Last updated: August 19, 2021
The ما is one of the most powerful devices in Arabic. The main issue is to know and identify whether the ma is a ism (اسم) or harf (حرف). Let’s see why.
The ten different types of ma/ما in Arabic
In my opinion the letter ل and the ما are the key to understanding Arabic properly. It is essential to understand the various meanings of ما.
ما is a genuine jack-of-all-trades. By throwing this tiny word into a sentence, you can change the meaning dramatically.
Here is a list of some possibilities:
Ma used to negate sentences
|negation particle||حَرْف||ما النَّافِية|
Normally ما is used to negate a past tense verb (الْماضِي). Theoretically, however, it is also possible to negate a جُمْلة اِسْمِيّة with ما.
You could even negate the present tense (الْمُضارِع) with ما. This is very rare and occasionally used with the expression: ما يَزالُ (still)
|The students did not show up yesterday.||ما حَضَرَ الطُّلّابُ أَمْسِ|
Ma used to ask questions
|Interrogative pronoun||اِسْم||ما الْاِسْتِفْهامِيّة|
|What is your name?||ما اسْمُكَ؟|
|What are you thinking about?||فِيمَ تُفَكِّرُ؟|
Ma for relative clauses
|Definite conjunctive pronoun||اِسْم||ما الْمَوْصُولة|
|I do understand what you say.||إِنَّني أَفْهَمُ ما تَقُولُهُ|
|Read what I wrote.||إِقْرَأْ ما كَتَبْتُهُ|
Ma for conditional clauses
|Conditional clause||اِسْم||ما الشَّرْطِيّة|
Notice the سُكُون at the end of the verb (مَجْزُوم) – it is a شَرْط.
|Whatever good that you do comes back to you.||ما تَفْعَلْ مِنْ خَيْرٍ تَجِدْ جاءَهُ|
Ma to strengthen the meaning
|Used to strengthen|
the conditional meaning
|حَرْف||ما لِتَأْكِيدِ مَعْنَى الشَّرْط|
|If you had worked hard, you would have succeeded.|
(Notice that it is not a negation!)
|إِذا ما عَمِلْتَ بِجِدٍّ نَجَحْتَ|
Ma to produce a masdar
|Used to introduce a clause|
equivalent to a مَصْدَر
It is used like the particle أَنْ and has the same meaning and implications.
|The student came after the lesson had started.||حَضَرَ الطُّلّابُ بَعْدَ ما بَدَأَ الدَّرْسُ|
Ma to introduce adverbs of time
|Used to introduce a clause equivalent|
to a مَصْدَر in the adverb of time.
|حَرْف||ما الْمَصْدَرِيّة الظَّرْفِيّة|
|I will think of you as long as I live.||سَأَظَلُّ أَتَذَكَّرُكَ ما حَيِيْتُ|
Ma to express vagueness
|This ما denotes generality and vagueness||اِسْم||ما الْإِبْهامِيّة|
Notice: In this application ما has to be at the end of the sentence.
|The man who sat next to me in the plane was reading (a kind of) a book.||كانَ الرَّجُلُ الَّذِي جانِبِي فِي الطَّائرَةِ يَقْرَأُ كِتابًا ما|
|some day; sometime in the future||يَوْمًا ما|
|I lost something.||أَضَعْتُ شَيْئًا ما|
Ma used to neutralize grammatical effects
|The hindering ما||حَرْف||ما الْكافّة|
This ma is a neutralizer and gets rid of all grammatical implications that otherwise may occur (for example, if you have إِنَّ). With the ma, inna does lose its governing power – so you won’t have the typical mixed up case endings with inna anymore.
|In life hope doesn’t go away.||إِنَّما الْحَياةُ أَمَلٌ لايَنْتَهي|
Ma used to express surprise
|ما – as expressive of surprise||اِسْم||ما التَّعَجُّبِيّة|
|What a nice spring!||ما أَجْمَلَ الرَّبِيعَ|
|What fortunate I got here!||ما أَسْعَدَنِي بِوُجُودي هُنا|
Never stop exploring grammar…
- What does Dunya mean?
- Does the negation with ما or لَمْ convey the same meaning?
- Arabic letters without dots – Does it work?
- الصَّلاةُ خَيْرٌ مِن الْنَّوْمِ: “Prayer is better than sleep” – Is it really “better”?
- What is a masdar mu’awwal in Arabic?
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