9 Very Important Russian Grammar Rules

question do you speak russian? written in russian
Do you speak russian? (written in russian). nito100 / Getty Images

Russian has a reputation for being a tricky language to learn, but it doesn’t have to be. One very helpful tip is to pay attention to Russian grammar from the beginning. This list of the most important grammar rules will help you understand and speak the language correctly.

01
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Stress

One syllable is always stressed in Russian words containing two or more syllables, which means that it is pronounced in a stronger tone and with a longer sound. 

There are no rules governing the stress given to one syllable or another, so the only way to learn Russian words correctly is to memorize the way they are stressed. Moreover, stress can move to a different syllable when a word changes forms, for example:

  • When рука (rooKAH) –hand– becomes руки (ROOkee) –hands–, the stress moves from the second syllable to the first.
02
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Sentence Structure

Russian has a more flexible sentence structure than the English language. The usual structure is subject-verb-object, but you can easily change the word order in a Russian sentence without changing the meaning too much. However, there are still some stylistic and context changes to be aware of.

Consider the sentence Я люблю мороженное (YA lyubLYU maROzhennoye), which means "I love ice cream." The following table illustrates the subtle differences in meaning when the sentence structure is altered:

Sentence Structure Meaning Russian Sentence
Subject-verb-object Neutral meaning Я люблю мороженное
Subject-object-verb The emphasis is on type of dessert that the object likes, i.e., ice cream. Я мороженное люблю
Object-subject-verb A pensive statement that emphasises that the speaker does like ice cream. Informal tone. Мороженное я люблю
Object-verb-subject The emphasis is on the fact that it is the speaker who likes ice cream. Мороженное люблю я
Verb-object-subject A declarative statement with a poetic undertone. Люблю мороженное я
Verb-subject-object A reflective, declarative statement placing the accent on the speaker’s love for ice cream. Люблю я мороженное

It is important to remember that while the particular word order does create a different meaning, it is the intonation and the accent placed on a particular word that makes the most difference in determining the meaning of a sentence.

03
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Capitalization

In Russian, capitalization occurs only in two main instances: at the beginning of a sentence and when spelling a proper name. However, there are still several rules concerning the use of capital letters in more complex sentences, for example when there is a full sentence citation inside another sentence, or when spelling names of works of art, abbreviations, and many more.

The main thing to remember is that in Russian the rules of capitalization are different from those in English. For instance, days of the week, nationalities, or names of the months are not capitalized in Russian. The English I is capitalized but the Russian я (ya) is written in lowercase. On the contrary, where in English we don’t capitalize you, in Russian in certain instances it is written with a capital letter: Вы (vy).

04
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Intonation

Russian intonation changes according to the type of sentence and its desired meaning. These basic rules will help you sound more natural when you speak Russian.

  • At the end of a declarative sentence, the tone on the last stressed syllable is lowered:
    Это Маша (EHta Masha) – This is Masha.
  • In a question that contains what, who, when, where, or how, the interrogative word is marked by a stronger stress:
    Кто это? (KTO Ehta?) – Who is it?
  • Finally, in a question that does not contain a question word, the tone rises sharply on the stressed syllable:
    Это Маша? (Ehta Masha?) – Is this Masha?
05
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Devocalization of Voiced Consonants

Consonants are called "voiced" if they use the vibration of the vocal cords, for example Б, В, Г, Д, Ж, and З. Voiced consonants can become voiceless in certain situations, and sound more like their counterparts П, Ф, К, Т, Ш, and С. This happens when a voiced consonant is at the end of a word, or is followed by a voiceless consonant, for example:

  • Глаз (glas) –eye– the voiced consonant З sounds like the voiceless consonant С because it is at the end of the word.
  • Будка (BOOTka) –shed, cabin, booth– the voiced consonant Д sounds like the voiceless consonant Т because it is followed by another voiceless consonant, К.
06
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Reduction

Vowel reduction occurs in unstressed syllables and has several rules. The main thing to remember is that a vowel in a stressed syllable sounds more true to its alphabet sound, and is pronounced as a long, accented sound. In standard Russian, the letters О and А in unstressed syllables merge and create a shorter sound.

07
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Declension

There are six cases in the Russian language and they are all equally important to speak Russian correctly. The cases define the way a word changes its form when used in a different context or position. 

Nominative: Identifies the subject in a sentence (who, what?).

Genitive: Shows possession, absence, or attribution (who(m), what, whose, or what/who is absent?).

Dative: Demonstrates that something is given or addressed to the object (to whom, to what?).

Instrumental: Shows which instrument is used to do or make something, or with whom/with what an action is completed (with whom, with what?).

Prepositional: Identifies a place, time, or a person/object that is being discussed or thought about (about whom, about what, where?).

08
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Forming Plurals

The basic rule for plurals in Russian is that the word endings change to either и, ы, я, or а, apart from several exceptions. However, things get more complicated when we need a plural form for a word that is in a case other than the simple nominative. In each case, the ending changes according to a different rule, all of which need to be remembered.

09
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Tenses

Russian has three tenses: past, present, and future. The past and the future tenses have two aspects each: perfective and imperfective. 

Simply put, the perfective aspect shows that an action was, or will be, completed or definite, whereas the imperfective aspect is used when an action continued or will continue regularly or for an undetermined length of time. However, the actual usage of the two aspects depends on the speaker, the style of speech, and the context, so the best way to learn which aspect of a tense is most appropriate is to listen to as much Russian as possible. 

In addition, Russian verb endings change according to the tense, as well as gender and whether the subject is singular or plural.