Russian Cases Behind the Scenes


Russian grammar case is a critically important topic in the learning process, but in most situations Russian grammar textbooks present it in the following way: “Hello, students. This is our new case and here are the endings you should use”.

I’m 100% sure that understanding the system overall  will give you a more clear understanding and, as a result, you’ll make fewer grammar mistakes. So, let’s get straight to the point:

A Russian case is a special grammatical category that shows us what role a word plays in a sentence. Cases (if there are any) vary from one language to another. The Russian case demonstrates how the “appearance” of a word is connected with the “job” it does in a sentence.

This certainly needs clarification. Let’s say that every sentence describes a situation. A predicate (it’s usually a verb) shows us what’s happened. There are also different nouns that are connected with the verb. They tell us who participated in this situation, and what actions they may have performed.

Let’s make a sentence with nouns: студент (a student), статья (an article) and интернет (the Internet) and a verb читать (to read).

  • Студент читает статью в интернете (A student is reading an article on the Internet).

Here a student is the main character and he’s performing an action. The article, in contrast, is a passive object, it’s been read. And ‘the Internet’ identifies the location of the object. These are some of the different roles that words can play in a sentence.

The word студент (a student) is the subject, so the word is in the nominative, the word статью (article) is an object of an action, so it’s in the accusative and интернете (the Internet) is the location of an object, so it’s in the prepositional (aka locative).

As you can see, the words статью and интернете are different from their basic vocabulary forms (статья and интернет) – they have different endings. This is how the different roles or grammar cases influence a word in the Russian language.

Let’s look at  another sentence:

  • Я пишу книгу в парке (I’m writing a book in a park).

The sentence describes a completely different situation using different words, but the roles of the nouns and pronouns are the same: я (I) is the subject, книгу (a book) is an object of action and парке (a park) means a location.

Similarly, the words книгу (a book) and парке (a park) have other endings than their initial forms (книга and парк). These endings indicate their cases.

What are some analogies for Russian cases in English?

I would say that the closest analogy to the Russian cases are English prepositions.

For instance, a widely used preposition, “to,” plays the same role in English as the Dative in Russian. Or the preposition “with”  reflects one of the meanings of the Russian Instrumental.

There are some other forms that also resemble the “Russian case”. For example, “‘s” words: Mary’s book/ Her book. They belong to the so-called Possessive (genitive) case.

Why does Russian need cases?

Every language is a tool to describe the beautiful lives and world we live in. The world doesn’t care about cases, genders, tenses and so on. It’s us: learners, teachers, and scientists who need these categories to organize and properly express to each other the chaos that we observe. Language brings order to our experience of the world and allows us to share our experiences with others.

That is why people invented  grammar case – an extremely abstract grammar category that allows us to describe the connection between the form of a word and the role that this word plays in a sentence.

What parts of speech are changed in cases in Russian?

Here’s the list of parts of speech that change in different cases, i.e. get specific endings depending on their role:

  • Nouns
  • Pronouns
  • Adjectives
  • Participles
  • Numerals (ordinal)

What does it mean to change a word’s case? This means to make a different form of the word, in most cases by adding a different ending. There’s even a special term for this – declension. And when we make such transformations with a word, we decline it.

The number of various endings in Russian is really astonishing: all of the aforementioned parts of speech have their own depending on three factors: case, gender, number. Keep on reading and you’ll learn how to learn them in shortest possible terms.

How many cases are there in Russian?

There are six cases in the Russian language:

  1. Nominative.
  2. Genitive.
  3. Dative.
  4. Accusative.
  5. Instrumental.
  6. Prepositional (locative).

Now, you might be thinking: only six for all possible sentences?” Yes, and this means that the language “spreads” all possible situations among them.

For example, the accusative means not only the object of action but the direction of movement as well. Prepositional “grabs” a lot of vacant positions, too. It’s used when we talk about location, the object of speech, means of transport and so on.

Actually, scientists distinguish up to 15 cases in Russian, but you don’t need them unless you’re going to obtain a PhD. in linguistics.

How to determine a case in Russian?

Determining a proper case is a key stumbling block for all Russian learners. If you don’t know what case a word belongs to, you’ll add wrong endings and the sentence will be grammatically incorrect.

To determine a case in Russian you need to look at the word in context, then you need to know when each of the six cases is applied, or you can learn questions of a case and establish the case of a word by the question.

Despite Russian nouns have an extensive pallet of endings, you can hardly determine a case of a word without context. For example, the form дочери (a daughter) may be either a Dative or Genitive. And the form дочь (a daughter) may be Nominative or Accusative. So, look at the word in a sentence or phrase.

To identify a case of a word you need to know specific “roles” that this case represents. These roles may seem pretty confusing with no logical connection with each other, so quite often you’ll have to learn them by heart.

There’s another tip that can help: asking questions. Every case has certain questions it replies to. If you know these questions and know how to ask them, you can identify a case correctly.

For example, we know that words in the Instrumental answer the question with what? Let’s take a sentence “Он был занят чтением” (He was busy with reading). We need to find out what case the word чтением (reading) belongs to. To do that, we need to pose a question: He was busy (with what?) with reading. Conclusion: the word чтением is in the instrumental.

Map of Russian cases (with questions)

From the next passages, you’ll get an overall sense of the Russian case system. I’ll give you the most common and the most prominent functions of all six cases and their corresponding questions. .

1. Nominative: who? what?

This is the most important case in the Russian language. When you imagine an object and you might ask “what is this?” or “what’s it called?”, we use nominative.

  • Это мой дом. (This is my house).
    • What is this? This is a house.

The word дом (house) is in the nominative.

It’s also used to identify a participant of a situation, that does something.

  • Мама готовит завтрак (Mom is making breakfast).
    • Who is cooking? Mom is cooking.

The active participant of a situation мама (mom) is in the nominative.

2. Genitive: whom? what?

The basic role of this case is to tell us about possession: when someone (or something) has or hasn’t got something else.

  • У меня нет музыкальных талантов. (I’ve no musical talents)
    • I don’t have what? Talents.

The word талантов (talents) is in the genitive because someone doesn’t have them.

  • Он приготовил суп без соли! (He’s cooked soup without any salt!)
    • He cooked soup without what? Without salt.

The word соли (salt) is in genitive too, because the dish hasn’t got it.

3. Dative: to whom? to what?

It’s used to indicate, the so-called indirect object of an action, an object to which something is given, done, presented, written and so on. In other words, a recipient of an action.

  • Передай тетрадь Наталье, пожалуйста. (Pass the notebook to Natalia, please).
    • Pass the notebook to whom? To Natalia

The word Наталье is in the dative because she’s a recipient of an action.

  • Ты купил подарок брату? (Have you bought a present for your brother?)
    • Have you bought a present for whom? For your brother.

The word брату (brother) is a recipient of the present, so it’s in the dative.

It’s a very bright feature of the Russian language, that the dative represents a recipient of feelings and impressions too!

  • Мне холодно. (I’m cold/ It is cold to me).
    • It’s cold to whom? To me.

The initial form of the pronoun мне is я (I). In this sentence, I’m a recipient of the feeling of cold, so we use the dative form – мне.

  • Отцу это нравится. (Dad likes it/ It is likable to dad).
    • It is likable to whom? To dad.

A dad is a recipient of this feeling that we express with the verb to like, so the word отцу (dad) is in the dative.

4. Accusative: whom? what?

The accusative case indicates the role of a passive participant, that is exposed to action or is a so-called, direct object of an action.

  • Я читаю книгу. (I’m reading a book).
    • I’m reading what? A book.

The word книгу (book) is the object of my reading, so it’s in the accusative.

  • Ненавижу кофе (I hate coffee).
    • I hate what? Coffee.

Here coffee is the object of my resentment, so the word кофе (coffee) is in the accusative.

The form of the word – кофе is absolutely identical to its vocabulary (or nominative form). However, from the context of the situation, we understand that it’s in the accusative.

  • Дай студентам задание. (Give students the task).
    • Give students what? The task.

Задание (the task) is going to be given, it’s the object of the action, so it’s in the accusative, while students are going to receive it, so студентам (students) is in the dative.

5. Instrumental: by/with whom? with what?

The instrumental case means a tool, instrument or means.

  • Обыно я пишу ручкой (I usually write with a pen).
    • I usually write with what? With a pen.

A pen is my tool to write, so the word ручкой (pen) in the instrumental.

  • Подумай головой (Use your head/ Think with your head).
    • Think with what? With your head.

A head is a means of thinking, so головой (head) in the dative.

Prepositional (locative): where? in/on/at what or whom? about whom or what?

The main function of this case is to show the location of an action.

  • Я люблю гулять в парке. (I like to walk in a park).
    • I like to walk where? In a park.

It’s obvious, that park is where I’m walking so парке (park) in the propositional.

  • У меня так много идей в голове! (I’ve so many ideas in my head!)
    • I’ve so many ideas where? In my head.

My head is a location for ideas, so голове (head) is in the prepositional too.

This is the only Russian case that is not used without prepositions. And another very popular one is o/об or about.

  • Я много думаю об экзамене. (I’m thinking a lot about the exam).
    • I’m thinking a lot about what? About the exam.

The preposition об is 100% identifier of the prepositional case of the word экзамене (exam).

  • Расскажи мне о ней (Tell me about her).
    • Tell me about whom? About her.

The preposition o clearly says that the next word ней (she) is a pronoun in prepositional.

Russian cases practice

Now you have a basic understanding of how cases work in the Russian language, and it’s the perfect time to get some practice in, while the information is fresh! In the quiz below you’ll be asked to identify the cases of some nouns. Look at their role in a sentence and ask questions like the ones you’ve just read above. Good luck!

How to learn Russian cases endings fast?

To learn Russian case endings quickly I highly recommend that you not waste most of your time on storming endless endings tables; be more rational and look for patterns in sentences.

Secondly, try not to memorize rules, but examples (phrases or even whole sentences) that demonstrate to you where a certain case is used and what endings you should add to different words.

This would all be meaningless advice if I also hadn’t written a comprehensive guide to memorizing case endings of nouns. My students totally love this guide and I’m sure that it will help you too.

Anastasia Korol

Anastasia Korol is an enthusiastic Russian language tutor. She gives effective, goal-oriented lessons to students all over the world. Thousands of people have already followed her Instagram.

Recent Posts