Verbal Sentence in Arabic – the tutorial deals with subjects, objects, active and passive verbs, and adverbs
Table of Contents
What is this Tutorial About?
The tutorial entitled Introduction to Arabic Grammar gives a basic outline of the parts of speech in Arabic and one of the ideal ways in which to approach the topics in grammar. The Heart of Arabic Grammar then deals with the core concepts in the language and introduces the idea of grammatical states. Subsequently, Arabic Inflection talks about those parts of speech in the language that experience these states and those that do not, while Arabic Reflection talks about how this inflection is represented on words. And finally, in the introduction to Nominal Sentences is a brief overture to the 22 types of grammatical processes that bring about change in grammatical state and the 4 types of processes that extend grammatical state from one word to another.
Nominal Sentences also deals with 10 of the 22 grammatical processes by giving a detailed account of one of the two types of sentences in the Arabic language. This tutorial now gives a detailed account of the other type – namely, verbal sentences. In discussing Arabic verbal sentences, another 7 of the 22 processes will be dealt with.
A very significant chunk of the discussion on verbal sentences in Arabic has to do with direct objects and adverbs. These concepts have been discussed quite thoroughly in Arabic Adverbs and that discussion will be supplemented in this tutorial with more advanced concepts.
Recall that nominal sentences must have at least two components; they must contain a topic and a comment. Either of the two components may be hidden, but they are always assumed to be there in some shape or form. Verbal sentences are no different.
In Arabic, a verbal sentence begins with a verb and is followed by the subject of that verb (فاعل). If the subject is not explicitly mentioned, then it is implied within the verb. Verbal sentences may also have objects (مفعول به), prepositional phrases and adverbial structures.
And, just as with nominal sentences, it is possible for either of the two essential parts to be hidden, but they will both be present in some capacity.
Verbs may have other associates apart from their subjects, all of which are optional. They include the verb’s objects, adverbs, and prepositional links. All of these are considered to be the details of the verb and are not part of the subject nor the predicate of the sentence.
the verb (which is the predicate of the sentence)
the subject of the verb (which is the subject of the sentence)
a detail of the verb (refers to objects and adverbs)
a direct or indirect object
these are the types of adverbs; they are discussed in Arabic Adverbs
a detail of the verb (refers to prepositional links)
Verbs & Verbal Objects
As for a verb’s objects, a verb is said to be at one of four levels of transitivity. Either the verb has no direct object, in which case it is called intransitive, or it may have up to three objects, in which case it is termed transitive.
an intransitive verb
a transitive verb
The concept of transitivity towards objects is not at a per-verb basis. The same verb, depending on how it is used, has the possibility of being at different levels of transitivity. Refer to the table below where a single verb is being used in various ways resulting in various levels of transitivity.
Level of transitivity
I knew that
I knew that was important
علمتُ ذاك مُهِمّاً
I informed you that that was important
أعلمتُك ذاك مهماً
Caution should be exercised with multi-transitive verbs. The first thing to note is that, in rare cases, a verb’s object may be extended (as in conjunction, for example) without the use of any conjoining word. This would make it seem that the verb is transitive to more objects than it really is. An example follows.
جعَلني قويا أمينا
In the example above, the verb جعل is transitive to two objects. The first is the direct object which is the first-person pronoun after it. And the second is the combination of the other two words. The sentence thus means “he made me strong [and] trustworthy.” However, it would seem, based on an initial glance, that the verb جعل is transitive to three objects – the first being the pronoun, the second being the word قويا, and the third being أمينا. Such is not the case; the structure above can be interpreted in many ways, but it is quite obvious that the words قويا and أمينا are part of a single structure which is the second object of جعل.
The second thing to note is that multi-transitive verbs are of two types; those in which two of the objects were originally topic and comment, and those in which no two objects were originally such. An example of the former is as follows.
وجَدتُ الضالّةَ مُهِمّةً
I found (i.e., it turned out that) the missing item was of importance
If we remove the verb from the above example, the two nouns which were previously the objects of the verb would revert to becoming topic and comment. They would constitute an entire (nominal) sentence. This fact is clear from their very meaning. If we remove the verb “I found” from “I found the missing item was of importance”, we are left with “the missing item was of importance,” and this is a complete, nominal sentence.
Verbs in which two objects were originally topic and comment are known as Verbs of the Heart. The following seven verbs have the potential to be used as Verbs of the Heart.
Verb of the Heart
I mistook it to be worthwhile
I (wrongly) thought that it would be worthwhile
I (wrongly) perceived it to be worthwhile
I knew that it would be worthwhile
I (rightfully) thought it would be worthwhile
I (rightfully) found it to be worthwhile
I (rightfully/wrongly) thought it would be worthwhile
verbs of the heart – those multi-transitive verbs, two of whose objects were originally topic and comment
The main rule regarding verbs of the heart is that the two objects which were originally components of a nominal sentence must either be mentioned together or omitted together; one cannot be mentioned without the other.
Now if a verb is transitive in any of the above ways, it can be made passive. When a verb is made passive, that necessarily means that its subject is not mentioned. For example, “I ate the cherry” is a sentence in which the verb is transitive to a direct object. Rendering the verb passive would result in “the cherry was eaten.” Notice that the subject (the one doing the eating) is not mentioned. When this happens, the objects of the verb undergo what is called Object Promotion. This is a processes where the direct object takes the place of the subject, and other objects move up one level in rank. Because the direct object takes the place of the subject, it is treated like it, having the same grammatical rulings, imposing the same gender and plurality rulings on the verb, and so forth.
الفعل المبني للمعروف
an active verb
الفعل المبني للمجهول
a passive verb
النائب عن الفاعل
the direct object which takes the place of the subject for a passive verb; an approximate translation is the Ergative Subject
Consider an example. Notice that what was previously the direct object of the verb has now become what looks like the subject. Consequently, it influences the verb and causes it to become feminine and it itself adopts the grammatical positioning of the subject.
the lost item was found
There is actually another mechanism of rendering verbs passive. It isn’t as universally applicable as the above mentioned, standard method, but it has its place. This method involves placing the base letters of the verb on the انفعال paradigm. The connotation afforded by this paradigm then renders the verb passive at a meaning level. Because the passivity of the verb is only at a meaning level, the business of Object Promotion will not take place. For example:
the idols shattered
Compare this to the standard mechanism of passivity.
the idols were broken
There is a huge difference between this mechanism of passivity and the standard mechanism, beyond the grammatical aspect. When a verb is made passive in the standard way, the implication is that, although the one who broke the idols is not mentioned, there is a strong indication towards the fact that someone did break them. In other words, blame is soon to ensue. On the other hand, the انفعال mechanism gives no such indication; the fact that the idols broke is mentioned, but there is no hint towards the fact that someone did the breaking. In other words, what is more important is the very fact that they broke.
The subject of a verb can be a pronoun (hidden in the verb or attached to it) referring to an antecedent, or it can be a noun or phrase explicitly mentioned somewhere after the verb. A verb will not, however, have both types of subjects simultaneously. That is to say, if the subject is mentioned explicitly after the verb, the verb will be empty of hidden or attached pronouns. The chart below gives explicit examples.
the sacrificial alters were broken
hidden in the verb
I broke the alters
a pronoun attached to the verb
the alters broke
an explicit noun/phrase
When it comes to the verb’s plurality, it is based on the subject. If the subject is a pronoun referring to an antecedent, the plurality of the verb will correspond to the antecedent. And if the subject is explicitly mentioned after the verb, the verb will be empty of pronominal suffixes, meaning that it will be singular.
If the subject is a pronoun referring to an antecedent, the verb will match the antecedent in plurality. If the subject is mentioned after the verb, the verb will be singular masculine or singular feminine despite the plurality of the subject.
When it comes to the verb’s gender, it will also be based on the gender of the subject. Unlike plurality, gender is slightly complicated. The ruling below summarizes the discussion.
Gender of Verb
Type of Subject
a pronoun referring to
any singular feminine
النساء قالتْ / النساء قلن
sing. fem. OR pl. fem.
a pronoun referring to
any plural feminine
الرجال قامتْ / الرجال قاموا
sing. fem. OR pl. masc.
a pronoun referring to a
masculine broken plural
a pronoun referring to
a word which is feminine and
has a live, masculine counterpart
قامتْ اليوم هند / قام اليوم هند
masc. OR fem.
same as above, except there is a gap
between the verb and the subject
طلعتْ الشمس / طلع الشمس
masc. OR fem.
a word which is feminine and does not have a live, masculine counterpart
قام الرجال / قامتِ الرجال
masc. OR fem.
a broken plural
The only cases where a verb must be feminine is when
1. the subject is a pronoun referring to something feminine
2. a feminine noun (with no gap between it and the verb) that has a live, masculine counterpart
The concept of having a live, masculine counterpart is a topic discussed in Arabic Gender and is too involved to explain here. Moreover, one may wonder as to the difference between choosing one gender/plurality over another when there is a choice. The answer to this concern is that opting to conjugate a verb singular feminine always gives the impression that the multiplicity of the subject is greater than if the verb was brought in any other conjugation. For example:
the men stood
leaves the listener with the impression that the amount of men is very large, whereas
the men stood
leaves the impression that the amount of men is not as large. This difference, of course, is very subtle and is really only called upon in very eloquent speech.
For a light introduction to the four types of verbal adverbs in the language and some grammatical rulings related to them, the reader is encouraged to refer to Arabic Adverbs. That tutorial is closely tied to this one and only together do they complete the discussion on verbal sentences. The rest of this tutorial mentions only those things not mentioned in Arabic Adverbs.
The Cognate Adverb
The cognate adverb (المفعول المطلق) is a gerund that carries the same meaning as the verb and is used to either emphasize the verb, clarify the quantity to which the verb applies, or qualify the verb with some descriptions.
The original purpose of the cognate adverb was the third of the three mentioned purposes – to qualify the verb with descriptions. A verb is nothing more than a set of three or four base letters that afford a certain meaning. The letters are then placed on a template that adds only gender, plurality, person, tense, and voice to the base meaning. So in order to convey anything worthwhile, all we really have to work with is these three or four base letters. And how much meaning can three or four letters really convey?
There is the verb نفش in the language. It means for sheep, goat, or like livestock to roam off into an open field by night and start grazing without the supervision of their master. The three base letters ن، ف، ش hold a great deal of meaning. However, this is very rare. Most verbs do not have the capability of conveying sentence-sized meanings like this.
Therefore, the cognate adverb was created. Its job is to inject meaning into the verb while still making it seem as though all the meaning is coming from the verb. In other words, it replaces the verb with a juicier version, one augmented with meanings the original could not convey. There are other ways in which verbs can be qualified, but this method makes it seem as though the very verb itself has been beefed up as opposed to qualified using external words.
Below is an example of this process.
أودّره توديرا لم يودّره أحد ولو وريدا
I will put him in such peril that no one has ever put him in
even [if they did so by threatening his] jugular vein
The majority of the sentence above is nothing more than injecting connotations and qualifications into the verb at the beginning. It is as if the verb at the beginning carries the meaning that the entire sentence conveys. The cognate adverb does this by first stripping the verb of most of its meaning. The verb then takes on a very generic meaning such as “to do”, “to feel”, etc. The cognate noun then takes over the stripped meaning and adds to it through conventional grammatical means.
the process whereby a cognate adverb strips its verb of meaning
Often the cognate adverb may be omitted and the speech which describes it is maintained. Other times the verb of a cognate adverb may be omitted and the adverb itself remains. Below is a chart with different types of cognate adverbs categorized based partly on their rhetorical benefit and partly on omission.
ما أنت إلا سيراً؛ زيد سيراً سيراً
مثبتا بعد نفي أو مكررا
فشُدّوا الوثاق فإما منّاً بعدُ وإما فِداءً
تفسيرا لاثر مضمون جملة متقدمة
مررت به فإذا له صوت صوتَ حمار
للتشبيه علاجا لجملة مشتملة على اسم بمعناه
عليَّ ألف درهم اعترافاً
زيد قائم حقاً
Summary of the Verbal Sentence in Arabic
This tutorial, together with Arabic Adverbs, has presented 7 grammatical positions out of a possible 22 that relate to nouns, phrases, and sentences. The chart below puts them into perspective by listing them alongside the others we intend to cover at Learn Arabic Online.
3. اسم أفعال الناقصة
4. اسم ما ولا المشبهتين بـ”ليس”
5. خبر الحروف المشبهة بالفعل
6. خبر لا التي لنفي الجنس
8. النائب عن الفاعل
1. خبر أفعال الناقصة
2. خبر ما ولا المشبهتين بـ”ليس”
3. اسم الحروف المشبهة بالفعل
4. اسم لا التي لنفي الجنس
5. المفعول به
6. المفعول فيه
7. المفعول المطلق
8. المفعول معه
9. المفعول له
1. المضاف إليه
2. المجرور بالحرف