Indefinite Noun in Arabic (نكرة)

In this lesson on ilm ul-balagha, we are going to talk about why you would leave the subject of your sentence indefinite (نكرة). 

Why Would you Leave the Subject of your Sentence Indefinite? 

1. For Singularity 

The first and primary reason is to indicate on singularity

For example, Allah says: 

example from the Quran of an indefinite ism as subject

Here the subject is: رجل (man). It is indefinite to show there was only one man. The fact that it was only one man is already understood from the fact that the word رجل is singular. The plural being رجال. But the indefiniteness of this word hyperbolizes this singularity. In some cases you might even translate it as: “there came one man” , or “there came a single man”, or something along those lines. 

This is getting a little deep, but what indefiniteness in Arabic does to a noun is it puts focus on the fact that the noun is what is called a universal. In other words, indefiniteness stresses the fact that this man is just one of many men in existence. So, you are splitting the universal called men into individuals, and then you are selecting one of those individuals. That is how you get the “a” man translation. 

In fact, this idea of splitting the universal into individuals is at the root of the other reasons for leaving the subject indefinite, which we are going to talk about immediately. We are not going to be talking at such a deep level, just to keep things simple. 

2. For Classification 

The second reason for leaving the subject indefinite is to show which type of thing the subject is. 

For example, Allah says: 

Quranic example of nikara ism

The point here is to show that it was a veil on their eyes as opposed to something else. This alleviates having to say “as opposed to something else”, مِنْ دُونِهِ in Arabic. 

3. For Grandeur 

The third reason for leaving the subject indefinite is to show how great it is. 

For example, the poet says: 

tanween of tazeem or indefinite for the purpose of greatness

What the poet means is that the person who he is praising, nothing can fault him and nothing can stand in his way from doing good. The poet says he has a preventative (له حاجب). Not الحاجب, but حاجبٌ. Not just any preventative, but a great and huge preventative. This “great” and “huge” is coming from the fact that the word is indefinite and it has a tanween

4. For Belittlement 

The next reason for leaving the subject indefinite is the exact opposite. Not to make it seem great, but to belittle it. 

tanween of scarcity or making a word indefinite in Arabic for scarcity

Consider the same example as above. In the second couplet the poet says there is no preventative from him doing any good. Meaning nothing, even the tiniest thing cannot prevent him from doing good. Let alone a big thing. But again, not الحاجب, but حاجبٌ. You don’t translate it as “he has no preventative”. But you say: “He hasn’t the tiniest preventative”. 

Whether the indefiniteness and tanween are for showing greatness or showing tininess, is based on the context. But they do have both possibilities. Like I said, we won’t get into this, but these possibilities come about by virtue of the fact that the indefiniteness puts focus on the fact that the subject is a whole made up of parts. 

5. For Multiplicity 

The next reason for leaving the subject indefinite, is not to show how great it is, but to show how numerous and plentiful it is. 

Like the Arabs say: 

indifinite ism in Arabic indicating multiplicity

Notice the “many a” translation. 

6. For Lack of Multiplicity 

Finally, the last reason for leaving the subject indefinite is the exact opposite. It is to show that it is in small quantities

For example, Allah says: 

nakirah ism showing lack of multiplicity in Arabic

This is saying that even a little bit of pleasure is good from Allah, so what about a great pleasure? 

Before we finish, I just want to say that we haven’t necessarily exhausted all the reasons in this lesson. Moreover, more than one of these reasons may apply at any given time. They are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, these reasons for keeping the subject indefinite aren’t always limited to the subject of a sentence. These same reasons can apply to indefinite words whether they are the subject or whether they are something else, in many cases.