TOPIC: The Partitive Genitive and the Genitive II

Dear RLM,
Is the notion of a Partitive Genitive limited to masculine nouns that take an -у(ю) alternative genitive singular ending?
Thank you.


Dear Linguist,

No, the notion of a Partitive Genitive is not limited to masculine nouns but can be applied to nouns of all genders that denote divisible substances, for example, foodstuffs like хлеб "bread," молоко "milk," and вода "water." These substances can be measured (e.g., литр воды), quantified (e.g., немного молока) or otherwise portioned out (e.g., кусок хлеба) - hence, the name and the basic notion of the Partitive Genitive.

There is nothing unusual in what has been said thus far: one expects to use the genitive case with quantifying adverbs like много, мало, немного and in noun phrases where the head noun denotes a measurement, quantity, weight or portion, for example, рюмка водки, стакан воды, чашка чаю. Note, however, that the last form, чашка чаю, has the alternative -y(ю) genitive singular ending which you noted. We'll refer to this suffix as the Genitive II. As you point out, the Genitive II suffix is employed specifically in such a Partitive Genitive context. But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Let's continue our discussion of the Partitive Genitive by comparing the following sentences:

  1. Записка состояла из ультиматума "Дайте деньги на завоз, иначе будет плохо!"
    The note consisted of the ultimatum: "Pay thе money for the delivery, or else!"
  2. Он к нам с протянутой рукой обращался очень просто: "Дайте денег!"
    With his hand outstretched, he addressed us directly: "Give me some money!"

  3. Подарки были дорогие - получили они и водку, и виски, и коньяк.
    The presents were expensive. They got vodka and whisky, and brandy.
  4. На сумму 275 американских долларов выпил он вина, коньяку и коктейлей в том баре.
    It cost him $275 American dollars to drink a little wine, some cognac, and a few cocktails in that bar.

    As example sentences b. and d. indicate, a noun in the Partitive Genitive can appear by itself - but only as an object of the verb, never as the subject. Accordingly, the Partitive Genitive may be said to stand in semantic opposition to the accusative case (sentences b. and d. versus sentences a. and c.).

    Based on our four examples, this opposition may be summed up as follows:

    • The accusative signifies the item itself or the whole item.
    • The Partitive Genitive signifies "some," "a part," "a little" or in the case of the plural Partitive Genitive - "a few."
    Note once more example sentence d.:
    • На сумму 275 американских долларов выпил он вина, коньяку и коктейлей в том баре.
      It cost him $275 American dollars to drink a little wine, some cognac, and a few cocktails in that bar.


    Partitive Genitive constructions are a subtle yet integral part of the semantics of Russian.
    As such, they MUST be rendered into English.
    If not, your translation is WRONG!

    (Now that I've gotten that out of my system, let's go on.)

    * * *

    The Genitive II

    You'll notice that in example d. above, the Russian word for "cognac" ~ коньяк appears with an -y suffix. The same -у(ю) suffix was noted earlier when the noun чай ~ "tea" was employed in the phrase "a cup of tea" ~ чашка чаю.

    The point is that a limited number of masculine nouns take a special -y(ю) ending, called the Genitive II suffix, when they are employed in a partitive sense - and only in a partitive sense! In all other genitive usages, the regular genitive suffix -a is employed.

    Compare the following sentences:

    • Она добавила чесноку.
      She added some garlic.
    • У нее не было чеснока.
      She had no garlic.
    • Он купил пачку табаку.
      He bought a pack of tobacco.
    • Цена табака повысилась.
      The price of tobacco has gone up.

    One final point for people who really get into the rules of grammar: The Genitive II suffix cannot be used in a Partitive Genitive context if the noun is modified by an adjective. Instead the regular masculine genitive -a suffix must be employed.

    Thus: Он купил пачку табаку.
    He bought a pack of tobacco.

    But: Он купил пачку турецкого табака.
    He bought a pack of Turkish tobacco.

    (Is Russian a great language, or what?!)

    * * *

    In addition to the nouns already noted, the following are the most common and most useful masculine nouns that take a Genitive II -y (ю) suffix when used in a Partitive Genitive sense - some may surprise you!

    бензин ~ "gasoline"
    ветер ~ "wind"
    воздух ~ "air"
    газ ~ "gas"
    газолин ~ "gasoline"
    гром ~ "thunder"
    доход ~ "income, revenue"
    дым ~ "smoke"
    жир ~ "fat"
    капитал ~ "capital"
    картофель ~ (collect.) "potatoes"
    кислород ~ "oxygen"
    клей ~ "glue"
    лед ~ "ice"
    мороз ~ "frost"
    мусор ~ "trash"
    народ ~ "people"
    пар ~ "steam"
    песок ~ "sand"
    порох ~ "powder, gun powder"
    расход ~ "expence"
    самогон ~ "moonshine"
    сахар ~ "sugar"
    свет ~ "light"
    снег ~ "snow"
    спирт ~ "alcohol"
    суп ~ "soup"
    сыр ~ "cheese"
    ток ~ "current"
    туман ~ "fog"
    убыток ~ "loss"
    цемент ~ "cement"
    шелк ~ "silk"
    шоколад ~ "chocolate"

    Finally, it should be noted that, grammatically speaking, Russians are becoming lazy and/or dumbing down. The young, in particular, don't always use the Genitive II suffix when they should. Shame on them!!

    You have a nice day, and I'll have a little cognac, some moonshine, and a few cocktails.

    The RLM