Arabic Grammar – 200

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Verbal nouns

The verbal nouns (also called verbals or verbids) are deverbal nouns that behave syntactically (i.e. in phrases) like verbs. A verbal noun in our usage of the term can be either a verbal substantive or a verbal adjective. (Note, however, that the “verbal nouns” in modern usage usually mean verbal substantives.)

For example, the English verbal substantive destroying behaves similarly to a verb in a phrase like completely destroying the evidence, because it governs an object (the evidence) and it is modified by an adverb (completely). On the other hand, the deverbal substantive destruction cannot govern an object (you can’t say **destruction the evidence but rather you need to say destruction of the evidence) and cannot be modified by an adverb (you can’t say **completely destruction but rather you need to say complete destruction). Thus, while destroying and destruction are both deverbal, only the first is verbal.

In the phrase a man attracting attention the verbal adjective attracting governs an object (attention), but you cannot say **a man attractive attention. Instead you would say a man attractive of attention. Thus, attracting is verbal but attractive is not.

Deverbal nouns in English come in a huge number of different shapes, but the verbal nouns are much less varied. The English verbal substantives are only two types, one called the infinitive (the citation form of the verbs) and another called the gerund (equals the infinitive plus a suffix –ing). The verbal adjectives are two types, one called the present participle (looks exactly like the gerund) and another called the past participle (has several possible shapes).

Verbal substantives

In Arabic grammar a verbal substantive is usually called a maṣdar مَصْدَرٌ (“a source”). (Note, however, that the word maṣdar was misunderstood by later grammarians as meaning abstract substantives in general, and it was wrongly applied even to denominal substantives.)

The maṣdar is two types:

  • plain maṣdar مَصْدَرٌ صَرِيْحٌ (verbal substantive proper)
  • interpreted maṣdar مَصْدَرٌ مُؤَوَّلٌ (clausal verbal substantive)

The “interpreted maṣdar” is a clause corresponding to the infinitive clause in English (as in I want to go). Just like how the English infinitive clause begins with the particle to, the clause of the interpreted maṣdar begins with a particle that is either ʔan أَنْ or ما . This clause has a finite verb, e.g. ʔurȋdu ʔan ʔaðhaba أُرِيْدُ أَنْ أَذْهَبَ “I want to go.” The interpreted maṣdar will be explained in more detail when we talk about syntax later.

The “plain maṣdar” is the real verbal substantive of Arabic. It is two varieties, the maṣdar proper and the mȋmic maṣdar مَصْدَرٌ مِيْمِيٌّ . The mȋmic maṣdar is named after a prefix mV– found in its stem. For each one of the verb stems there are corresponding maṣdar stems and mȋmic maṣdar stems that are used to form verbal substantives from verbs of that stem. With the exception of Stem Ⅰ, the number of the maṣdar stems for each verb stem is only one or two, and there is only one mȋmic maṣdar stem for each verb stem. Stem Ⅰ, however, has more than 50 different maṣdar stems and more than 10 mȋmic maṣdar stems, but many of them are uncommon.

For example, for Stem Ⅳ verbs the maṣdar stem is ʔiȃluṋ إفْعالٌ (or ʔiȃla·tuṋ إفْعالةٌ for roots Ⅱ=w/y) and the mȋmic maṣdar stem is mualuṋ مُفْعَلٌ . Thus, for the Stem Ⅳ verb ʔarsala, yursilu أَرْسَلَ، يُرْسِلُ “send” the maṣdar is ʔirsȃluṋ إرْسالٌ “sending” and the mȋmic maṣdar is mursaluṋ مُرْسَلٌ “sending.”

The maṣdar inflects like nouns. It cannot be inflected for aspect or voice. It has no time significance, and its voice can be active (if derived from an active-voice verb) or middle (if derived from a middle-voice verb) but not passive. However, the clausal maṣdar can be inflected for aspect and voice because it is built from a finite verb.

Verbal adjectives

The Arabic verbal adjectives are the following types:

  • Eventive
    • Agent noun اِسْمُ فاعِلٍ (active-voice and middle-voice)
    • Patient noun اِسْمُ مَفْعُولٍ (passive-voice)
  • Non-eventive
    • Agent-like adjective صِفةٌ مُشَبَّهةٌ بِفاعِلٍ

The eventive verbal adjectives correspond to the eventive finite verbs. They indicate events, which can be actions, as in the agent noun ȃribuṋ ضارِبٌ “a hitting [person/thing]” from araba, yaḍribu ضَرَبَ، يَضْرِبُ “hit,” or a change in state or quality, as in the agent noun muħmarruṋ مُحْمَرٌّ “a reddening [thing]” from ʔ·iħmarra, yaħmarru اِحْمَرَّ، يَحْمَرُّ “redden up, become red.”

Like the verbal substantives, the eventive verbal adjectives lack time reference. They can have either an imperfective or perfective significance.

For example, ȃribuṋ can mean:

  • a [person] that hits (or “is hitting,” “will hit,” “will be hitting,” “was hitting”)
  • a [person] that hit (or “has hit,” “will have hit,” “had hit”)

However, unlike the verbal substantive, the eventive verbal adjective has a passive voice variety called the patient noun, e.g. maḍrȗbuṋ مَضْرُوْبٌ “a hit [person/thing]” (a [person/thing] that is hit, being hit, will be hit, was being hit, was hit, had been hit, etc.)

The agent noun has an active voice when derived from an active-voice verb and a middle voice when derived from a middle-voice verb. The patient noun has a passive voice when derived from a transitive verb. Theoretically there should be also patient nouns of the fourth voice when patient nouns are derived from intransitive verbs; however, the meaning of such words is effectively identical to the meaning of verbal substantives (maṣdars) and for this reason they are considered verbal substantives rather than patient nouns. For example, maǵhȗduṋ مَجْهُوْدٌ , which comes from ǵahida, yaǵhadu جَهِدَ، يَجْهَدُ “make effort, exhaust oneself,” is formally a patient noun of the fourth voice, but effectively it is just a maṣdar meaning “making effort, exhausting oneself” (and it also used as a non-verbal substantive with the meaning “effort”).

The eventive verbal adjectives correspond to the English participles. The agent noun corresponds to the present participle, and the patient noun corresponds to the past participle.

The non-eventive verbal adjectives correspond to the non-eventive finite verbs. In Classical Arabic they were formed from non-eventive verbs in a manner similar to the eventive verbal adjectives, and they could function syntactically in manners typical of verbs. Thus, Sibawayhi called them agent-like adjectives, meaning to say agent-noun-like adjectives, because of the similarity between them and the agent noun (there is no passive-voice variety of them because the non-eventive verbs from which they come have no voice or time significance).

When translated to English, the non-eventive verbal adjectives will have the meanings of simple non-verbal adjectives, e.g. fariħuṋ فَرِحٌ “happy” from fariħa, yafraħu فَرِحَ، يَفْرَحُ “be happy,” and kabȋruṋ كَبِيْرٌ “big” from kabura, yakburu كَبُرَ، يَكْبُرُ “be big.”


Arabic has no class of primitive adjectives. All adjectives are either deverbal, denominal, or substantives used as adjectives.

For each one of the verb stems there are corresponding agent noun and patient noun stems. For example, for Stem Ⅳ the agent noun stem is muiluṋ مُفْعِلٌ  and the patient noun stem is mualuṋ مُفْعَلٌ . Thus, for the Stem Ⅳ verb ʔarsala, yursilu أَرْسَلَ، يُرْسِلُ “send” the agent noun is mursiluṋ مُرْسِلٌ “sending” and the patient noun is mursaluṋ مُرْسَلٌ “sent.” Stem Ⅰ is exceptional in two regards, 1. it has several corresponding agent noun and patient noun stems (but most of them are rare and unproductive), and 2. it has several corresponding stems of non-eventive verbal adjectives.


Besides the above-mentioned three classes of verbal adjectives, there is in CA a huge number of verbal adjective stems that are uncommon, unproductive, or not as productive as stems of the aforementioned classes. These generally have no name. They are just called adjectives صِفةٌ/نَعْتٌ . However, some of them are classified in an ill-defined group called the intensive agent noun مُبالَغةُ اِسْمِ الْفاعِلِ . This designation is not applied to all non-passive verbal adjectives with intensive meanings. Sibawayhi applied it only to some stems that are transitive.



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