Omitting the subject of an Arabic sentence

In this lesson on Ilm ul ma’aani we are going to start talking about the things that can happen to the subject of an Arabic sentence. We are going to discuss the omission of the subject. A concept in Arabic known as حذف. 

Subject: Reasons for Omission & Mention

Just as a brief review. We have two sentences here: 

Standard Arabic sentences where the subject is mentioned

The first is a جملة إسمية (nominal sentence) and the second is a جملة فعلية (verbal sentence). 

In the first sentence: “Allah is the Creator of all things”, الله is the subject and خالق كل شيء is the predicate. 

In the second sentence: “Zaid hit Amr”, ضَرَبَ is the verb, زيدٌ is the subject and عمرًا is the object of the verb ضَرَبَ. 

What happens if you want to omit the subject of the sentences? We get this:

Arabic sentences where the subject of the sentence has been omitted

You just take away the subject. 

In the first case خالق كل شيء, it is understood to be اللهُ خالق كل شيء (Allah is the Creator of all things). 

In the second example you end up with ضرب عمراً (He hit Amr)

It is pretty simple. As you come to thoroughly learn from grammar, there are certain cases where you are allowed to omit the subject of your sentence and there are certain cases where you are not allowed to do that. 

In Ilm ul ma’aani, of those places where you are allowed to omit the subject we want to know: why would you or why wouldn’t you?

Before we get to those reasons, notice in the example ضرب عمراً , in Arabic we are actually able to get rid of the subject. You can’t point to it. In English, we can’t always do this. Sometimes we can omit it, other times the best we can hope for is to replace the subject with a pronoun. When translating ضرب عمراً, we can’t say: “Hit Amr”. We have to say “He hit Amr”. We can’t omit the subject; we have to replace it with a pronoun. Just keep that in mind when you are looking at the examples. 

Reasons to Omit 

We will discuss twelve reasons why we might want to omit the subject of an Arabic sentence: 

1. Subject is Needless or Known

Subject is very obvious, there is no need to mention it. 

E.g. Friend: “How do you feel?”

Me: “[I’m] sick”

If you feel a bit ill, I might ask you: “How do you feel?” You might say: “sick”. You won’t say: “I am sick”, because you’d sound like someone who is learning the language for the first time and you are trying to get all the grammar right. 

2. Leave it to Them to Figure it out

The second reason for omitting the subject is you want to leave it up to your audience to figure out what the subject is. 

E.g. I am handing you a gift: “[This is] a token of my appreciation”. 

If we have been friends all our lives, and you have taken very good care of me, and now we are parting ways for whatever reason I might hand you a gift and say: “a token of my appreciation”. The entire sentence is: “This is a token of my appreciation”, but I omitted the subject because I want to leave it up to you to figure out that this gift that I am handing you is the very token of appreciation I am speaking of. It is quite obvious, not as obvious as the previous example. But the point is I am leaving it up to you to figure it out. 

Why would I do that? There are many reasons for that as well. E.g. I don’t want to be condescending, I want to cater to your intelligence, etc. You can think of many reasons why you might want to leave it up to your audience to figure it out. 

3. Gage Their Intellect/Attention

The third reason is you want to gauge whether your audience is intelligent enough to figure out what you are talking about. Or not their intelligence but maybe their attention span, i.e. are they paying attention to you. 

E.g. I am dictating a sophisticated article: “… pathetic!”

If you are a teacher, you might be reading an article from The Economist that talks about the Eurozone crisis. At the end of the article you say: “Pathetic!”. You didn’t say what is pathetic, you just say the predicate. You want to see are the students smart enough to understand what you are calling pathetic. Is it government profligacy? Is it the concept of interest and borrowing? Are you calling the article itself pathetic? So, you want to gauge their intelligence. Or you want to see if they are still awake, do they know what you are still talking about when you say: “pathetic!”?

4. In Reverence of the Subject

The example for this fourth reason is “[Allah is] Creator of all things”.

You would say: “Creator of all things”, referring to Allah. But you don’t actually say: “Allah is the Creator of all things”. Because you don’t think your tongue is worthy enough to utter the subject, in reverence/awe of the subject. I admit, this is not a terribly great example. In Islam, we want to mention Allah’s name even more, but you get the idea. 

This is kind of like, in Judaism you don’t want to mention God’s name, or in Harry Potter “the one who shall not be named”.

5. In Hatred of the Subject

In contrary to that, the fifth reason why you might not want to mention the subject is in hatred of it. Previously you didn’t think your tongue was worthy enough to speak the subject. Here you don’t want to sully your tongue by speaking the subject. 

E.g. You: “He [Zaid] called again today”.

If you and Zaid aren’t on very good terms, you hate each other’s guts, if Zaid calls, you might say to your friend: “He called again today”. The person you are talking to understands you are talking about Zaid but you don’t mention him because you just hate him so much. 

6. To Facilitate Denying It Later

The sixth reason for possibly omitting the subject is to facilitate changing the subject later.

E.g. You: “… so stupid!” 

Friend: “Who me?” 

You: “Oh no, I was talking about X”. 

You might say to someone: “…so stupid!”. The person you are talking about might turn around and say: “Who me?”, and you say: “Oh no, I was talking about X”. Because you didn’t say the subject explicitly, you are able to deny it later. 

7. As if the Subject is None Other

To show that it could be none other than. 

E.g. Harold: “Vanquisher of enemies. Drinker of lions blood”

Remember the first reason you might want to omit the subject is because it is obvious. The seventh reason is not because it is obvious, but because you want to show that it is obvious. If a Harold is announcing the entrance of a Prince into the castle, he might say: “Vanquisher of enemies. Drinker of lions blood”. He didn’t say: “The Prince is the vanquisher of enemies. The Prince is drinker of lions blood”, because he wants to put in your mind the fact that given this predicate, who other than the Prince could the subject possibly be? This is an honour for the subject. 

8. Depression, Agitation, etc.

If a person is depressed or agitated, they don’t want to elongate their speech, they want to be as short as possible. For that reason, they don’t mention the subject. 

E.g. You: “How are things?”

Normal: “Everything is great”. 

Depressed: “… miserable”. 

Agitated: “… fine, fine”. 

If you ask someone: “How are things?” 

A person who is in a normal mood might say: “Everything is great”. They will mention the subject: “everything”.  

But if a person is depressed, they are not going to say: “I’m miserable”, they will say: “… miserable”. The subject “I’m” is not obvious because you asked: “How’s everything?”. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to talk about yourself, you could talk about your work or something like that. It is not obvious but you still say: “miserable”, because you don’t want to talk too much. 

Similarly, an agitated person would say: “… fine, fine”. He doesn’t say: “I’m fine”, because he is in a rush.  

9. Limited Opportunity

There is a limited opportunity.

E.g. You see a snake, so you yell: “[There’s a] snake!” 

If you see a snake and there are a bunch of people around, you will yell “SNAKE!”. You won’t say: “There’s a snake!”. It calls for an emergency.

Need to Maintain the Rhyme (10th Reason)

You want to maintain the meter or the rhythm of a couplet. 

E.g. In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, he says: 

But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door 

Perched, and sat, and nothing more. 

In the last line, there are two verbs: “perched” and “sat”. He didn’t say: “It was perched” or “It sat”. Because otherwise it would ruin the flow and wouldn’t match the previous stanzas. 

11. To Keep the Subject Secret

Keep it a secret so no one around you will figure it out. It is a secret between you and the listener (your audience).

E.g. Friend: “Zaid slacks off too much”. 

Enter all employees including Zaid

Friend: “Shh, he’s here”. 

Someone at work says: “Zaid slacks off too much”. Then a whole bunch of employees enter the room that you’re in, including Zaid, then the friend says: “shh, he’s here”. In Arabic you would say جَاءَ, you wouldn’t mention who came, i.e. you wouldn’t mention the subject explicitly, because you want to keep it a secret between you two. 

12. Need to Maintain Wording

You need to maintain the wording of a quote or adage. 

E.g. Wording: “[That was] beginning’s luck”. 

If you are playing pool and you are really experienced and a beginner beats you, you would say: “beginner’s luck”. That is just the predicate, the full thing is: “That was beginner’s luck”. But it’s a common quote, so that is how you say it. The equivalent of that in Arabic is: رمية من غير رام. 

رمية means: “the dart that hits it’s target/ the bulls eye”, من غير  means: “without”, and رام means: “an archer”. This is saying a bull’s eye without there being a good archer, i.e. beginner’s luck. Notice even in Arabic it is supposed to be: هِي رمية من غير رام , That was beginner’s luck. 

These were a dozen examples that explained why you might want to omit the subject of an Arabic sentence when you are allowed to. The reasons aren’t mutually exclusive. You can omit the subject for more than one of these twelve reasons. It is not limited to these twelve, as you can probably guess for yourself. The norm is not to omit the subject of a sentence. The norm is to actually bring the subject. 

Reasons to Mention the Subject 

Sometimes one of these reasons might come up and you go against the norm, and you omit the subject, but then an even greater reason comes along that says that even though you have omitted it, you should really bring it back. 

What are those greater reasons that would force you to mention the subject even though one of the earlier omission reasons apply? I.e. reasons why you would especially want to mention the subject, not just because it is the normal thing to do. 

The reasons to mention the subject: 

1. The Subject May Be Confused

The subject may be confused. There is potential your audience could confuse what the subject is, then you really shouldn’t omit it, even though one of the twelve reasons we mentioned applies.

E.g. Friend: “How are you guys?”

You: “I’m okay”. 

If you are with a group of people and a friend comes along and say: “How are you guys?”, and you say: “I’m okay”. If you were to just say: “okay”, maybe he was to think you are talking about the entire group. But you want to say: “I’m okay”. 

2. To Stress the Subject

Stress the subject. 

E.g. Friend: “How are you guys?”

You: “Well, I’m okay”. 

If all the people around you are very miserable and you are really happy. A friend comes along and says: “How are you guys?”. You say: “I’m okay”. You are stressing the fact that you’re okay. 

To Be Condescending (3rd Reason)

The third reason is to be condescending to your audience. 

E.g. Friend: “Whose name tag is this?”

You: “This is mine”.  

Someone comes up to you and says: “Whose name tag is this?”. That’s a stupid question because the person’s name is on the tag. So you say: “This. is. mine.”. You are being really condescending. 

4. In Honour of the Subject

In honour of it. 

Remember one of the reasons to omit the subject is in reverence of it (i.e. the subject). You don’t think your tongue is worthy of mentioning it. In this case it is the same reasoning, but it is the opposite effect. You are mentioning it because you revere and honour it. 

E.g. Friend: “Has the judge made a ruling yet?”

You: No, his honour, the judge is still deliberating”. 

You don’t need to say: “His honour, the judge is still deliberating”. You can just say: “he is…”, but you mention “his honour, the judge” because you want to give greater honour to the judge. 

5. In Ridicule of the Subject

You want to ridicule the subject. Remember one of the reasons you would want to omit the subject of your sentence is because you hate it, you don’t want to sully your tongue by mentioning the subject. This is very similar. You want to ridicule the subject so you keep mentioning it over and over. Similar reasoning but a different thing you are doing. 

E.g. A Briton: “O look, the American has arrived”. 

Another: “Now the American is eating a cheeseburger”. 

You mention especially a quality of theirs that is worthy of ridicule. 

6. To Achieve Blessings

To achieve blessings from it. 

E.g. A Muslim: “Did the Prophet (peace be upon him) really say this?”

Imam: “Yes, the Prophet (peace be upon him) is recorded to have said this”. 

Someone might ask the Imam: “Did the Prophet (peace be upon him) say this?” So, he replies: “Yes, The Prophet (peace be upon) is recorded to have said this”. 

He didn’t have to say: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) is recorded to have said this”. He could have just said: “Yes, he (peace be upon him) is recorded to have said this”. But like you will notice in the Islamic community we mention the Prophet (peace be upon him) all the time. Even though we could mention a pronoun, we mention “The Prophet (peace be upon him)”, “The Messenger of Allah” or “Muhammad (peace be upon him)” over and over to achieve blessing and in honour as well. 

7. Out of Love for the Subject

Out of love of the subject. 

E.g. Poet: Leila is my one true love. Leila is the reason I am a poet. Ah, Leila.

You keep mentioning the name over and over because you derive so much pleasure and benefit. 

8. Use the Stature of the Subject

Use the subject’s stature. You are mentioning the subject because you want to use the power it wields. 

E.g. Admiral: “Did the president give this order?”

Cadet: “Yes, the president himself gave this order”. 

The admiral of an army might say: “Did the president give this order?” A cadet would say: “Yes, the president himself gave this order”. The cadet didn’t just say “Yes, he gave this order”. He said: “The president gave this order”, in order to use the stature of the president to validate what the cadet is saying. 

9. The Subject is Unexpected

The subject is unexpected. 

E.g. Friend: “You believe in Big Foot?”

You: “Yes, Big Foot made these footprints I tell you”. 

If a friend says: “You believe in big foot?” You say: “Big Foot made these footprints I tell you”.   He mentions it again because it is so weird and awkward and out of the ordinary that you mention it again to really say that it really was this. 

10. To Prevent Misinterpretation Later

To prevent misinterpretation happening later. 

Remember in one of the reasons why you might want to omit the subject is so you can deny it later. This is the opposite. You don’t want any misinterpretation later. The teacher says: “Did you see Zaid hit Amr?” A tattletale student says: “Yes, I saw it with my own eyes Miss, Zaid hit Amr”. She is already talking about Zaid, you don’t need to say Zaid again, you can say: “Yes, he hit Amr”.  So, there can be no this way and that way later on.