лошадей
    A little mistake. КонЕЙ =)
    И.п. Кони, лошади
    Р.д. коней, лошадей
    Д.п. коням, лошадям
    В.п. коней, лошадей
    Т.п. конями, лошадями
    П.п. о конях, о лошадях

    Actully, we don’t have much more words for horses… Конь, лошадь, жеребец, кобыла, жеребенок.
    Sometimes you can find somebody uses the name of the breed or color – вороной, мустанг, рысак…

  15. David Roberts:

    Minority – I meant do the words “конь” and “лошадь” have the same meaning – all is now clear! Thanks for коней, not конев – as I said a few comments back, [although] I now feel reasonably comfortable with the declensions, … I can’t guarantee to get it right all the time!

  16. Sergey Slepov:

    That’s right, the general’s name (Ко́нев) was a bit of a red herring there; the correct gen.plural of конь is коне́й. In fact, if you want a handy rule, I wouldn’t be too far off if I said that all nouns ending in -ь, -ж, -ш, -ч, regardless of their declension number, take the ending -ей in plural genitive: конь – коне́й (horse), нож – ноже́й (knife), мяч – мяче́й (ball), дождь – дожде́й (rain), бино́кль – бино́клей (binoculars).
    True, typical Russian surnames are just possessive forms of common nouns (Ко́тов, Ко́нев, Козло́в), or proper names (Ивано́в, Петро́в, Андре́ев – of Ива́н, Пётр, Андре́й). However, they are not genitive forms of said nouns, they are possessive adjectives and as such may be further inflected for case, gender and number (compare to genitives which are already inflected and cannot be changed any further).
    This leads us to the most interesting topic of possessive adjectives and the two ways of expressing possession in Russian. One is placing the owner’s name in genitive after the owned object: су́мка О́ли (Olia’s handbag), шу́ба А́ни (Ania’s fur coat), велосипе́д Андре́я (Andrey’s bike), маши́на Воло́ди Volodia’s car). The other is turning the owner’s name into a possessive adjective by adding the suffixes -ин or -ов and placing it before the owned object: О́лина су́мка, А́нина шуба, Воло́дина машина.
    So which should you use, «Олина сумка» or «сумка Оли»? To my ear (and I hope most native speakers would agree), «Олина сумка» sounds more fluent and I would prefer it in an informal conversation. Same goes for «Анина шуба» and «Володина машина».
    The caveat with these is you can only use them for the -а/-я declension nouns. E.g. you can’t add -ин to Андрей. Well, you can (here we go: Андреин) but it would sound at best childish. That’s one of the differences between declension and derivation. With declension, any ending is permitted (although some forms may sound awkward e.g. the gen. plural of кочерга, кочерёг); with derivation, you are stuck with whatever is in the dictionary. If the dictionary says ‘indeterminate’, then you can’t say ‘undeterminate’ or ‘determinationless’.
    That’s exactly how it is with possessive adjectives. Some nouns have them, others don’t. How do you know which do and which don’t? For common nouns, some dictionaries list possessive adjectives as separate words, sometimes linked to the motivating word (ма́ма – м́амин, па́па – п́апин, оте́ц – отцо́в, дед – де́дов). For proper names, I haven’t found any dictionaries that provide this information.
    One thing you can be sure of, possessive adjectives go well with the short informal versions of people’s names ending in -а/-я: Коля – Колин (of Николай), Маша – Машин (of Мария), Саша – Сашин (of Александр & Александра) and many others. How about this one: Машина машина (Masha’s car).
    Just a few things I thought of, after reading your comments. Good luck with your Russian studies and if you happen to have a question that makes you sleepless, feel free to ask. And if I am not there, you can always consult my automatic declension tool that provides declension for any word or phrase that you enter. It is quite accurate with common words, nouns and adjectives alike, and does its best for people’s names. In fact, here is a declension table for your name:
    Have fun!

  17. joaotwv:

    I have been learning Russian for quite a while, and I have always tried to get tricks to learn easier. In fact I agree with those who say Latin is more difficult. It is. But russian is a living language.
    Today I think verbs are much more difficult to master.And the vocabulary, and the speech at a normal speed. Lots of hertz.
    About the cases in nouns,I tried to learn very well only the general rules, exceptions we learn in time, with practice. (and similar) the 1st thing I noticed was the order in traditional grammars, it did not help. So I have changed it, and now I know it is the order of modern linguistics.And then I see Masculine and neuter are One, the other is Feminine Singular: N, A, G – P D I The 3 Nom, Ac and Gen are in fact two: A may be Gen or Nom, of course sometimes I forget (living, not living) .The feminine is different: Ac : y/io G : bi/i M,N Ac, Gen a/ia or the same as Nom.
    At this point you should know something about hard and soft endings, it helps a lot. And the 7 letters rule (and 4, and 5)
    P D I Masc Neuter even Fem always -e (of course there are cases with -i) Dative M, N the usual -y or io Fem -e Instrumental : M, N – Om,(em) F -ou (eu)
    Plural except Genitive it is ok Remember Gen 99% -ob and a few exceptions. especially the one where a letter falls , G Fem and Neuter.For all the others, PDI ax/iax , Am/Iam.
    Adjectives : I follow the same order it works for me. But here it is not so easy. Anyway mastery comes with time and will and practice. Learning a language WELL is like learning a musical instrument – 12 years with a teacher !!!
    I hope I have been helpful.