Arabic grammar

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



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 ʻAbd Allāh ibn Abī Isḥāq (died 117 H). The efforts of three generations of grammarians culminated in the book of the Persian scholar Sibāwayhi (ca. 760793).

Traditionally, the grammatical sciences are divided into four branches:

  • al-luġah (lexicon) concerned with collecting and explaining vocabulary
  • at-taṣrīf (morphology) determining the form of the individual words
  • an-naḥw (syntax) primarily concerned with inflection (iʻrab) which had already been lost in dialects.
  • al-ištiqāq (derivation) examining the origin of the words


Arabic has 28 consonantal phonemes (including two semi-vowels), expressed by the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet. In dialects, usually not all 28 phonemes are realized, so that for these speakers, some homophones are disambiguated only orthographically. Arabic has six vowel phonemes (three short vowels and three long vowels); they 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. (See: Arabic alphabet.)

List of phonemes as transliterated in this article:

  • 26 consonants: ʼ b t ṯ ǧ ḥ ẖ d ḏ r z s š ṣ ḍ ṭ ẓ ʻ ġ f q k l m n h
  • 2 semi-vowels: w y
  • 6 vowels: a ā i ī u ū

The consonants include a so-called "emphatic" series ṣ, ḍ, ṭ, ẓ, q peculiar to Semitic. The voiceless sounds ṣ, ṭ, q have clear equivalents in other Semitic languages, while it is not clear whether the voiced emphatic consonants are an Arabic innovation. Arabic has a tendency towards affrication. The fricatives ǧ, f clearly go back to occlusives g, p, while the fricatives ṯ, ḏ (corresponding to English thorn, eth) may be either old fricatives or an Arabic innovation.

The syllable structure of Arabic is such that there may be clusters of two, but not of three consecutive consonants. A cluster of two consonants at the beginning of an utterance will be preceded by an auxiliary vowel (alif al-waṣl).



The Arabic noun can take one of three states of definiteness: definite, indefinite or construct state. The definite state is marked by the article al-. The indefinite state is marked by an ending -n (nunation). The construct state is unmarked and occurs in the first member of a genitive construction.


The article (adātu-t-taʻrīf) al- is indeclinable and expresses definite state of a noun of any gender and number. The initial vowel (hamzatu-l-waṣl), is volatile in the sense that it disappears in sandhi, the article becoming mere -l- (although the alif is retained in orthography in any case for clarity).

Also, the 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 alif lam is retained, and the gemination may be expressed by putting šadda on the following letter).

The consonants causing assimilation (trivially including l) are: t, ṯ, d, ḏ, r, z, s, š, ṣ, ḍ, ṭ, ẓ, l, n. These 14 letters are called 'solar letters' (ḥuruf šamsiyyat), while the remaining 14 are called 'lunar letters' (ḥuruf qamariyyat). 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 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.)


An Arabic noun can take three cases: nominative, genitive and accusative, and three numbers: singular, dual and plural. Normally, nouns take the ending -u(n) in the nominative, -i(n) in the genitive and -a(n) in the accusative. The case endings are only present in formal or literary language. 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'.

The plural of a noun is formed by a suffix in some cases (sound plurals), but frequently, the vowel structure of a word is changed to form the plural (broken plurals). There are a number of patterns of how this is done. Some singular nouns take several plurals. There could be traces of broken plurals in other Semitic languages, but nowhere are they as widespread as in Arabic. The plurals of nouns representing humans usually use sound plurals. Masculine sound plurals take the forms "-ūn" in the nominative and "-īn" in the genitive and accusative. In the feminine, the ending is "-āt" and is limited in its declension to the nominative and genitive endings. For example, "-ātun" and "-ātin" are possible, but not "-ātan". This pattern can also be used with for plurals of non-human nouns.


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 plurals of inanimate objects of both grammatical genders.

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

Genitive construction (Iḍāfa)

A noun may be defined more closely by a subsequent noun in the genitive. The relation is hierarchical; the first term (al-muḍāf) governs the second term (al-muḍāf ilayhi). E. g. baytu raǧulin 'house of a man'. 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, and thus cannot be marked definite or indefinite. 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 genitive case.

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


The Nisba (an-nisbatu) is a common suffix to form adjectives of relation or pertinence. The suffix is -iyy- for masculine and -iyyat- for feminine gender (in other words, it is -iyy- and is inserted before the gender marker). E. g. lubnānu 'Lebanon', lubnāniyyun 'Lebanese'.

A construction noun + nisba-adjective is often equivalent to nominal composition in Indo-European languages.


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

Person Singular Plural Dual
3rd (m) huwa hum humā
3rd (f) hiya hunna
2nd (m) anta antum antumā
2nd (f) anti antunna
1st ana naḥnu (n/a)

Enclitic pronouns

Enclitic forms of the pronoun (aḍ-ḍamāʼiru al-muttaṣilatu) may be affixed to nouns (representing genitive case, i. e. possession) and to verbs (representing accusative, i. e. a direct object). Most of them are clearly related to the full personal pronouns. They are identical in form in both cases, except for the 1st person singular, which is after nouns (genitive) and -nī after verbs (accusative).

Person Singular Plural Dual
3rd (m) -hu -hum -humā
3rd (f) -hā -hunna
2nd (m) -ka -kum -kumā
2nd (f) -ki -kunna
1st -(n)ī -nā (n/a)


There are two demonstratives (asmāʼu al-ʼišāratu), near-deictic ('this') and far-deictic ('that'):

  • hāda, f. hādihi, pl. hāʼulāʼi 'this, these'
  • dālika, f. tilka, pl. ʼulāʼika 'that, those'


Cardinal numerals

Cardinal numerals (al-aʻdād al-aṣliyyat) from 1-10 (zero is ṣifr, from which the English word "cipher" comes)

  • 1 waḥidun
  • 2 iṯnānu
  • 3 ṯalāṯatu
  • 4 arbaʻatu
  • 5 ḫamsatu
  • 6 sittatu
  • 7 sabʻatu
  • 8 ṯamāniyatu
  • 9 tisʻatu
  • 10 ʻašaratu

The numerals 1 and 2 are adjectives; 3-10 are diptotes (the ending -(t)u is dropped in oral usage).

Numerals 3-10 have a peculiar rule of agreement known as polarity: A feminine referrer agrees with a numeral in masculine gender and vice versa, e.g. ṯalāṯu fatayātin 'three girls'.

Numerals 11-19 are indeclinable, and they show gender agreement (not polarity). The noun counted takes accusative singular.

  • 11 aḥada ʻašara
  • 12 iṯnā ʻašara
  • 13 ṯalāṯata ʻašara

The numerals 20-99 are followed by a noun in the accusative singular as well. There is agreement in gender with the numerals 1 and 2, and polarity for numerals 3-9.

  • 20 ʻišrūna (dual of '10')
  • 21 aḥadun wa ʻišrūna
  • 22 iṯnāni wa ʻišrūna
  • 23 ṯalāṯatu wa ʻišrūna
  • 30 ṯalāṯūna
  • 40 arbaʻūna

Whole hundreds, thousands etc. appear as first terms of genitive constructions, e.g. alfu laylati wa laylatu '1001 nights'.

  • 100 miʼatu
  • 1000 alfu

Fractions of a whole smaller than "half" are expressed by the structure sg. fuʻl, pl. afʻāl.

  • niṣfun "half"
  • ṯulṯun "one third"
  • ṯulṯāni "two thirds"
  • rubʻun "one quarter"
  • ṯalaṯatu arbāʻin "three quarters"


Ordinal numerals

Ordinal numerals (al-aʻdād at-tartiyabiyyat) higher than "first" are formed using the structure fāʻilun, fāʻilatun:

  • m. awwalu, f. ūlā "first"
  • m. ṯānin, f. ṯāniyat "second"
  • m. ṯāliṯun, f. ṯāliṯatun "third"
  • m. rābiʻun, f. rābiʻatun "fourth"


They are adjectives, hence, there is agreement in gender with the noun, not polarity as with the cardinal numbers


As in many other Semitic languages, the Arabic word formation is based on a (usually) triconsonantal root, which is not a word in itself but contains the semantic core. The consonants k-t-b, for example, indicate 'write', q-r-ʼ indicate 'read', ʼ-k-l indicate 'eat' etc.; Words are formed by supplying the root with a vowel structure and with affixes.

Traditionally, Arabic grammarians have used the root f-ʻ-l 'do' as a template to discuss word formation.

The personal forms a verb can take correspond to the forms of the pronouns, except that in the 3rd person dual, gender is differentiated, yielding paradigms of 13 forms.


In the perfect conjugation, the perfect stem faʻal is affixed with a personal ending, e. g. kataba 'he wrote', qaraʼa 'he read'. The perfect expresses a completed action, i.e. mostly past tense.

Person Singular Plural Dual
3rd (m) faʻal-a faʻal-ū faʻal-ā
3rd (f) faʻal-at faʻal-na faʻal-tā
2nd (m) faʻal-ta faʻal-tum faʻal-tumā
2nd (f) faʻal-ti faʻal-tunna --
1st faʻal-tu faʻal-nā (n/a)


The imperfect expresses an action in progress, i.e. mostly present tense. There are several vowel patterns (a-a, a-u,a-i) the root can take. The root takes a prefix as well as a suffix to build the verb form. E. g. yaktubu 'he is writing'.

Note the co-incidence of 3rd f. sg. and 2nd m. sg.

Person Singular Plural Dual
3rd (m) ya-fʻal-u ya-fʻal-ūna ya-fʻal-āni
3rd (f) ta-fʻal-u ya-fʻal-na ta-fʻal-āni
2nd (m) ta-fʻal-u ta-fʻal-ūna ta-fʻal-āni
2nd (f) ta-fʻal-īna ta-fʻal-na --
1st a-fʻal-u na-fʻal-u (n/a)


From the imperfect stem, modal forms can be derived: the subjunctive by (roughly speaking) replacing the final vowel by a, the jussive by dropping this a of the subjunctive, and the imperative (only 2nd person) also by dropping the verbal prefix.

The subjunctive is used in subordinate clauses after certain conjunctions. The jussive is used in negation, in negative imperatives, and in the hortative li+jussive.

For example: 2. sg. m.:

  • imperfect indicative tafʻalu 'you are doing'
  • subjunctive an tafʻala 'that you do'
  • jussive la tafʻal 'do not!'
  • imperative ifʻal 'do!'.


Arabic has two verbal voices, active and passive. The passive voice is expressed by a change in vocalization and is normally not expressed in unvocalized writing.

For example:

  • active faʻala 'he did', yafʻalu 'he is doing' فَعَلَ
  • passive fuʻila 'it was done', yufʻalu 'it is being done' فُعِلَ

Weak verbs

Roots containing one or two of the radicals w (wāw), y () or ʼ (hamza) are subject to special phonological rules because these radicals can be influenced by their surroundings. Such verbs are called 'weak' (verba infirmae, 'verbs of weak [radical]) and their paradigms must be given special attention. In the case of hamza, these peculiarities are mainly orthographical, since hamza is not subject to elision (the orthography of hamza and alif is unsystematic due to confusion in early Islamic times).

According to the position of the weak radical in the root, these verbs are called primae infirmae, mediae infirmae or tertiae infirmae.

Another special class of roots are such that their second and third radicals are identical. These roots are called mediae geminatae.

Stem formation

Derived verbs are variations on the shape of the primary kataba stem, such as kattaba, kātaba, inkataba, takattaba. Semantically, these formations correspond to changes in meaning such as intensive, reflexive, and causative, though the exact meaning varies from verb to verb and needs to be recorded in the lexicon.

Classical Arabic has a great number of derived stems, not all of which are still in use. For the modern language, it is mostly sufficient to consider stems I-VI, VIII and X.

  • I. faʻal- (the basic stem)
  • II. faʻʻil- (gemination of the middle radical)
  • III.fāʻil- (lenghtening of the vowel following the first radical)
  • IV. afʻil- (clustering of first and second radical)
  • V. tafaʻʻal- (prefix ta- and gemination of middle radical)
  • VI. tafāʻal- (prefix ta- and lenghtening of the vowel following the first radical)
  • VIII. iftaʻal- (infix -ta- after first radical)
  • X. istafʻal- (prefix (i)st-)

The exact vocalisation will be dependent on the word form.

Common uses of those stems include:

  • faʻʻala is often used to make an intransitive verb transitive. Eg: karuma is "be noble" but karrama is "make (someone) to be noble", or, more idiomatically, to "honor".
  • infaʻala to give a passive meaning. Eg: kasara "break" and inkasara "be broken".


The Arabic participle is a verbal noun formed from one of the derived verbal stems. E.g. muʻallimun 'teacher' is the active participle to stem II. of the root ʻ-l-m ('know').

  • The passive participle to Stem I is mafʻūlun
  • Stems II-X take prefix mu- and nominal endings (e.g. II. mu-faʻʻil-un.)


There is a second type of verbal noun besides the participle that is referred to as 'infinitive' because it often translates to infinitive constructions in Indo-European languages. It is strictly speaking not an infinitive, it would be more correct to speak of "verbal noun I" and "verbal noun II", but the name infinitive is too widespread to abandon it.

  • infinitive formation to stem I is irregular.
  • the infinitive to stem II is tafʻīlun.
  • stems III-X simply take nominal endings (for stem III, the passive participle is often substituted).

For example: taʼrīḫun 'date, history' is the infinitive to stem II. of ʼ-r-ḫ ('date').


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In Arabic, a word is classified as either a noun (ism), a verb (fiʻl), a pronoun or a preposition (ḥarf). Adverbials are expressed with nominal forms. Repetitive use of the same root in verb and noun in a sentence is considered good style, especially with derived forms of the same verb. Such as the root "'alm" which in Form I is "to know" but in form II "'allm" with the middle radical(letter) doubled, changing the meaning to "to teach". Also considered good form is constucting a long sentence joined together with connectors (Adawat al Rabt) which are like conjunctions which allow for many clauses to run on and run in the same sentance.

  • For example: qaraʼa al-kitāba qirāʼatan 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."
  • The Masdar, verbal nouns which are irregular for Form I and regular for all derived forms, functions sometimes like an infinitive and sometimes like the noun which encompasses the concept of the verb.
  • Active and Passive partiples, called Ism Fa'l or Ism Mafa'ul after the pattern into which the roots are put, function sometimes like adjectives, sometimes present partiples, and sometimes like nouns such as "Doer" and "Doneto". So: KAtib is "reader" and maKtub is "written".

There are many types of sentences:

  • the nominal sentence, consisting of a subject and a predicate (al-bayt kabir - "the house big" viz., "the house is big")
  • the verbal sentence, which usually follows the VSO pattern (yafham ayman al-muhadarat => Ayman understands the lecture);
  • the amma... fa-sentence

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