beginning, intermediate

The principal moods of the Arabic verb: Indicative, subjunctive, jussive, and imperative

In this article we will take a short look at the main moods of the Standard Arabic verb: indicative, subjunctive, jussive, and imperative. We won’t go into excessive detail, just the contexts that beginning and intermediate learners of Arabic are likely to encounter. This is also the reason we won’t discuss the short and long “energetic” moods; they simply don’t occur very often in non-literary texts.

Overview

We discussing mood in Arabic, we are generally talking about different forms of the imperfect (such as يكتب yaktub ‘he writes’) as opposed to the perfect (as in كَتَبَ kataba ‘he wrote’). From a syntactic perspective, the Arabic perfect belongs indicative mood, but that is not how people traditionally talk about mood in Arabic.

Before discussing how the different moods are used, let’s first get an idea of what they look. We will postpone our discussion of the imperative, which is based on the jussive. The following table shows the indicative, subjunctive, and jussive forms of يكتب yaktub ‘he writes’:

Indicative Subjunctive Jussive
يَكْتُبُ يَكْتُبَ يَكْتُبْ
yaktubu yaktuba yaktub

Note how the indicative has the suffix -u, the subjunctive has the suffix -a, and the jussive has no suffix at all. In informal Arabic, the indicative u ending and the subjunctive a ending would not be pronounced, so that all three forms would be pronounced yaktub.

This pattern (-u for indicative, -a for subjunctive, and no ending for jussive) holds for all persons that don’t take an inherent suffix (هو huwa, هي hiya, أنتَ ’anta, أنا ’anaa, and نحن naḥnu):

Subject Indicative Subjunctive Jussive
هُوَ يَكْتُبُ يَكْتُبَ يَكْتُبْ
huwa yaktubu yaktuba yaktub
هِيَ تَكْتُبُ تَكْتُبَ تَكْتُبْ
hiya taktubu taktuba taktub
أَنْتَ تَكْتُبُ تَكْتُبَ تَكْتُبْ
’anta taktubu taktuba taktub
أَنا أَكْتُبُ أَكْتُبَ أَكْتُبْ
’anaa ’aktubu ’aktuba ’aktub
نَحْنُ نَكْتُبُ نَكْتُبَ نَكْتُبْ
naḥnu naktubu naktuba naktub

The two feminine plurals (هُنَّ hunna ‘they’ and أَنْتُنَّ ’antunna ‘you’) remain exactly the same in these three moods:

Subject Indicative Subjunctive Jussive
هُنَّ يَكْتُبْنَ يَكْتُبْنَ يَكْتُبْنَ
hunna yaktubna yaktubna yaktubna
أَنْتُنَّ تَكْتُبْنَ تَكْتُبْنَ تَكْتُبْنَ
’antunna taktubna taktubna taktubna

The remaining forms are all characterized by a suffixe: either -iina (for أَنْتِ ‘anti ‘you (fem. sing.)’), -aani (for duals هُما humaa ‘they’ and أَنْتُما ‘antumaa ‘you’), or -uuna (for masculine plurals هُمْ hum ‘they’ and أَنْتُمْ ‘antum ‘you’) in the indicative (typically shortened to -iin, -aan, and -uun in informal Arabic). In both the subjunctive and the jussive, the na/ni of these suffixes is dropped. So the subjunctive and jussive forms for these persons are identical:

Subject Indicative Subjunctive/Jussive
أَنْتِ تَكْتُبِينَ تَكْتُبِي
’anti taktubiina taktubii
هُما يَكْتُبانِ/تَكْتُبانِ يَكْتُبا/تَكْتُبا
humaa yaktubaani/taktubaani yaktubaa/taktubaa
أَنْتُما تَكْتُبانِ تَكْتُبا
’antumaa taktubaani taktubaa
هُمْ يَكْتُبُونَ يَكْتُبُوا
hum yaktubuuna yaktubuu
أَنْتُمْ تَكْتُبُونَ تَكْتُبُوا
’antum taktubuuna taktubuu
أَنْتُمْ تَكْتُبُونَ تَكْتُبُوا
’antum taktubuuna taktubuu

In the table, two verb forms are given for هُما humaa ‘they’: the first is masculine, and the second is feminine.

The covers the most basic cases, that is, for all verbs that are defective, hollow, or doubled. A bit more will be said about these defective and hollow verbs in the discussion of jussive mood and the imperative.

Now that we have seen what the different moods look like, we can consider the most important contexts in which they occur.

Indicative

The indicative is used in a simple sentence or question in the present tense, whether affirmative or negated with لا laa:

أنا أَكْتُبُ خِطاباتٍ كَثيرة.
’anaa ’aktubu khiṭaabaatin kathiira.
‘I write a lot of letters.’
أنا لا أَكْتُبُ خطاباتٍ كَثيرة.
’anaa laa ’aktubu khiṭaabaatin kathiira.
‘I don’t write many letters.’

Many of the differences in the moods involve suffixes that would not be pronounced in informal Arabic. Therefore, for consistency’s sake, the example sentences in this article will be fully vocalized as they would be pronounced in formal or Classical Arabic.

The indicative is also used in the affirmative future tense, marked by either سَوْفَ sawfa or the prefix سَـ sa-:

سَوْفَ أَكْتُبُ الْخِطاباتِ غَدًا.
sawfa ’aktubu l-khiṭaabaati ghadan.
‘I will write the letters tomorrow.’
سَأَكْتُبُ الْخِطاباتِ غَدًا.
sa’aktubu l-khiṭaabaat ghadan.
‘I’ll write the letters tomorrow.’

Subjunctive

The subjunctive is used for a verb following the negative future particle لَنْ lan:

لَنْ أَكْتُبَ خِطابًا الْيَوْم.
lan ’aktuba khiṭaaban al-yawm.
‘I won’t write a letter today.’

The subjunctive is also used after various particles meaning ‘in order to’, ‘so that’, or with similar meanings, such as لِ li, لِكَيْ likay, and أَنْ ’an:

اِشْتَرَيْتُ قَلَمًا لِأَكْتُبَ خِطابًا.
’ishtaraytu qalaman li-’aktuba khiṭaaban.
‘I bought a pen to write a letter.’
اِشْتَرَيْتُ قَلَمًا لِكَيْ أَكْتُبَ خِطابًا.
’ishtaraytu qalaman likay ’aktuba khiṭaaban.
‘I bought a pen to write a letter.’
أُرِيدُ أَنْ أَكْتُبَ الْخِطابَ غَدًا.
’uriidu ’an ’aktuba l-khiṭaaba ghadan.
‘I want to write the letter tomorrow.’

There are a number of other particles and situations requiring the subjunctive. These are just the most crucial ones for beginners. See the section below on resources for more complete discussion.

Jussive

The jussive is used after the particle لَمْ lam, which is used to express the negative past tense:

لَمْ أَكْتُبْ خِطابًا الْيَوم.
lam ’aktub khiṭaaban al-yawm.
‘I didn’t write a letter today.’

The jussive is also used with لا laa for a negative command:

لا تَكْتُبْ الْخِطابَ الْيَوْمَ، مِنْ فَضْلِك.
laa taktub il-khiṭaaba l-yawma, min faḍli-ka.
‘Don’t write the letter today, please.’

There are a number of other situations requiring the jussive. These are just the two most crucial ones for beginners. See the section below on resources for more complete discussion of the jussive.

For the five forms lacking an inherent suffix in the imperfect (هو huwa, هي hiya, أنتَ ’anta, أنا ’anaa, and نحن naḥnu), the jussive can be hard for learners to recognize, since they involve shortening the last vowel in the stem, changing the spelling. So as to put the jussive in context, in the following examples we’ll use the negative past for a jussive context and compare it with the negative present, which is a context for the indicative mood. Notice how either a ا, و , ي, or ى is dropped in the jussive form.

Jussive Indicative
لَم يَشْتَرِ لا يَشْتَري
lam yashtari laa yashtarii
‘he didn’t buy’ ‘he doesn’t buy’
لَمْ يَصْحُ لا يَصْحو
lam yaṣḥu laa yaṣḥuu
‘he didn’t wake up’ ‘he doesn’t wake up’
لَمْ يَبْقَ لا يَبْقى
lam yabqa laa yabqaa
‘he didn’t stay’ ‘he doesn’t stay’
لَمْ يَصِحْ لا يَصِيحُ
lam yaṣḥu laa yaṣḥuu
‘he didn’t wake up’ ‘he doesn’t wake up’
لَمْ يَدُرْ لا يَدُورُ
lam yadur laa yaduuru
‘he didn’t turn’ ‘he doesn’t turn’
لَمْ يَنَمْ لا يَنامُ
lam yanam laa yanaamu
‘he didn’t sleep’ ‘he doesn’t sleep’

Imperative

The imperative form is used for an affirmative command:

اِقْرَأْ هَذا الْكِتاب.
’iqra’ haadhaa l-kitaab.
‘Read this book.’

Remember that for a negative command we use the jussive preceded by لا laa, as shown in the section above.

The imperative is based on the jussive. Generally, you simply remove the prefix تََـ ta- or تُـ tu- from the jussive to form the imperative. If the word you are left with after removing the prefix starts with a single consonant, as in the case of تُفَكِّرْ tufakkir ‘you think (m.s., jussive)’, you’re done. Here are all of the imperative forms of that verb:

Subject Indicative Jussive Imperative
أَنْتَ تُفَنِّرُ تُفَكِّرْ فَكِّر
’anta tufakkiru tufakkir fakkir
أَنْتِ تُفَكِّرينَ تُفَكِّري فَكِّري
’anti tufakkiriina tufakkirii fakkirii
أَنْتُما تُفَكِّرانِ تُفَكِّرا فَكِّرا
’antumaa tufakkiraani tufakkiraa fakkiraa
أَنْتُمْ تُفَكِّرونَ تُفَكِّروا فَكِّروا
’antum tufakkiruuna tufakkiruu fakkiruu
أَنْتُنَّ تُفَكِّرْنَ تُفَكِّرْنَ فَكِّرْنَ
’antunna tufakkirna tufakkirna fakkirna

Here are a variety of other verbs that form their imperative simply by removing the تََـ ta- or تُـ tu- prefix. Note how the resulting imperative begins with a single consonant.

Imperative Jussive
فَكِّرْ تُفَكِّرْ
fakkir tufakkir
‘think’
شاهِدْ تُشاهِدْ
shaahid tushaahid
‘watch’
تَعَلَّمْ تَتَعَلَّمْ
taʕallam tataʕallam
‘learn’
تَراسَلْ تَتَراسَلْ
taraasal tataraasal
‘correspond (with someone)’
صِحْ تَصِحْ
ṣiḥ taṣiḥ
‘shout’
دُرْ تَدُرْ
dur tadur
‘turn’

So, how do you form the imperative of a verb like تَقْرَأْ taqra’ ‘you read (m.s., jussive)’? If we take of the تََـ ta- prefix we are left with قْرَأْ qra’, which begins with two consonants rather than one. In this case we need to add اِ ’i to the beginning (with an elidible glottal stop), giving us اِقْرَأْ ’iqra’. Here are a few different verbs that work like this, again in the masculine singular أَنْتَ ’anta form:

Imperative Jussive
تَفْتَحْ اِفْتَحْ
taftaḥ ’iftaḥ
‘open’
تَبْتَسِمْ اِبْتَسِمْ
tabtasim ’ibtasim
‘smile’
تَسْتَعْمِلْ اِسْتَعْمِلْ
tastaʕmil ’istaʕmil
‘use’

There are two exceptions to this way of forming the imperative with a verb stem that begins with two consonants. The first is with verbs like تَكْتُبْ taktub ‘you write (m.s., jussive)’, in which the “stem vowel” (the vowel of the last syllable of the stem) is u. In this case, instead of adding اِ ’i, we will add an initial اُ ’u (again, with an elidible glottal stop), as in these examples:

Imperative Jussive
تَكْتُبْ اُكْتُبْ
taktub ’uktub
‘write’
تَدْرُسْ أُدْرُسْ
tadrus ’udrus
‘study’
تَنْظُرْ اُنْظُرْ
tunḍhur ’unḍhur
‘look’

The second exception is the so-called Form IV verbs, which are verbs with that pattern أَفْعَلَ ’afʕala and أَفْعَلَ yufʕilu. For these verbs, after removing the initial تُـ tu- prefix, we add an initial أَ ’a- prefix (with a real hamza):

Imperative Jussive
تُكْمِلْ أَكْمِلْ
tukmil ’akmil
‘complete’

Resources

Here are two additional sources on moods in Arabic that you may find useful:

  • The layout on Tripod ain’t pretty, but the information seems very complete regarding the contexts requiring the various moods.
  • The Arabic Language Blog on the Transparent Language site also has a page on Arabic moods that you may find useful. It is not as complete as the Tripod pages, but may be easier for a beginner to follow.



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