Russian Language Blog

Enter the Wondrous World of «Синтаксис» [Syntax] Posted by on Sep 15, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners, when in Russia

Almost a long time ago now, we had a post called Russian Grammar – «по-русски!» [in Russian!]. It explored what different «части речи» [parts of speech] are called in Russian and also tried to explain «почему [why?] a verb is called «глагол», a noun «существительное» and an adverb «наречие». Today I’m not asking you to remember that «глагол» [verb] comes from the Old Slavonic verb «глаголить» [to speak], «существительное» [noun] is derived from the verb «существовать» [to exist] and that «наречие» [adverb] can loosely be translated as to mean «на речи» [‘on/in speak’]. Today I’m suggesting we do something a little bit different, namely – take a closer look at «русский синтаксис» [Russian syntax]. The first question we all should ask ourselves is: «Что такое синтаксис вообще [What is syntax in general?] Syntax is what is always there for us when we need to find out about the principles and rules for constructing sentences. Syntax is a very helpful invention, especially when studying a foreign language as the rules for proper construction of sentences might differ – A LOT! – from your native language. A sentence in Russian is called «предложение». Don’t confuse this word in today’s context with the standard phrase:

«сделать/делать предложение + кому [to propose + to whom? (lit. To make an offer/sentence to someone)],

for in today’s post «мы будем делать предложения» [we’re going to make sentences] of another kind. In today’s post we’re not going to explore the subject of Russian syntax all the way, so to speak, but instead try to create for ourselves a general idea of what this grammatical category can bring into our lives – just in what ways it might be enriching to our devout studies of the Russian language.

Every Russian sentence must usually contain TWO (2) so called «члены предложения» [parts of the sentence]:

In Russian syntax «подлежащее» means SUBJECT.

Think of «подлежащее» [neut. subject] as being derived (and it is!) from the verb «подлежать» [impfv. (with dative) to be subject (to); to be liable to], used in sentences like «товар не подлежит обмену» [the product is not subject to exchange].

In Russian syntax «сказуемое» means PREDICATE.

Because the predicate in a sentence is often the verb, think of «сказуемое» [neut. predicate] as being derived from the perfect verb «сказать» [to say, speak, tell]. And a sentence without a predicate – mostly it is a verb – «не так уж много и скажет» [doesn’t really tell/say that much].

An example of a Russian sentence with one «подлежащее» [subject] and one «сказуемое» [predicate]:

«Пётр поёт» [Pyotr sings].

An example of a Russian sentence with one «подлежащее» [subject] and two «сказуемые» [predicates]:

«Алёна поёт и пьёт» [Alyona sings and drinks].

An example of a Russian sentence with two «подлежащие» [subject] and one «сказуемое» [predicate]:

«Пётр и Алёна гуляют» [here: Pyotr and Alyona are partying].

In English syntax, sentences «без подлежащего» [without a subject] are rare and sometimes not even possible. In Russian syntax, sentences with only a «сказуемое» [predicate] in the form of a verb are not rare at all and highly possible. Most often sentences of this kind informs about different weather conditions or other natural phenomena where it is not always too easy to say WHO the subject is:

«Вечереет» [‘It is starting to get dark outside’/’the evening is approaching’] – a verb made from the noun «вечер» [evening].

«Похолодало» [‘It has become a little bit colder’] – a verb made from the noun «холод» [cold].

Russian sentences, just like sentences in all other languages of the world, would be rather boring if all they contained were a subject and a predicate. That’s why Russian syntax allows for yet another category:

In Russian syntax, «дополнение» means OBJECT.

Think of the verb «дополнять» [impfv. to expand, enlarge; to amplify, add to] and the adverb «дополнительно» [in addition] and thus the Russian «дополнение» [object] is something you add to a sentence that would’ve been correct and complete even without it – but a bit boring, right?

In Russian syntax, we have two kinds of objects – mainly, and this is true for many other languages as well, so if you remember your school syntax, then I’m not going to loose you as we did deeper into the wondrous world of syntax:

First there’s «прямое дополнение» which means DIRECT OBJECT.

In Russian language «прямое дополнение» [direct object] very often takes on the form of «винительный падеж» [accusative case], like in the following sentence:

«Пётр любит Алёну» [Pyotr loves Alyona].

In this sentence «Пётр» [Pyotr] is «подлежащее» [subject], «любит» [loves] is «сказуемое» [predicate] and «Алёна» [Alyona] is the «прямое дополнение» [direct object]. I don’t know why so many school kids think syntax is boring, difficult and not fun at all? It is really very easy! And what a great way to spend a relaxing Saturday afternoon – dissecting a poem by «Александр Сергеевич Пушкин» [Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin] «на члены предложения» [according to parts of the sentences]…

Secondly, there’s «косвенное дополнение» which means INDIRECT OBJECT.

In Russian language «косвенное дополнение» [indirect object] is often expressed by the noun – if it is as noun – taking the form of «дательный падеж» [dative case]. This isn’t ALWAYS the case, though, so be sure to be aware of this rule not always applying. But in the following sentences it is:

«Алёна наливает вино Петру» [Alyona pours Pyotr wine].

In this sentence «Алёна» [Alyona] is «подлежащее» [subject], «наливает» [pours] is «сказуемое» [predicate], «вино» [wine] is «прямое дополнение» [direct object] and «Петру» [(to) Pyotr] is «косвенное дополнение» [indirect object]. Did you all follow that?

Of course, Russian syntax is much more complicated – deep, if you’d like – than what I have tried to illustrate above. There are plenty of more difficult constructions of sentences in Russian, and a whole lot more for us to discuss in the future. But I think we’ve done enough for one day today. And so as not to leave you simply longing for more, try and pick these two sentences apart and tell me what’s subject, predicate and direct/indirect objects in the comments:

1. «Хорошо (yes, it is a tricky one!)

2. «Мне нравится классическая музыка» (yeah, this is tricky too…)

Want people to know «ты владеешь русским языком» [you speak Russian] even when you’re not within the Russian Federation? Wear a «Чебурашка» [‘Cheburashka‘] on your purse – like I’m doing here in San Francisco – and you’ll see the proverb «русские всегда рядом» [Russians are always close/around] is true indeed! Russians in the USA always talk to me when they see my «Чебурашка» [‘Cheburashka’] – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

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    Thank you for thiese explanations!
    Two thoughts that came to me:

    You say the sentence without the object would be complete, but boring.
    Many languages make a distinction of transitive and intransitive verbs. If a verb is transitive, it needs an accusative object, otherwise the sentence isn’t complete (although the message might be understandable).
    Aren’t there transitive verbs in Russian?

    You say usually a sentence must contain object and verb.
    The most basic sentences, that we usually learn first, are messages like “this is a cat” or “the cat is black”. In other languages’ grammar there is often doubt whether the connecting particle is really a verb, because the second noun is in the nominative case, too. Some analysts prefer to call it “copula particle”.
    The Russian solution is to simply leave it away – and so most sentences (at least in basic school books) don’t have a verb!


  2. josefina:

    Привет, Michael! To answer your first thought, you are very right indeed and what we need is a post discovering the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs – because of course Russian language has both of them! Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I bet you’re not the only one who was offended at my “sentences with only a subject and a predicate are boring”… I meant not boring-boring, but rather… it’s more exciting in general to have an object – not that you always have to have on GRAMMATICALLY.

    And yes, the first sentences in Russian that foreigners often learn are completely without predicate – even though the “true” experts would tell you that there’s a predicate (verb) in the sentences even though you can’t see it with your eyes. The predicate is implied in the present tense of the sentence, which doesn’t need a verb always in Russian.

    That’s why my example sentence “Хорошо!” was particularly tricky, for when looking at it one has to imagine it saying “Это есть хорошо!”, even though everyone knows that in Russian we can leave the subject and the verb out of the sentence and still be alright and make sense. But what I hadn’t thought of was that this makes “хорошо” in the sentence above an “определение”… which was one thing I didn’t cover in my post above. My bad!

  3. Andreas:

    Hi Josefina, just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your posts.

    I spent a lot of effort studying russian in the Swedish military (Tolkskolan) some 15 years ago. Keeping the knowledge alive is hard, but a daily dose from this blog helps a lot. Thanks, keep up the good work!

  4. Charly:

    I love your posts on grammar, you make it fun. 🙂

  5. josefina:

    Charly: I “make it fun”? You make it sound like grammar isn’t already fun – all I do is bring out in broad daylight what’s there to begin with 😀

  6. Charly:

    Oh, of course! I only meant you make it fun in comparison to lots of people who obviously try to take all the fun out of poor grammar. 😉

  7. Olia:

    to hell with grammar; tell us about the cheburashka on your bag!

  8. Martin:

    Grammar isn’t fun! It’s bloody hard work…

  9. Stas:

    Better later than never…

    I would like to slightly correct the translation of the following:

    «сделать/делать предложение + кому?» [to propose + to whom? (lit. To make an offer/sentence to someone)].

    I would drop off the word “sentence” completely.