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arabic phrases

When we talk about speech in Arabic, we typically divide it into three categories:

· words
· phrases
· sentences

There are many types of phrases in the language – over a dozen, in fact. Each of these are introduced slowly and gradually as a student studies sentences and grammatical structures. They are studied as needed and as encountered.

Two types of phrases, however, are of fundamental importance and they are very productive in the language. These are:

· the adjectival phrase (a noun and an adjective describing it)
· the possessive phrase (two nouns, one “belonging” to the other)
The Adjectival Phrase

What is the English Equivalent?

Examples of this type of phrase in English include “the ferocious lion”, “the slow children”, “an unfortunate accident”.

Notice that we have two words – the first is an adjective and the second is the noun that it describes or qualifies. And needless to say, the adjective will always stay the same while the noun that it describes can be of any gender, plurality, or definiteness. For example, we can say

· Gender: “the ferocious lion” and “the ferocious lioness”
· Plurality: “the ferocious lion” and “the ferocious lions”
· Definiteness: “the ferocious lion” and “a ferocious lion”

How is this Done in Arabic?

So let’s take a look at how this adjectival phrase works in Arabic. In order to do this, consider the example below.

الأَسَدُ الضَارِيْ
the ferocious lion

The first thing to notice is that, in Arabic, the noun comes first and the adjective follows it (reading from right to left, of course). In the example, the word “الأسد” is the noun and it is called مَوْصُوْف (one being described) and “الضاري” is the adjective and it is termed صِفَة (description).


the one being described; must come first
the description; must come second

A single noun may have many successive adjectives, as in the following example.

الأَطْفَالُ البِطَاءُ السِمَانُ
the slow, fat children
Grammatical Rulings

Unlike in English, where the adjective stays the same and the noun inflects for gender, plurality, and definiteness, both parts in Arabic must match. And the aspects in which they match are four:

1. gender – masculine or feminine
2. plurality – singular, dual, or plural
3. definiteness – definite or indefinite
4. grammatical case – nominative, accusative, or genitive

That is to say, if the noun being described is masculine, then the adjective(s) will also be masculine. If it is feminine, then the adjective(s) will also be feminine. And similarly, the adjective(s) will follow the noun in being singular, dual, plural, definite, indefinite, nominative, accusative, and genitive. The grammatical case of the noun will be based on the circumstances of the sentence. But the case of the adjective will have to match.


the form of all adjectives of a noun must be chosen to match the noun in gender, plurality, definiteness, and grammatical case

Below are a few examples. Confirm that the noun and its adjective(s) are matching in gender. There are 4 ways in which a noun could be feminine but, usually, words in Arabic are feminine if they end in the round ة, and they are masculine otherwise.

صَبِيَّةٌ زَكِيَّةٌ
a pure (female) baby
طَاوِلَةً مَكْسُوْرَةً
a broken table
زَيْدٌ البَخِيْلُ
Zaid the miserly
البَحْرِ الأَبْيَضِ المُتَوَسِّطِ
the Mediterranean Sea

Below are a few more illustrations of the noun and adjective. Confirm that they match in plurality. If a noun is dual, it will end in either the ـانِ or the ـيْنِ suffix. Plurality is more complicated.

صَيْدَلِيَّانِ عَالِمَانِ
two knowledgeable pharmacists
الوِجْهَةُ العَمَلِيَّةُ
the practical aspect
الأَطْفَالُ الصِغَارُ
the small children

Confirm that the words below match in definiteness. A word can be definite in 7 ways. Some of these include having the الـ prefix, being a proper noun, and being possessive.

كِتَابُهُ المُطَوَّلُ
his long book
زَيْدٌ السَارِقُ
Zaid the thief
حَظٌّ سَعِيْدٌ
good luck

Finally, confirm that the words below match in grammatical case. Grammatical case can be reflected in 9 ways but, usually, a word is said to be nominative if it’s last letter has a ضمة, accusative if it has a فتحة, and genitive if it has a كسرة.

رُعْبٌ شَدِيْدٌ
an extreme fear
بَرْنَامِجٍ مُمِلٍّ
a boring show
الوَاجِبَ الصَعْبَ
the difficult homework

But it is important to understand that all of gender, plurality, definiteness, and grammatical case are non-trivial issues. They have their rulings and their place in grammar. To get an idea of this, below is a noun-adjective phrase which does not seemingly match in three of the four mentioned aspects. In reality, the words do match, but this will only become apparent after studying more grammar.

شَوَارِعَ مُزْدَحِمَةٍ
congested streets
The Possessive Phrase

What is the English Equivalent?

The English equivalent of a possessive phrase is, for example, “the pelican’s bill” or one can say “the bill of the pelican”.

Notice that two nouns are used here. With the adjectival phrase, one noun and one adjective was used. Moreover, both nouns will inflect for gender, plurality, and definiteness and each worries about its own inflection. In the adjectival phrase, it was only the noun that inflected for these things and the adjective simply followed suit.

Consider the phrases below for tangible examples of gender, plurality, and definiteness. Read these examples, but do not spend too much effort analyzing them; they are here simply to illustrate a point and are not meant to be the topic of discussion.

· Gender:
o both masculine: a man’s son
o 1st masculine and 2nd feminine: a man’s daughter
o 1st feminine and 2nd masculine: a woman’s son
o both feminine: a woman’s daughter
· Plurality
o both singular: the pelican’s bill
o 1st singular and 2nd plural: the pelican’s eyes
o 1st plural and 2nd singular: the pelicans’ home
o both plural: the pelicans’ bills
· Definiteness
o definite: the pelican’s bill
o indefinite: a pelican’s bill

How is this Done in Arabic?

Consider the example below.

مِنْقَار البَجَعَةِ
the pelican’s bill

Notice that in Arabic, we follow the “X of Y” structure, where the thing being possessed comes first and the one possessing it comes second. In the example, the first noun – the thing possessed – is “منقار” and it is termed the مُضَاف. The second noun – the possessor – is “البجعة” and it is termed the مُضَاف إلَيْه.


the thing possessed; must come first
مُضَاف إلَيْه
the possessor; must come second

A point worth noting here is that this phrase doesn’t always denote possession; it merely establishes a form of association between the two nouns that’s a lot like possession. Compare the translations in the examples below for an idea of what this really means. Sometimes the second noun genuinely doesn’t “possess” the first, and sometimes it’s the translation that distorts the “possession”.

خَاتَم فِضَّةٍ
a ring (made) of silver
بَاب البَيْتِ
the house’s door
(the house doesn’t “own” the door)
صَلٰوة اللَيْلِ
night prayer (prayer of the night)
شَحْمَتَيِ الأُذُنَيْنِ
earlobes (lobes of the ears)

Grammatical Rulings

When speaking about the adjectival phrase, recall that we considered four aspects:

· gender
· plurality
· definiteness
· grammatical case

Gender & Plurality
Both the first and second noun in a possessive phrase worry about their own gender and plurality, just as in English. Consider the examples below.

اِبْن رَجُلٍ
a man’s son
اِبْن مَرْءَةٍ
a woman’s son
بِنْت رَجُلٍ
a man’s daughter
بِنْت مَرْءَةٍ
a woman’s daughter

مِنْقَار البَجَعَةِ
the pelican’s bill
عُيُوْن البَجَعَةِ
the pelican’s eyes
مَحَطّ البَجَعِ
the pelicans’ resting-place
مَنَاقِيْر البَجَعِ
the pelicans’ bills
And etc. for duals

As for definiteness, however, the first noun derives its definiteness from the second. If the second is definite, so too will the first be definite. And if the second is indefinite, then the first will be indefinite also. This is the same in English. Consider the following.

مِنْقَار البَجَعَةِ
the pelican’s bill
مِنْقَار بَجَعَةٍ
a pelican’s bill

Aside: A small point to note here is that even when the second noun is indefinite, the first noun may be indefinite, but it does have some specificity. For example, in the phrase “a pelican’s bill” the word “bill” may be indefinite, but it’s still slightly specific in the sense that we know it’s a pelican’s bill and not an eagle’s, or a sparrow’s, or any other bird’s.

As a result of this definiteness situation, the first noun in a possessive phrase will never have the definite article الـ, nor will it have nunation (تنوين). Moreover, the نون that is the suffix for duality and masculine sound plurality will also drop.


the first noun in a possessive phrase will never have الـ, تنوين, the نون of duality, nor the نون of masculine plurality

Consider the examples below. Notice that the first word does not have any of the four mentioned affixes.

مِنْقَار بَجَعَةٍ
مِنْقَارَا بَجَعَةٍ
مِنْقَارَيْ بَجَعَةٍ
مُسْلِمُوْ مِصْرٍ
مُسْلِمِيْ مِصْرٍ

Grammatical Case
When we talked about the adjectival phrase, we said that the grammatical case of the noun – whatever it may be – will carry over to the adjective. Here however, the first noun – whatever it’s grammatical case may be – will always render the second noun genitive. And this is clear from all the examples above; the first noun will be reflected based on the circumstances of the sentence, and the second noun will be fixed genitive.


the grammatical case of the first noun in a possessive phrase will be determined by external factors; the grammatical case of the second noun will always be genitive


الأَسَدُ الضَارِيْ
the ferocious lion

Adjectival Phrase
· the noun comes first and the adjective(s) follow
· the adjectives must match the noun in
o gender
o plurality
o definiteness
o the grammatical case of the noun will be determined by external factors; the case of the adjectives will be determined by the noun (they will match it)

مِنْقَار البَجَعَةِ
the pelican’s bill

Possessive Phrase
· the thing possessed (a noun) comes first and the owner (also a noun) comes second
· the meaning of this structure is not always that of possession as it’s generally understood
· the two nouns worry about their own gender and plurality
· the definiteness of the first noun is determined by that of the second noun
· the first noun will never have الـ, تنوين, nor the نون suffix of the dual or sound masculine plural
· the grammatical case of the first noun will be determined by external factors; the case of the second noun will always be genitive


Below is a list of very common phrases – both adjectival and possessive. Read each one carefully and try your best to verify that the associated rulings are being applied.

Notice that some of the adjectival phrases have multiple adjectives, some of the possessive phrases are compound, and some phrases are a combination of the two types. See if you can confirm that the rules you’ve learned apply in each of these complex cases.

Translation (not necessarily indicative of the Arabic structure)
الأُمَمُ المُتَّحِدَةُ
the United Nations
الوِلاَيَاتُ المُتَّحِدَةُ الأَمْرِكِيَّةُ
the American Unites States
(i.e. the United States of America)
الصَلِيْبُ الأَحْمَرُ
the Red Cross
المَمْلَكَةُ العَرَبِيَّةُ السَعُوْدِيَّةُ
the Saudi Arabian kingdom
(i.e. the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)
الحَرْبُ العَالَمِيَّةُ الأُوْلى
the first World War
البَحْرُ الأَبْيَضُ المُتَوَسِّطُ
the white, middle sea
(i.e. the Mediterranean Sea)
صَبَاحَ الخَيْرِ
morning of good
(i.e. good morning)
صَبَاحَ النُوْرِ
response to good morning
حَظٌّ سَعِيْدٌ
good luck
طُورُ سَيْنَاءَ
mountain of Sinai
(i.e. Mount Sinai)
دَارُ الأَمْنِ
place of safety
وَاسِعُ النِطَاقِ
wide of range
(i.e. wide-ranging)
قَدَرُ الإِمْكَانِ
as much as possible
صَانِعُ القَرَارِ
decision-maker (bourgeoisie)
صَاحِبُ الفَضْلِ الأَوَّلِ
deserver of first praise (i.e. most deserving, also first one to do something)
كُلِّيَةُ الطِبِّ
faculty of medicine
جَمْعُ المُذَكَّرِ السَالِمُ
sound plural of the masculine
(i.e. sound masculine plural)
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