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What gender should you use for Arabic grammar terms?

In Arabic, do you say مبنيّ or مبنيّة for “indeclinable”? Well, you can use both: masculine or feminine. Here is why.

Last updated: 12 months ago

When you read , you get the impression that there are no rules for the correct of grammar terms. Let's take the Arabic term for . Some authors choose the mas­culine form (مَبْنِيٌّ), others the feminine (مَبْنِيّةٌ). So, what is correct?

Both are correct.

Both forms are actually used as adjectives (نعت) – but for two different words which are not there, but understood anyway. What are these hidden words? Both are Arabic terms for word. Arabic has sev­eral words for word:لَفْظٌ, كَلِمةٌ or لُغةٌ.

Now we are getting closer to the answer.

Grammar terms like inde­clinable (word) are regarded as…

  • Masculine – when they implicitly refer to the word لَفْظٌ.
  • Feminine – when they relate to the gender of كَلِمْةٌ or لُغةٌ.

مَبْنِيٌّ is used to further describe these words. It is an , and adjectives need to be in grammatical agreement with the word to which they relate. Thus, it is a matter of taste whether the au­thor had لَفْظٌ مَبْنِيٌّ or كَلِمةٌ مَبْنِيّةٌ in mind. So, you can use either form.

Excursus: What does مَبْنِيٌّ mean in Arabic grammar?

When you see a particle (حَرْفٌ) – for example, a prepo­sition (حَرْفُ الْجَرِّ) –, you can be sure that it will stay the same and never change its form/shape, no matter what the position in the sentence is.

Such words are called مَبْنِيٌّ which means set up, fixed, structured; in linguistics: inde­clinable. Basically, they have a cemented shape. You never have to think about which vowel you should put at the end.

What about other grammar terms?

  • Grammar terms which relate to اسْمٌ‎: They are usually mas­culine. For example, adjectives take the gender of اِسْمٌ which is the masculine form. For example: indeclinable noun (اِسْمٌ مَبْنِيٌّ).
  • Grammar terms relating to a particle (حَرْفٌ): They are usually masculine. However, they may also be femi­nine because the author might relate to أَداةٌ (tool; instrument) and not to the masculine حَرْفٌ.
  • The verb كانَ (to be) seems by common consent to be taken as feminine, e.g., كانَ النّاقِصةُ (defective “to be”) or كانَ التّامّةُ (com­plete verb “to be”). Note that mere words like كانَ are treated as proper names and do not take the article.
  • What about the letters of the alphabet? They can have both gen­ders, but are usually treated as feminine.

Just in case you are not familiar with the terms اِسْمٌ and حَرْفٌ:

A noun (اِسْمٌ) is defined as a word that denotes a complete mean­ing by itself, having no reference to past or present tense. Com­plete here means that the word can be un­derstood indepen­dently and with­out reference to anything else.

The اِسْمٌ is equiva­lent to the noun in Eng­lish, but it is much wider in scope. The term اِسْمٌ in­cludes all pro­nouns, the in­finitive (مَصْدَرٌ), ad­jectives, partici­ples, and some adverbs.

A particle (حَرْف) doesn't convey any com­plete mean­ing until an­other word is added to it. Most common example: prepositions like في.

A حَرْفٌ is never influenced by other words. We say that a حَرْفٌ does not have a place in the analysis (لا مَحَلَّ لَهُ مِن الْإِعْرابِ). A حَرْفٌ doesn't take different jobs or functions in a sentence. It cannot serve as a direct ob­ject (مَفْعُولٌ بِهِ), circumstantial description (حالٌ), etc. A حَرْفٌ is often what we call a preposition.

The Arabs call a preposi­tion حَرْفُ الْجَرِّ which means particle of drag­ging, in the meaning of subordination.

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