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What are the ten different types of ما ma?

The Arabic word ma ما has several meanings. Here is a list of the ten most common applications of ma in Arabic: negation, relative clause, etc.

Last updated: February 20, 2022

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.

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 particleحَرْفما 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 pronounاِسْمما الْاِسْتِفْهامِيّة
What is your name?ما اسْمُكَ؟
What are you thinking about?فِيمَ تُفَكِّرُ؟

Ma for relative clauses

Definite conjunctive pronounاِسْمما الْمَوْصُولة
I do understand what you say.إِنَّني أَفْهَمُ ما تَقُولُهُ
Read what I wrote.إِقْرَأْ ما كَتَبْتُهُ

Ma for conditional clauses

Conditional clauseاِسْمما 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
حَرْفما 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
حَرْفما الْمَصْدَرِيّة

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.
حَرْفما 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 vaguenessاِسْمما 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 futureيَوْمًا ما
I lost something.أَضَعْتُ شَيْئًا ما

Ma used to neutralize grammatical effects

The hindering ماحَرْفما 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 surpriseاِسْمما التَّعَجُّبِيّة
What a nice spring!ما أَجْمَلَ الرَّبِيعَ
What fortunate I got here!ما أَسْعَدَنِي بِوُجُودي هُنا

Never stop exploring grammar…

picture credit: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

  1. Thank You for creating this website. This page, in particular, is of great help for new students of Arabic language like myself !! Appreciate it very much.

  2. Dear Gerald, may I ask you to clarify why in the example below it should be ‘كِتابٍ’ instead of ‘كتاباً’?:
    كانَ الرَّجُلُ الَّذِي جانِبِي فِي الطَّائرَةِ يَقْرَأُ كِتابٍ ما

    Thank you.

  3. Question, do you think that when translated into English most types of Maa lose their functions? or be replaced by another one? like for example conditional maa when translated is not about condition at all.
    like the example you used for application 4 can it be translated into if instead of what ?
    If you did good it will come back to you.

    1. translation is an art, in my opinion, so you need to convey the intended meaning. (In order to do so, it usually helps a lot to think about the literal and structural meaning.) Thus, it always depends on the context. I guess you have quite some flexibility to translate “ma”, just check if it fits to the overall situation. For example, the additional/extra maa is very tricky and is often simply left untranslated. Regarding maa as a conditional particle, you need to check whether the condition is real or unreal – you may need a different particle then depending on the meaning. Sorry that I can’t be very concrete as there are no general rules, I guess

    1. Thank you so much!!! I appreciate it. It was a typical copy/paste error (unfortunately…). You were totally right, they were double! I have deleted it. All examples should be at the appropriate position now.

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