The Science of


Definition, Purpose and Subject Matter

نحو is the science of classical Arabic which deals with how to identify the grammatical positioning of the three parts of speech; إسم, فعل and حرف by recognizing the changes which occur at their end. In addition to this, it discusses how to connect the parts of speech with one another and make meaningful sentences.

The purpose ofنحو is to guard one from making errors when articulating and understanding the language of the Arabs.  From the various sciences associated with the Arabic language, نحو is by far the most important.

All discussions inنحو are centered upon words, phrases, and sentences. 

Mapping the Arabic Language

The most basic utterance which comes out of the human beings mouth is termed ‘لفظ ’.  If it has no established meaning, it is known as ‘ مُهمَل ’ (meaningless), whereas if it does convey established meaning, it is called ‘ مَوضوع ’ (meaningful).  مَوضوع could be either one word, termed مُفرَد (single) also known as ‘ كلمة’ (word) or a group of words;مُرَكَّب (compound).  The group of words can be linked together so as to result in a complete sentence; مركَّب مفيد/جملة/كلام (beneficial combination/sentence), or it may constitute a phrase; مركَّب غير مفيد (non-beneficial combination).

كلمة: -----

The Arabic ‘word’ ( كلمة) is divided into three types; إسم, فعل and حرف.  Stated otherwise, every word in the Arabic dictionary falls into one of these three categories.  Unlike English which has eight parts of speech, in Arabic there are only three.  This inconsistency will become clear only after precise definitions are given to the three types:

  1. إسم: is the ‘ كلمة’ that gives a full independent meaning in itself and is not linked to time, e.g.رجل (man), بيت (house).  The category is broader than ‘noun’ in that it also includes three others from the eight English parts of speech, namely pronouns, adjectives and adverbs.

  2. فعل: is the ‘ كلمة’ that gives a full independent meaning in itself and is also linked to time, e.g.كَتَبَ (wrote), يَنصُرُ (helps). This is exactly the same as the ‘verb’ in English.

  3. حرف: is the ‘ كلمة’ which has no independent meaning of its own i.e. can only be understood after coupling either a noun or a verb to it, e.g.في (in), على (on), و (and).  This category includes prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.

The Sentence (جملة/مركّب مفيد )

A sentence is a group of words that conveys to the point of satisfaction either information or desire e.g.الرَّجُلُ طَويلٌ (The man is tall), خُذْ الكِتابَ (Take the book), رَبّي إرزُقْنِي (My lord!  Give me sustenance).  It is primarily of two types:

  1. جُملةٌ خَبَرِيّةٌ : is the جُمله wherein the possibility of truth and falsehood exists: e.g. البِنتُ عاقِلَةٌ (The girl is intelligent), المُعَلِّمُ حاضِرٌ (The teacher is present).

2.جُملةٌ إنشاﺋِﻴَّﺔٌ : is the جُمله whose meaning does not support the possibility of truth and falsehood e.g. هل عِندَكَ قَلَمٌ (Do you have a pen?), إشرَب الماء (Drink the water!).

A sentence, essentially, is the conveyance in words of a specific linkage made between two ‘ideas’; one primary, the other descriptive within the mind of the speaker.  Now if the two ideas also exist in the outside world and what the speaker is saying corresponds to the outer reality, it is termed true.  If it does not correspond it is called false.  For instance the sentenceزَيدٌ ناﺋِﻢٌ ( زَيدٌ is sleeping) in which the idea of sleeping has been linked affirmatively to زَيدٌ can be verified by judging it with the reality.  When looking towards what exists in the world, if we see زَيدٌ is actually sleeping, it would mean the affirmation is correct, and hence the statement is true. Otherwise, it would be false.  In a جُملةٌ إنشاﺋِﻴَّﺔ no such external reality exists.  It is the words of the speaker which for the first time are bringing the two ideas together.  إنشاء literally means to originate.  Now we see clearly why sentences such as questions and commands do not support truth and falsehood; confirmation and non-confirmation to external reality can not occur due to there being no such reality.

Keeping in mind the above explanation, EVERY possible sentence can be easily classified into eitherخَبَرِيّةٌ or إنشاﺋِﻴَّﺔ , including sentences about which we know with absolute certitude that they are true, such as ‘Allah created the heavens’, or likewise with certitude we know their falsehood, such as ‘The sky is below us’.  Both these and similar statements are without doubt خَبَرِيّةٌ sentences, for they have external realities to which they either confirm or not confirm.  It is the existence of this reality (or non-existence) which determines whether the sentence will be classified خَبَرِيّةٌ or إنشاﺋِﻴَّﺔ

### إسمِيّه/فعلِيَّه :

We said every sentence is essentially made up of two parts; a primary one and a descriptive one.  First they link together in the mind of the speaker.  Then they are conveyed through the medium of words.  This linkage which results in a sentence is termed ‘إسناد ’.  The primary part or subject of the sentence is called ‘ مُسنَد إليهِ ’ and the descriptive part or predicate is known as ‘ مُسنَد ’.  To illustrate, consider a boy ( وَلَدٌ ) and the idea of laziness ( كَسلٌ ).  There are several ways these two ideas can be linked together.  Some will result in sentences while others will form only phrases:

1.الوَلَدُ الكَسلانُ , the lazy boy: a descriptive phrase

2.كَسَلُ الوَلَدِ , the boy’s laziness: a possessive phrase

3.الوَلَدُ كَسلانُ , The boy is lazy: a full sentence ( إسناد- جملة إسميّة ).

4.كَسِِلَ الوَلَدُ , The boy became lazy: also a full sentence ( إسناد- جملة فعليّة ).

In the third example “الوَلَدُ كَسلانُ ” the إسم ‘الوَلَدُ ’ which appears first is the مُسنَد إليهِ i.e. the primary part of the sentence.  The إسم (in this case adjective)كَسلانُ is the predicate and it appears second.

In the fourth example “كَسِِلَ الوَلَدُ ” again it’s the إسم : الوَلَدُ which is being talked ‘about’, so it is the مُسنَد إليه .  Only here it does not appear first, but second.  The فعل (verb)كَسِِلَ , appearing first, is the descriptive part and therefore the مُسنَد

We see there is no consistent order in which they must appear.  Subject and predicate do not mean first and second.  They mean primary and descriptive.  When the sentence comprises of just two words, as in both the above examples, identifying the two is still relatively easy. However, like in all languages, sentences in Arabic are not restricted to just two words.  They can be very long.  Having sentences which are between ten and say twenty words long is quite normal in Arabic.  It is in such complex sentences that the process of identifying the subject, (made up of multiple phrases) from the predicate (also compound) becomes somewhat difficult.  A great portion ofنحو is devoted to parsing and analyzing sentences in order to determine the subject from the predicate, for even the basic translation of a sentence depends entirely on it.  It is for this reason great scholars like Ibn Khaldun say “ أهَمُّها النَّحوُ إذ لَولاه أصلُ التَفاهُم ”.  (The most important of the sciences associated with the Arabic language is نحو , for without it no communication can exist).  لُغَه which is knowledge of vocabulary, according to him is the least important aspect of Arabic.

To make recognition of theمُسنَد إليه and مُسنَد ** somewhat easier the scholars of** نحو further classify the sentence into two categories based on the first word in the sentence:

1.جمله أسميّه : the sentence which begins with an إسم e.g.الوَلَدُ قاﺋِﻢٌ (The boy is standing).  The two parts are known as مُبتَدا and خَبَر (subject and predicate).

2.جمله فعليّه : the sentence which begins with a فعل e.g.ذَهَبَ حامِدٌ (Hamid went).  The two parts are known as فعل andفاعل (verb and subject).

The Two Parts of the إسميّه Sentence:

Theمُسنَد إليهِ , when it appears in an إسميَّه structure, is calledمُبتَدا .  With rare exception, it will be first in the sentence.  The مُسنَد in this type of sentence is called خَبَر

The Two Parts of the فعليّه Sentence:

Theمُسنَد إليه , when it appears in the فعليَّه sentence, it is called فاعل or subject of the verb preceding it.  Unlike in English, the verb ALWAYS precedes the subject in Arabic.  Therefore, in this type of sentence the مُسنَد إليه i.e. the فاعل will always come after the descriptive part or predicate.  The predicate ( مُسنَد ) is known simply as فعل.  These ideas are summarized below in Table 1-A.

جُملَة إسمِية

جُملَة فِعلِية

مُسنَد إليه






Table Error! No text of specified style in document. - A -إسناد****

Grammatical States


Human beings experience emotional states based on interaction with one another.  People make us happy, angry, and sad etc.  These states are then reflected on our faces by our facial expressions i.e. smiles, frowns etc.  Arabic words behave in a similar fashion.  They enter grammatical states because of interaction with surrounding words.  These ‘grammatical states’ are then reflected on the last letter of the word. Unlike human emotions, grammatical states in Arabic are just four:

رفع - the nominative case.

نصب - the accusative case.

جر - the genitive case.

جزم - the jussive case.

We see this in the English language to a very restricted degree in pronouns.  Take for example the three variations of the third person masculine pronoun; he, him and his or for the feminine; she, her and her, for the second person masculine; you, you and your and for the first person; I, me and my.

The reason why the same meaning is being conveyed using three different words is to reflect grammatical state.  When the pronoun is intended to be subject of the verb, ‘he’ or ‘she’ is used.  Likewise for object, one must use ‘him’ or ‘her’.  In the English language this discussion is restricted to pronouns.  For nouns, regardless of how the noun is used, there will be no difference in the way the noun is pronounced.  In Arabic this process is extended to ALL nouns.

Reflection of Grammatical States - إعراب

The name given to this process isإعراب .  Therefore,إعراب is the process by which grammatical states are reflected on the last letter of words by change in vowelling or lettering, either explicitly or assumed.

The need for this occurs because in Arabic, we have no other way of determining whether a given noun is being made the subject of the verb or the object, or whether it is in the possessive case.  There is no rule in Arabic which states the subject HAS to come before the object. A verb followed by two nouns can have any of the following three possibilities:

The first is subject and second is object.

Vice versa.

The two nouns together form a possessive phrase

For instance, if the verbضَرَبَ (hit) is followed by the two nounsوَلَد (boy) andزَيْد (a person’s name), the sentence can have three possible meanings:

A boy hit Zaid.

Zaid hit a boy.

Zaid’s boy hit…  (Someone else)!

It is apparent from the above that some sort of system of reflection is needed to determine the intended structure while excluding the other two.  In Arabic this is done by giving the last letter a distinct vowelling or lettering.[^1]

Before moving further it is important to know which of the three parts of speech experience these states and reflection process, and which do not.  This is important because every word will have some sort of ending including state-less words.  There is a sub-set of words that do not enter grammatical states and hence there endings have no grammatical significance.  One may liken them to a ‘stoic’ person who remains emotionless.  When confronted with this state-less type of word, one should be fully aware of its state-less nature and not assume grammatical meaning from the ending.

Statelessness -  مبني vs. معرب

Now, returning back to our discussion, we said it is important to understand from the outset which of the parts of speech experience ‘إعراب ’ (i.e. areمعرب ) and which don’t (i.e. areمبني ), so that false grammatical assumptions may be effectively avoided.  (Refer to the previous section.)

Recall that the purpose ofإعراب was to determine between various grammatical usages, such as subject, object, and possessive case, by way of last letter reflection.  A simple pondering on the three definitions given above will reveal that only إسمs have the capacity of ever becoming subject, object, or being used in the possessive case.  To illustrate further, let’s try making aفعل (i.e. verb) the subject of another verb and see how it sounds, while contrasting it to when a noun is made subject.  Went was quick!  Going was quick; meaning the act of going was quick.  Primarily, the reason why ‘went’ did not make sense and ‘going’ did is because ‘went’ has a tense in it, preventing it from becoming subject, whereas going is an act with no tense.  In any case, from the above explanation and example it becomes clear that verbs can not be made subject, object etc., and the same goes for particles. So when these two categories will never become subjects, objects etc., they have no need for reflection.  They should be state-less ( مبني ) in their entirety.   Therefore, the logical division should have been as follows:

أسماء : allمعرب .

أفعال : allمبني .

حروف : allمبني .

Had the division been like this, things would have been easy and the discussion would have ended.  Unfortunately, the existing reality is a bit different from this.  The reality is as follows:

حروف : Allمبني .  (the way they’re supposed to be)

أفعال : 80%مبني (the way they’re supposed to be), 20%معرب . This 20% needs to be accounted for.

أسماء : 80%معرب (the way they’re supposed to be), 20%مبني . This 20% also needs to be explained.

It is this very explanation which will be the focus of the rest of this discussion, إن شاء الله .

The scholars ofصرف (Arabic Morphology) have classified theفعل into 4 types, namely:

ماضي , the past tense verb e.g.كَتَبَ (wrote).  This category isمبني in its entirety i.e. No governing agent will ever enter upon a past-tense conjugation and alter its ending.

مضارع , the present and future tense verb e.g.يَنصُرُ (helps, or will help)…or one may refer to the first as ‘perfect’ i.e. occurred and the second as ‘imperfect’, meaning ongoing, either presently in the process of occurring or will begin at a future time.

أمر , imperative or command verb e.g.إشرِبْ (Drink!)

نهي , negative command or prohibition e.g.لا تَشرِبْ (Don’t drink)

To more easily explain the 20% of verbs that do enter grammatical states and therefore areمعرب , we need to modify this classification slightly.  This will be done by examining the last two verbs in a somewhat detailed manner in the next chapter.