Arabic case system


First, what are case endings in Arabic? They are little markings (حركات Harakaat) that are attached to the ends of words to indicate the words' grammatical function. That is, if a word is the subject of a sentence, you use a case ending to indicate that; if a word is the object of a verb, you use another case ending to indicate that. So clearly, using case endings correctly requires a solid knowledge of grammar. If you're a native English speaker who hasn't studied a language with a case system, like Latin or Russian, getting used to this may be difficult.

Case endings are usually not written (with one exception) outside of the Qur'an/Bible and children's books. But you will hear newscasters pronounce them, and if you want to speak fuSHa well, it's a good idea to be familiar with the case system. Each case marker corresponds to one of three different cases — nominative (مرفوع marfū3), genitive (مجرور majrūr), and accusative (منصوب manSūb) — and is pronounced as a short vowel. Here are the three case markers:

Images of fatHa, Damma, kasra

On the left is the ضمة (Damma). It resembles a tiny و, goes above the end of a word, and is pronounced as a short "u." It marks words in the nominative case. In the middle is the كسرة (kasra), which goes below the end of a word and is pronounced as a short "i." It marks words in the genitive case. On the right is the فتحة (fatHa), which goes above the end of a word and is pronounced as a short "a." It marks words in the accusative case.

Note: If the word you're marking is an indefinite adjective or noun, the case marker will be nunated. That is, the Damma will be pronounced "-un" instead of "-u," the kasra will be pronounced "-in" instead of "-i," and the fatHa will be pronounced "-an" instead of "-a." And the markings will look like this:

Images of nunated fatHa, Damma, kasra

Some examples:

اللقاءَ (al-liqaa'a)لقاءً (liqaa'an)
المكتبُ (al-maktabu)مكتبٌ (maktabun)
المكتبةَ (al-maktabata)مكتبةً (maktabatan)
طاولةِ (Taawilati)طاولةٍ (Taawilatin)

Note: If a word in the accusative case (i.e. that needs a fatHa) is nunated and does not end in a taa marbuuTa or hamza, it would take an alif along with the nunated fatHa.

الولدَ (al-walada)ولدا (waladan)
البنتَ (al-binta)بنتا (bintan)
السعيدَ (as-sa3iida)سعيدا (sa3iidan)
الحزينَ (al-Haziina)حزينا (Haziinan)

So when exactly do you use these case markers? Let's go on to discuss the three cases.

Nominative case - المرفوع (al-marfū3)

This case is marked by a Damma. Words that fall into the following categories are nominative:

  1. الفاعل في جملة فعلية - the subject of a verbal sentence
    ذهبَ الولدُ إلى المدرسةِ. (dahaba l-waladu ila l-madrasati.)
    The boy went to school.
  2. المبتدأ والخبر في جملة اسمية - the subject and predicate of a nominal sentence
    الولدُ طويلٌ. (al-waladu Tawīlun.)
    The boy is tall. Note that طويل is nunated (-un instead of just -u) because it is indefinite.

    بيتُ البنتِ كبيرٌ. (beitu l-binti kabīrun.)
    The girl's house is large. Again, note the nunation of the indefinite adjective كبير.
  3. النداء - the vocative (addressing someone directly)
    أيها السيداتُ والسادةُ... (ayyuha s-sayyidātu was-sādatu...)
    Ladies and gentlemen...
  4. The nominative case is also the default for words that are on their own.
    الشرق الأوسط (aš-šarqu l-awsaTu)
    the Middle East
  5. It's also used with certain adverbs regardless of their position in the sentence.
    منذُ (mundu)
    since; ago

    حيثُ (Haytu)
    where; whereas

Genitive case - المجرور (al-majrūr)

This case is marked by a kasra. Words that fall into the following categories are genitive:

  1. The object of a preposition
    إلى اليمين (ila l-yamīni)
    to the right

    في المكتبةِ (fi l-maktabati)
    in the library
  2. ظرف مكان وظرف زمان - the object of a locative adverb
    تحتَ نورِ الشمسِ (taHta nūri š-šamsi)
    under the sunlight (lit. light of the sun)

    قبلَ أيامٍ (qabla ayyāmin)
    [a few] days ago (lit. before days) - Note the nunation of the indefinite noun أيام.
  3. المضاف اليه - the second term of an iDāfa
    مديرُ المؤسسةِ (mudīru l-mu'assasati)
    the foundation's director (or "the director of the foundation")

    غرفة التجارةِ (ġurfatu t-tijārati)
    the chamber of commerce

Accusative case - المنصوب (al-manSūb)

This case is marked by a fatHa. Words that fall into the following categories are accusative:

  1. المفعول به - the object of a transitive verb
    لا تشعل نارا (la tuš3il nāran)
    Don't light a fire. Again, نار is nunated because it is indefinite. It has an alif because it ordinarily would have a regular fatHa, and doesn't end in a taa marbuuTa or hamza.

    حضروا اللقاءَ (HaDarū l-liqā'a)
    They attended the meeting.
  2. المفعول فيه - adverbial expressions of time, place, and manner, indicating the circumstances under which an action takes place
    تستمرُ يوما واحدا. (tastamirru yooman wāHidan.)
    It lasts one day.

    جاءوا فجرَ يومِ الاقتراعِ. (jā'ū fajra yoomi l-iqtirā3i.)
    They came at dawn on the day of balloting.

    حصلتُ حديثا على الجنسيةِ. (HaSaltu Hadītan 3ala l-jinsiyyati.)
    I recently obtained citizenship.
  3. المفعول المطلق - the internal object or cognate accusative structure. What does that mean? It's just a way of intensifying an action by following the verb with its corresponding verbal noun (مصدر maSdar) and an adjective modifying it.
    حلّت الموضوعَ حلا جذريا. (Hallati l-mawDū3a Hallan jidriyyan.)
    It solved the issue fundamentally.

    ساهما مساهمةَ فعّالةَ. (sāhamā musāhamatan fa33ālatan.)
    They [dual] participated effectively.
  4. الحال - the circumstantial accusative. This is a way to describe a condition/action going on at the same time as the main action.
    رفعَ يدَه معترضا. (rafa3a yadahu mu3tariDan.)
    He raised his hand objecting.

    دخلَ الصفَ متأخرا. (daxala S-Saffa muta'axxiran.)
    He entered class late.

    قفزتْ مذعورةً. (qafazat mad3ūratan.)
    She jumped, frightened.

    وقالَ ردا على سؤالِ... (wa-qāla raddan 3ala su'ālin...)
    [And] he said, replying to a question...
  5. المفعول لأجله - shows the purpose of an action, usually using an indefinite مصدر.
    القواتُ تشنُ حملةً بحثا عن أسلحةٍ. (al-quwwātu tašunnu Hamlatan baHtan 3an asliHatin.)
    The forces are launching a campaign searching for weapons.

    خلالَ حفلةِ استقبالٍ أقاموها تكريما له (xilāla Haflatin istiqbālin aqāmūha takrīman lahu)
    during a reception they gave in his honor
  6. التمييز - the accusative of specification; often answers the question "in what way?" Includes the comparative/superlative and counted nouns between 11 and 99.
    نعلنُ ذاكَ قولا وفعلا. (nu3linu dāka qawlan wa-fi3lan.)
    We announce that in speech and action.

    كانتْ أكبرَ عاصمةٍ جاها وفخامةً. (kānat akbara 3āSimatin jāhan wa-faxāmatan.)
    It was the greatest capital in fame and splendor.

    في عشرينَ مجلّدا (fī 3išrīna mujalladan)
    in twenty volumes

    على مدى خمسةً عشرَ عاما (3ala mada xamsata 3ašra 3āman)
    for fifteen years

Those are the main instances where you use the accusative. There are also other, special words that shift words into the accusative case:

كان وأخواتها - إنّ وأخواتها - ظنّ وأخواتها
Click here for more information on that.

A couple of notes:

With feminine plural nouns ending in ـات, change any fatHa that would ordinarily go at the end to a kasra.

غسلَ الرجلُ السياراتِ. (ġasala l-rajulu s-sayyārāti.)
The man washed the cars. It has to be sayyārāti, not sayyārāta!

Note that dual and regular plural nouns like بنتان (bintān, two girls) or مصريون (miSriyūn, Egyptians) change endings in the genitive case; the ـان (ān) becomes ـين (-ein), and the ـون (ūn) becomes ـين (-īn).

هذانِ الكتابانُ (hādāni l-kitaabaanu)في هذينِ الكتابينِ (fī hādeini l-kitābeini)
these two booksin these two books
عقدَ المديرُ اجتماعاً مع الموظفينَ. (3aqada l-mudīru ijtimā3an ma3a l-muwaZZafīna.)
The director held a meeting with the employees.

Main grammar page kaana, inna, Zanna, and their sisters