Your Russian learning dream has begun and you feel like a hero after learning the Russian alphabet and a few key phrases — but then you discover that every Russian noun has six endings.
There's only one question on your mind: Why?
Surely we don’t need all those endings?
(spoiler: we do.)
What is a grammatical case?
To quote our article on grammatical cases:
Case is a grammatical category that refers to inflections which make it clear exactly what function a given word fulfills in a particular sentence. These infections may be applied to nouns, pronouns, adjectives, numerals, and, in some languages, adverbs. Words are transformed into a given case by either adding a suffix or by changing entirely (as is the case with personal pronouns).
In short, cases are grammatical signposts that tell us the function of each part of a sentence. Rather than being a useless pain, cases actually bring a lot of clarity to communication.
In Russian, cases are realized by changing the ends of nouns and adjectives. For example, if we look at the Russian word for computer:
- It's компьютер (komp'yuter) when it is the subject of a sentence:
→ The computer is broken.
- It's компьютера (komp'yutera) when you're referring to a part of it:
→ The harddrive of the computer has been replaced.
- It's компьютеру (komp'yuteru) when used as an indirect object:
→ His access to the computer was denied
- It's компьютер (komp'yuter) [same as above] when used as a direct object:
→ I bought a computer.
- It's компьютером (komp'yuterom) when being used as a tool:
→ I hit the robber with a computer.
- It's компьютере (komp'yutere) when used with a preposition:
→ The paper is under the computer.
That's all it boils down to. Depending on how you're using a word, you'll need to adjust a letter or two at the end. In exchange for this small bit of labor, you get freedom: Russian sentences make sense basically regardless of word order.
English’s Case System
Guess what – English actually has cases, too:
- Ever wonder why she changes to her in the sentence I see her? Congratulations, you’ve just used the accusative case in English!
- Take the phrase Tim’s book. The ’s after Tim creates the possessive case, showing us that Tim owns the book (not to mention the fact that Tim's book just rolls off the tongue better than book of Tim.)
- (These are actually remnants from when English had cases proper a few hundred years ago.)
As you’ve already been using cases without even knowing it, we think you’ll be fine putting them to use in Russian, too — though it will take a bit of practice. This should also clarify why cases are so important: just imagine the potential confusion if we were to just ignore the possessive case and just say Tim book or book Tim, expecting the listener to lean on context to fill in the gaps on their own.
To that end, we promise: if you stick with it, one day you’ll be using Russian cases so effortlessly that you’ll almost forget they exist — just like you do in English
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that there are a number of Russian spelling rules that can slightly affect how certain cases get represented in writing. Having said that, these spelling peculiarities do not (typically) affect how a word is actually pronounced.
You can find out more about these rules on Wikipedia, but for now, just know that spelling rules may lead to some small deviations from the rules we introduce below.
The good news about the nominative case is that it is a sort of "non-case" case: it is the standard form of nouns, and what you’ll see when you look one up in the dictionary.
To change a noun out of the nominative case and into another one, however, you’ll need to be able to identify its gender in order to decline it correctly. To do that, look at the noun's last letter:
Nominative noun endings
- Masculine nouns end in a consonant
- Neuter nouns end in –o or –e
- Feminine nouns ending in –а or –я
- Plural nouns end in –и or –ы
Generally speaking, masculine and neuter nouns share the same endings, so we'll only reference masculine nouns below.
If you get lost while deciphering a sentence, take a moment to look for the noun that is in nominative form. This is probably the subject of your sentence, and identifying it will help you figure out what's going on with the rest of the sentence.
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The main use of the accusative is to mark the direct object of a sentence. You can consider the direct object to be the "target” of a verb, such as the word food in the sentence the cat eats the food. The direct object is the food you are eating, the ball a soccer player is kicking, the movie you are watching, and so forth — you're doing something, and the direct object is the particular thing that's being done.
You’ll also see the accusative case used with the prepositions ‘в’ (v) and ‘на’ (na). While these prepositions normally mean in and on, respectively, they translate to "to" when used with the accusative case — used this way, they show direction.
Accusative noun endings
The good news is that, in the accusative, only feminine nouns change. Masculine and neuter nouns look the same as they do in the nominative case. For example:
- Девушка видит птицу. --> птица>птицу)
Devushka vidit ptitsu.
The girl sees a bird.
- Девушка видит стол. --> no change, since table is masculine
Devushka vidit stol.
The girl sees a table.
This is, unfortunately, where we encounter our first exception. If the direct object of a sentence is an animate masculine noun (loosely speaking, something that is alive), it must be declined into the genitive case, rather than the accuastive case.
In the below example sentence, Maksim takes a genitive case ending because Maksim is (a) a direct object, (b) masculine, and (c) animate.
- Мы ждем Максима. --> Максим>Максима
My zhdyom Maksima.
We’re waiting for Maksim.
Can you remember the rhyme -а goes to -у, -я goes to -ю?
If you can, that’s the entire accusative case (at least for inanimate objects), as feminine nouns typically end in –a and only feminine nouns change in the accusative. Two examples:
- Давай пригласим Машу на чай. --> Маша>Машу
Davai priglasim Mashu na chai.
Let’s invite Masha for some tea.
- Давай пригласим Юлию на чай. --> Юлия> Юлию
Davai priglasim Yuliyu na chai.
Let’s invite Yulia for some tea.
The genitive case is the most used case (apart from the nominative), so it makes sense to concentrate on it when starting out. Thankfuly, its usage is fairly straightforward. Generally speaking, the genitive is used in the same way that we use the preposition “of” in English.
- Это логотип школы. --> школа>школы
Eto logotip scholy.
This is the logo of the school.
A few other common uses of the genitive case:
- With нет (nyet; no), to say that you do not have something
- With words that indicate quantity, such as много (mnogo; many), мало (malo; a few), кроме (kromye; except for).
- As discussed above, the genitive case endings are also used in place of the accusative ones when the direct object of a sentence is animate (alive) and masculine.
Genitive noun endings
For masculine nouns, just add –a to the end of the word. To quote a Kino song:
- У меня река, только нет моста. --> мост>моста
U menya reka, tol’ko nyet mosta.
I have a river, but I don’t have a bridge.
(from the Kino song Место для шага вперед)
For feminine nouns, –a endings change to –ы, and –я endings change to –и.
Plural genitive nouns, unfortunately, have particularly complicated rules. As a few rules of thumb:
- Most masculine nouns take –ов
- Nouns ending in –ч, -ж, –ш, -щ or a soft sign (ь) take –ей
To quote another line from that Kino song from earlier,
- У меня есть дом, только нет ключей. --> ключ>ключей
U menya yest’ dom, tol’ko nyet klyuchey.
I have a house, but I don’t have the keys.
Given that the word нет (nyet; no) is a good trigger for the genitive, let’s practice using this form.
Spend a couple of minutes making yourself a food shopping list in Russian. You'll be shopping for this stuff, naturally, because these items are missing from your fridge. That makes them excellent candidates for a нет sentence. Here's the status of my fridge for you:
- У меня нет сахара, сметаны или сливок.
--> сахар>сахара / сметана>сметаны / сливки>сливок
U menya nyet sakhara, smetany ili slivok.
I don’t have sugar, sour cream or cream.
Now it's your turn! Try to use a mix of masculine, feminine and plural nouns. If you do this every time you go shopping, you’ll be a master of the genitive in no time. Afterwards, you can check your work with declension dictionaries like Cooljugator.
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Just as the genitive case is largely a way to say of in Russian, you can think of the dative case as being a way to say to.
Dative-case triggers include к (k; to) and verbs like звонить (zvonit’; to call), помогать (pomogat’; to help) and советовать (sovyetovat’; to advise).
Dative noun endings
- Masculine nouns have their ending change to –у
For example, the title of the classic 1929 Soviet film по закону (po zakony; закон>закону; by the law)
- Feminine nouns change their ending to –е
Consider the phrase любовь к родине (lyubov’ k rodine; родина>родине; love for the Motherland)
- Plural nouns take the ending –ам (or –ям for nouns with soft endings)
To quote a line from the song ‘Пачка сигарет’ (pachka sigaret; pack of cigarettes) by Kino: Я ходил по всем дорогам, и туда, и сюда (ya khodil po vsem dorogram, i tuda, i syuda; дорога>дорогам; I’ve walked along all the roads, both this way and that).
- Soft sign nouns get a –ю tacked onto them: писатель becomes писателю
Here’s an exercise that will help you in perfecting your use of the dative case: Try to think of the last 4-5 people that you sent an instant message or email to (аs a side note, phone calls take the dative case, too). Now describe those interactions using the dative case. For example:
- Рано утром я написал сообщение Маше. Потом я позвонил Ивану. В 10:00 я написал письмо начальнику. --> Маша>Маше / Иван>Ивану / начпльник >начальнику
Rano utrom ya napisal soobshhenie Mashye. Potom ya pozvonil Ivanu. V 10:00 ya napisal pis’mo nachal’niku.
Early in the morning I wrote a message to Masha. Then I phoned Ivan. At 10:00 I wrote an email to my boss.
The instrumental case is generally used (a) to convey the meaning of with or (b) to show that an action has been done by something or someone.
The most common preposition used with the instrumental is c (s; with), but there are also several spatial prepositions that take it, such as между (mezhdu; between), перед (pered; in front of/before), под (pod; under) and над (nad; above). C is also used in fixed congratulatory phrases like “с днем рождения!” (s dnyom rozhdeniya; день>днем; happy birthday!)
Instrumental noun endings
- For masculine nouns, the instrumental is very much about the –ом, (or –ем for nouns with soft endings).
— The famous phrase “с легким паром” (s lyokhim parom; пар>паром; enjoy your sauna) is a classic example from a famous film of the same name.
- For feminine nouns, endings are –ой (or –ей for nouns with soft endings)
— If you’re a fan of Russian food, I’m sure you’ve tried борщ со сметаной (borshch so smetanoy; сметана>сметаной; borshch with sour cream).
- Plural nouns use the –ами ending (–ями for soft endings)
— “Я всё вырастил здесь собственными руками” (Ya vso vyrastil zdes' sobstvennymi rukami ; рука>руками; I grew everything here with my own hands).
- Masculine soft-sign nouns take –ем (писатель> писателем), and feminine soft-sign nouns take –ю (кровать>кроватью)
As with all cases, one of the best ways to get the case endings down by heart is to practise them while speaking. Imagine you’re ordering a sandwich in Russian, and try to request as many fillings as possible:
- Дайте, пожалуйста бутерброт с сыром, колбаской, салатом, ветчиной и перцем.
Daytye, pozhaluysta buterbrot s syrom, kolbaskoy, salatom, vetchinoy i pertsem. сыр>сыром; колбаска>колбаской; салат>салатом; ветчина>ветчиной; перец>перцем;
I’ll have a sandwich with cheese, salami, lettuce, ham and pepper.
Why not get some drinks as well?
- Кофе с молоком и корицей, и чай с вареньем.
Kofe s molokom i koritsey, i chay s varen’em.
молоко>молоком; корица>корицей; варенье>вареньем.
A coffee with milk and cinnamon, and tea with jam.
To practice those spatial prepositions, take a look around the room you’re in and use prepositions to describe its layout.
- Тумбочка стоит рядом с комодом. Над тумбочкой висит лампочка, и под диваном – старая одежда.
Tumbochka stoit ryadom s komodom. Nad tumbochkoy visit lampochka, i pod divanom - staraya odyezhda.
There’s a small table next to the chest of drawers. There’s a light bulb above the table, and there's old clothes under the sofa bed.
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The prepositional case is, thankfully, one of the easier cases to figure out.
It’s used (almost) ехclusively with just three prepositions: в (v) and на (na), which both mean in, and о (o), which means about. That in mind, it might help to just think of the prepositional case as being the "in" case.
- For masculine nouns, add –е to the ending
— For example: Баллада о солдате (ballada o soldate; солдат>солдате; Ballad About a Soldier)
- For feminine nouns, also add –е
— For example: the proverb беда на беде, бедой погоняет (beda na bede, bedoy pogonyayet; беда>беде; misfortune never comes alone).
- Plural nouns end in –ах (or –ях for nouns with soft endings)
— For example: в “Известиях” (v Izvestiyakh; Известия>Иявестиях; in Izvestiya, a Russian daily newspaper).
- For soft-sign nouns, replace the ь with –e
— For example: в словаре (v slovare; словарь>словаре;in the dictionary)
Think about where a few of your friends or family members are at this moment, and make up sentences accordingly. For example:
- Моя мама сейчас на работе, сестра в школе, и мой друг в театре.
(работа>работе; школа>школе; театр>театре)
Moya mama seychas na rabote, sestra v shkole, i moy drug v teatre.
Right now my mum is at work, my sister’s at school, and my friend’s at the theatre.
How I took on the cases
When I look at my own personal journey with Russian cases, I remember desperately cramming endings the night before a first-year university exam in the hope of getting a good test score. In hindsight, rote learning made my journey slow, and it took a year or two before I could actually use them properly in speech.
I also found that there is a world of difference between filling in a gap in a grammar textbook exercise and trying to produce a grammatically correct sentence while ordering pancakes on the streets of Yaroslavl, so if I could have my time again, I’d try to focus on learning/practicing the endings in a more "real" speech setting — such as using the exercises that I’ve suggested in this article.
You’ll also find that, the more you listen to Russian, the more the case endings just start to sink in. After hearing a specific set phrase involving a case a few times, you may start to realize that your mind just “remembers” that particular instance of the case. You may even end up automatically applying the rule in other similar situations.
The good news is cases become more natural the more you use them, and as hard as it may be to believe, there may come a time when you don’t have to think about them any more. I would say they are fairly second nature for me these days — that’s not to say that I don’t ever stop to correct myself, but they are no longer the grammatical pain I once took them for!
I hope that this article has given you a succinct overview of the cases and will leave you familiar with their basic usages. If you take one thing away from this article, it’s that practicing the cases in context is the best possible shortcut to remembering and using them. You’ll notice that each of the Top Tips sections above gives you an exercise you can do to test yourself – feel free to come back to these several times to test yourself, and most importantly, get those case endings down!
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