Definiteness – tutorial covering the topic of definite and indefinite within Arabic Grammar as well as the major types of Arabic pronouns such as personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns and relative pronouns
Feel free to skip the broader discussion on definite and indefinite nouns in Arabic and jump directly to specific details about one of the following types of Arabic pronouns:
A word is considered definite when it refers to something specific in the world, and indefinite when it does not. For example, “a car” or “cars” do not refer to anything specific in the world and thus both examples are indefinite. Conversely, “my car” or “my cars” both refer to actual objects in the world and thus both examples are definite.
Some forms of definiteness, however, are stronger than others. Take, for example, a situation where two people are enquiring about the whereabouts of a third in a parking lot. Both conversers have cars parked in the lot. Now, if one says to the other, “Zaid is in the car,” Zaid may be in the car of either converser and thus the phrase “the car”, although definite, is slightly ambiguous. On the other hand, if one were to say, “Zaid is in my car,” then there is no ambiguity whatsoever. Hence, although both “the car” and “my car” are definite, the latter is more granular and specific than the former, and thus more definite (not only in this context, but more generally as well).
Notice that the concept of definiteness applies only to nouns, phrases, and sentences. This is because verbs and particles don’t have entities in the external world to begin with. Nouns, phrases, and sentences are the only forms of speech that correspond to objects/concepts in the real world.
In Arabic, words, phrases, and sentences are indefinite by default. In order to become definite, they must fall into one of the following categories. These categories are listed in the order of their granularity with the ones at the top being the weakest forms of definiteness.
a word made definite by
means of the definite article ال (Al)
compare “a car” with “the car”
a sentence made definite by
means of a relative pronoun
compare “the car was driven” with “the car that was driven”
“he”, “I”, “you”
objects of vocation
a noun which is possessive
to any of the above
compare “a car” with “Zaid’s car”
a special category
If a part of speech does not fall into one of these categories, it is indefinite.
The Definite Article
the definite article
a word made definite by the definite article
Al (ال) is a particle (حرف) in the Arabic language which is prefixed to nouns in order to render them definite. For example, the word “دراجة” (a bicycle) is indefinite by default but may be rendered definite by prefixing it with Al; “الدراجة” (the bicycle).
Although Al is a particle, it is typically treated as a prefix. Therefore, it is not considered when listing words in alphabetical order, it is not counted among the number of words in a phrase or sentence, and some dictionaries may not even reserve an entry for it.
Al is actually only one letter; the لام. Since this لام is without vowel, an eliding Hamza is required if speech is initiated with this particle. This is the only eliding Hamza in the language that is given a فتحة.
The letters of the Arabic alphabet are divided into two groups with respect to this particle; the sun letters and the moon letters. If Al is prefixed to a noun which starts with a moon letter, the لام is pronounced as expected (as in al-Qamar). And if it is prefixed to a noun which begins with a sun letter, the لام will geminate with that letter (as in ash-Shams).
ء ب ج ح خ ع غ ف ق ك م ه و ي
ت ث د ذ ر ز س ش ص ض ط ظ ل ن
In its capacity as the definite article, Al has two major functions. The first is to cause its noun to refer to something that has been mentioned. For example, “أرسلنا إلى فرعون رسولا. فعصى فرعون الرسول” (We sent to Pharaoh a messenger. But Pharaoh disobeyed the messenger.) In this statement, “the messenger” in the second sentence refers to the messenger that was spoken of in the first. And the second function of Al is to cause its noun to refer to something that, although not mentioned, is understood between the speaker and the listener. For example, when one says “المدينة” (the city), it is clear that the city being referred to is Medina of the Prophet (PBUH). Although nowhere in the speech has this been stated, yet it is agreed upon between the conversing parties.
Another function of Al is to refer to an entire class of things. For example, we may say that “the lion is a ferocious animal.” There is no particular lion to which we are referring; thus the purpose of the word “the” is to refer to the entire genus known as ‘lion’. Similarly, in Arabic, “إن الإنسان لفي خسر” (verily Man is in loss); here the ال on إنسان is not used to reference a particular human being, rather the entire class of humans. In this capacity, Al does not render the noun to which it is prefixed definite for obvious reasons; why?
Finally, another relatively common function of Al is to encompass all the individuals of the class which the noun to which it is prefixed represents. For example, “الحمد لله” (all praise is for Allah.) Here the Al is not referring to a particular praise, or a particular type of praise. Rather, it means all praise.
For what is perhaps one of the most detailed treatments on the Arabic definite article in history, refer to the reliable article Wikipedia | Al- (revision 265702317).
Relative Pronouns in Arabic
a relative pronoun
a relative clause
Recall that nouns, phrases, and sentences are indefinite by default. There are certain groups of nouns, however, that are definite; these are personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, proper nouns, and the word “Allah”. But this is a very exclusive list.
So, even if a noun does not fall into one of these categories, it can still be rendered definite using certain mechanisms such as becoming the object of vocation or become مضاف to something that it definite. But, again, these mechanisms are very specific and one may wish to render a noun definite without resorting to one of these structures.
Therefore, Arabic facilitates a very generic form of definiteness which is the definite article, Al. Any noun prefixed with this article automatically becomes definite and one can then satisfy the conditions of the noun-adjective structure, for example. Notice that the definite article is not only used to render nouns definite, but phrases as well. This is because the definiteness of a phrase usually depends on the definiteness of some or all of its components. For example, the noun-adjective phrase is definite when both of its components are definite, the إضافة phrase is definite when the مضاف إليه is definite, and so on.
But what about sentences? They, too, are indefinite by default and they, too, require a very generic mechanism of being rendered definite. But we cannot prefix the definite article to an entire sentence and so we need some other mechanism. The solution is to use relative pronouns. Relative pronouns, then, act like the definite article for sentences and render them definite when, for example, they need to become an adjective for a definite noun.
A relative pronoun is one that introduces a relative clause – an entire sentence – in order to relate it to the larger sentence in which it is embedded. In English, these are words like “who”, “what”, “which”, “that”, and so forth. For example, “النجم طمس” (the star dimmed) is an entire sentence, but “النجم الذي طمس” (the star which dimmed) is a phrase in which the embedded sentence “dimmed” is related to “the star” through the medium of the relative pronoun “which”.
Relative Pronouns in Arabic
The following charts display the most common relative pronouns in the language along with their genders and pluralities. The singulars and plurals of Group 1 are indeclinable, as are the pronouns in Group 2, and the endings are fixed as displayed.
Group 1 (pronouns used for humans only)
اللذان / اللذين
اللاتي، اللواتي، اللائي
اللتان / اللتين
Masculine & Feminine
Singular, Dual & Plural
Relative pronouns are followed by an entire sentence known as the relative clause. This sentence contains a personal pronoun that refers back to the relative pronoun and is appropriate to the meaning in gender, plurality, and person. This is not the case in English. In English, we would say “the star that dimmed”, whereas in Arabic we would say “the star that it dimmed”, where “it” is a personal pronoun that refers to the relative pronoun “that” and is appropriate to the meaning in gender, plurality, and person.
the personal pronoun in a relative clause that refers back to the relative pronoun
A few examples follow. For each example, try to identify the عائد. It may sometimes be omitted – especially when it’s the object of a verb – but that does not happen in any of the following examples.
الجنة التي أورثتموها
اللذين آتيناهم الكتابَ
واللذان يأتيانها منكم
واللائي لم يئسن
نسائكم اللاتي دخلتم بهن
ما أنتم عليه
ما هو شفاء ورحمة للمؤمنين
من متّعناه متاع الحياة الدنيا
من يأتيه عذاب يخزيه
ومن جهر به
It is a skill to be able to translate relative pronouns and their clauses correctly. Usually, one needs to translate a combination of the عائد, its governing word, and the relative pronoun together before starting to translate the relative clause. This comes with practice and, although there are a few examples below, real command of this comes through studying Arabic in a classroom environment.
Learning Arabic online through studying tutorials alone can only get you so far.
he whose speech regarding this worldly life will captivate you
من يُعجبك قولُه في الحياة الدنيا
he in whose heart is a disease
الذي في قلبه مرضٌ
he upon whom is the liability
الذي عليه الحقُ
Demonstrative Pronouns in Arabic
A demonstrative pronoun is a noun (اسم) which is used to point to something that has already been mentioned in some form or another. The pointing is either near (“this”), medial, or distant (“that”). For example:
هذا كتاب مبين
This is a clear book
كلما رُزقوا منها … قالوا هذا الذي رُزقنا من قبل
Whenever they are to be given sustenance therein,
they shall say, “this (i.e. this sustenance) is what we have been given prior.”
The demonstrative pronoun itself is definite.
The Demonstrative Pronouns and Their Meanings
The demonstrative pronouns are as follows. The purpose of displaying these is not for the reader to memorize them; they are simply presented here for reference and the ones that are popularly used are discussed further down.
ذا، ذاءِ، ذائِهِ، ذاؤُهُ، آلِكَ
ذي، تي، ذِهْ، ذِهِ، تِهْ، تِهِ، تا، ذاتُ
The charts below single out the demonstrative pronouns that are by far the most popular. The charts also show the different pluralities, genders, and how to achieve proximity or distance in the pointing by utilizing the prefix ها and the suffixes لـِ and ك. The singular and plural forms of each demonstrative pronoun are indeclinable and their endings are fixed as displayed.
Near Proximity (“this”)
هٰذانِ / هٰذَيْنِ
هٰتانِ / هٰـتَيْنِ
ذانِ / ذَيْنِ
Distant Proximity (“that”)
ذانِكَ / ذَيْنِكَ
تانِكَ / تَيْنِكَ
As one will notice, near proximity is achieved by prefixing the demonstrative pronoun ذا with ها – one of the particles of prodding, translated loosely as “Lo” or “Hey.” Medial proximity is achieved by simply leaving the demonstrative pronoun as is, and this is only realized for the masculine gender. Finally, distant proximity is achieved by appending the 2nd person pronominal suffix and the particle لـ before it. And it is also permissible to combine the ها and the pronominal suffix in one word, as in “هذاك”.
The 2nd person pronominal suffix will, in fact, inflect for gender and plurality – causing the demonstrative pronoun to vary, as in “ذلكما”, “ذلكم” and so forth. The inflection of this suffix is based on the gender and plurality of the audience and not the entity being pointed at. Thus, speaking to a group of men, for example, one would say “ذلكم الكتاب”. Notice that the pronominal suffix has changed based on the audience, not based on the plurality and gender of the word كتاب.
Some Secondary Notes
Notice, briefly, that each of the plurals listed in the charts above have a silent واو; it is not to be pronounced. Moreover, many of the الف in demonstrative pronouns have been omitted, and this has been indicated by placing a small الف atop the letter prior, as in “هٰذا”. This is done simply for ease since these words are used so commonly.
Below are a few examples of the usage of demonstrative pronouns. There are many things to take note of: Notice what happens in إضافة. Notice the difference in translation based on whether the thing being referenced has the definite article, Al, and when it does not. Notice that the plurals may only be used for humans. And so forth.
the plurals are used for, and only for, human entities
if the referenced entity does not begin with Al, a full sentence results; compare “this book” and “this is a book”
those are the righteous
أولئك هم الراشدون
but that’s not always the case
this is what we were provided
هذا الذي رزقنا
if the entity being referenced is a مضاف, the demonstrative pronoun must follow the entire إضافة structure
this is my inkpot
this inkpot of mine
proper noun; name
A proper noun is one which is specifically coined or designated to refer to a particular entity. Names of people, names of places, names of concepts such as theories are all examples of proper nouns. This, in Arabic, is known as علم from the base letters ع، ل، م (to know) because the علم is the علامة (or sign) of an entity by which we refer to it.
All proper nouns are definite.
Many names are fully declinable (such as حسنٌ), others have restricted declension (such as فاطمةُ), and certain names are completely indeclinable (such as سيبويهِ). Further discussion on علم is actually quite irrelevant and most rules regarding this type of noun are self-evident.
Personal Pronouns in Arabic
ضمير ج. ضمائر
مضمر ج. ـات
A personal pronoun is a noun (اسم) which is used to refer to something that has already been mentioned in some form or another. The reference is either in the third person (“he”, “she”, “they”, “it”, etc), the second person (“you”, etc), or the first person (“I’, “we”, etc). For example:
جاءني زيد. وهو كان يبكي
Zaid came to me. And he was crying.
اعدلوا؛ هو أقرب للتقوى
Be just; it (i.e. being just) is nigh to piety.
The personal pronouns themselves are definite.
The Personal Pronouns in Arabic
Arabic theoretically has 6 sets of pronouns; there are separate sets for the three grammatical states, and in each state, the pronoun may be attached to its agent or it may be isolated from it – ergo 6 sets.
Attached nominative pronouns (مرفوع متصل) are those that are suffixed to verbs; these are the endings of the perfect, imperfect, and imperative verbs we learn in Arabic verb conjugation. If the verb is active, then the attached pronoun is nominative because it is the subject of the verb. If the verb is passive, the pronoun is nominative because it is the deputy subject. If the verb is one of the sisters of كان, then the pronoun is nominative because it is the subject of كان.
If, for some reason, it is not possible to attach a nominative pronoun to its agent, we must then resort to using the unattached version (مرفوع منفصل). This occurs when there is nothing to which we can attach the pronoun, as is the case when it is مبتدأ as in “هو قائم.” This may also occur when there is something to which we can attach it but attachment is not appropriate, as is the case when it follows the particle إلا as in “لم يقم إلا هو”. And there are a few other, more rare cases where this occurs.
Attached accusative pronouns (منصوب متصل) are those that are attached to verbs as their direct objects, as in “ضربته,” or those that are attached to the particles that resemble verbs as their subjects, as in “إنه”.
When it is not possible to attach an accusative pronoun to its agent, we then resort to unattached accusative pronouns (منصوب منفصل). This happens when, for example, the direct object of a verb is brought before the verb and thus can no longer be attached to it. An example of this is “إياك نعبد.” And there are a few other situations where this occurs.
Attached genitive pronouns (مجرور متصل) are those that are مضاف إليه and attached to their مضاف, as in “كتابه”, or those that are objects of a preposition to which they are attached, as in “منه” . As a corollary to this point, notice that any pronoun attached to a noun (an اسم) must be مجرور متصل; why?
In practice, there is no set of genitive unattached personal pronouns. When the need arises to use these, either the nominative or the accusative unattached versions are used.
3rd person, masc. sing.
3rd person, masc. dual
3rd person, masc. pl.
3rd person, fem. sing.
3rd person, fem. dual
3rd person, fem. pl.
2nd person, masc. sing.
2nd person, masc. dual
2nd person, masc. pl.
2nd person, fem. sing.
2nd person, fem. dual
2nd person, fem. pl.
1st person, singular
1st person, non-singular
Things to Note
Notice that the attached pronouns are exactly the same for both the accusative and genitive states. We mention the two sets separately, yet we do not mention the unattached genitive pronouns separately (they are completely omitted). Take a moment to understand what is being said. Now, this is because the attached genitives always share their form with the attached accusatives, but the unattached genitives share their form with the unattached accusatives at times, and with the unattached nominatives at other times. Moreover, the need for unattached genitives is extraordinarily infrequent and it is not worth listing those pronouns separately.
Notice further that the unattached accusatives are simply the attached accusatives prefixed with the إيا placeholder. This makes it very easy to memorize the three columns to the left in the chart above.
Also notice that, for the second person pronouns, the unattached nominatives are the same as the other three tables save that the أن placeholder is prefixed to them and the letter ك is replaced with the letter ت. The endings, however, are exactly the same.
It is very crucial to refer back to the chart when taking note of these things.
Finally, it is important to note that in the nominative pronouns attached to verbs, certain conjugations do not actually have a suffix. Take, for example, فعل, where there is no suffix to the verb. Take, also, both the active and passive participles which, although they have subjects, their subjects are not always visible. This does not mean that the pronoun doesn’t exist; it merely means that it is concealed.
concealed within the verb
This phenomenon of pronoun hiding can occur in conjugations 1 & 4 for the perfect verb, in conjugations 1, 4, 7, 13, & 14 for the imperfect verb, in conjugation 1 of the imperatives, and in the active and passive participles.
Note 1: If clusters involving pronouns occur, the cluster will be reduced by giving the final letter on the pronoun a ضمة. For example: “همُ المتقون.”
Note 2: If the pronouns ـه, ـهما, ـهم, or ـهن are preceded by a يْ or a كسرة, the vowel on the ه will be a كسرة as opposed to the regular ضمة. Examples include “عليهِم”, “سَلْنيهِ”, “من جلابيبهِن”.
Note 3: If the nominative or genitive 1st person singular pronouns are preceded by an Aleph, as in “نعلاي” (my two sandals), the pronoun ي will be vowelled with a فتحة: “نعلايَ”.
Note 4: If the pronoun ـي is appended to a verb, it will be preceded by a نون known as the نون الوقاية. The purpose of this نون is to prevent the verb from receiving a كسرة vowel that the ـي pronoun necessitates before it. One will say, for example, “سألنتمونيها.” This also occurs with certain particles such as in “ليتني”, “منّي”, and “عنّي”.
Note 5: The pronoun أنا has a silent Aleph at its end. The purpose of this Aleph is to show that, if this pronoun were to occur at the end of a sentence, وقف will not occur and the فتحة on the نون will be pronounced.
Note 6: Notice that the first person pronouns do not include a dual version. This is a consequence of the definition of duality in Arabic. Singularity means for there to be one of something, and plurality means for there to be three or more. Duality, on the other hand, means ‘for something to have with it another like it’. Hence the understanding behind كتابان, for example, is كتاب وكتاب (a book and a book). This works perfectly for “him and him” as well as “you and you”, but it does not apply for “me and I” since both refer to the same entity. Hence having a first person dual does not make sense.
The Object of Vocation
the object of a vocation
Vocation is the act of summoning an entity, as in “Hey, Zaid” or “O God.” The object of vocation, the thing being summoned, is always definite because, in order to summon an entity, that entity must be well defined. In the examples, ‘Zaid’ and ‘God’ are definite. Notice that the object of vocation may already be definite; however, if it is not, it will become definite. There are instances, granted, where one may call out at random as in “يا رجلا، خذ يبدي” (O someone, help! Grab my hand.) In such cases, the object of vocation will not be definite.
How to Use Vocation in Arabic
The particles used to summon are divided based on whether the entity being summoned is distant or near. And they are as follows.
يا، أيْ، آ، هيا
The most commonly used particle of vocation, by far, is يا. Many a time these particles are omitted when it is clear that the speaker is calling out. And this happens quite frequently.
The grammatical state of the object of vocation is of some interest. Basically speaking, if the object is a single word, it is given the reflection of the nominative case but is considered indeclinable, and it does not received nunation (تنوين). If, on the other hand, the object is not a single word, or it is random vocation – as in “O someone, grab my hand!” – then it will be accusative and it will receive nunation. Some examples follow.
يا ذا القرنين
يا طالعا جبلا
يا مسلمي مصر
يا رجلا! خذ بيدي
A final point to note is that if the object of vocation is prefixed with the definite article, Al, the vocative particle يا will not precede it directly. Instead, the particle أيها or أيتها will interfere; the former when the object is masculine, and the latter when it is feminine. Some examples follow.
يا أيها الذين آمنوا
يا أيتها النفس المطمئنة
Notice that أيها and أيتها are required even if the vocative particle يا is omitted, as, as mentioned, is often the case. Moreover, the word الله in particular, although prefixed with Al, does not require this particle. A few examples of evoking Allah have been given below, with the most popular forms at the top.
There is far more that can said about vocation. However, it is of limited importance.
One of the purposes of the genitival phrase, as discussed in an introductory fashion in Arabic Phrases and elaborated upon in Genitival States, is to express possession for one thing of another. In إضافة معنوية, the possessed entity (the مضاف) inherits its level of definiteness from the possessor (the مضاف إليه).
In the following example, since the مضاف إليه is indefinite, the مضاف is also indefinite.
a boy’s father
Although the word ابو is indefinite, it is, however, somewhat specific. The idea is that this is the father of a boy, and not a father of a girl. Put differently, although indefinite, أبو ولد is at least slightly more specific than just أب.
And in the following example, because the مضاف إليه is definite by means of Al, the مضاف is also definite and its level of definiteness is inherited. So it is as if it, too, is definite by means of Al.
the boy’s father
A Special Category
واعلم أن أعرف المعارف هو ضمير التكلم المفرد لأنك إذا استخدمته فقد انتقل ذهن السامع إلى صورة خاصة وهي أنت. وعند استخدامك المواصل والأعلام مثلا فليس من المستحيل أن يزعم السامع غير ما أردت مثل قولك مات الذي عندي وعندك أشخاص عديدة وقولك مات زيد ويكون زيدون كثيرون في العالم. ولكن لا بد عند قولك جئت أنا أن يعتقد السامع يقينا أن الجائي هو فرد معين حد التعيين وهو أنت.
ولكن ههنا بحث نفيس. تخيل الجدار وأمامه زيد. وخلف الجدار أشخاص هائلة لكن متقاربة الأصوات. فإذا يتكلم أحد منهم قائلا انا اسمي عمرو فيتكلم آخر قائلا وانا أبو سعد فمن الممكن أن يعتقد زيد أن خلف الجدار فرد واحد اسمه عمرو وعنده ولد مسمى بسعد. فحينئذ قد شككت كلمة انا.
وإضافة إلى ذلك: ضمير التكلم ولو يصدق على فرد واحد في حين مقضي صح استعماله وصدقه بكل آحاد العالم في وقت ما. فإذا استعمله زيد مرة فعودته إلى زيد وإذا استعمله عمرو مرة فعودته إلى عمرو حينئذ. فليس في الخارج نوع يصدق عليه انا مطلقا. وهذا كشأن البيضة في كتب المنطق، فافهم.
ولكن عندنا لفظ آخر على حد التعريف وحرف الفريدية. يصدق على فرد واحد مطلقا في كل مكان وفي كل زمان وخارجا من كل أفواه ولو بخلاف اعتقاد الكثير. ولا يزال يرف فوق طرف التعريف بل مجوازا عنه ولن يتنزل أبدا قط عوض. وهو اسم ذات الواجب الوجود المنفرد في جلاله الله رب المشارق والمغارب. وهذا هو الدرجة الآخرة في المعارف ومن زعم أنه نوع فوقه أو سواه بضمير التكلم فقد ابلهّ.
FAQ on Arabic Pronouns
What are the pronouns in Arabic?
The categories of pronouns in Arabic include demonstrative pronouns (this, that, etc.), relative pronouns (who, what, which, that etc), and personal pronouns (he, you, we, etc.). Personal pronouns divide into 5 categories which are covered in the main article above. In general, pronouns are used to refer to something that has already been mentioned in some form or another.
What is ISM ishara?
Ismul ishara refers to demonstrative pronouns, which are pronouns used to point to something that has already been mentioned in some form or another. Ismul ishara are of two types: near (this هٰذا) or far (that ذٰلِكَ).
What does tilka mean in Arabic?
Tilka is the feminine form of the demonstrative pronoun in Arabic used to refer to a distant object. tilka shajaratun (تلك شجرة), for example, means that is a tree.
What does zalika mean in Arabic?
Zalika is the masculine form of the demonstrative pronoun in Arabic used to refer to a distant object. Zalika qalamun (ذلك قلم), for example, means that is a pen.