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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Essential Tips on Getting People's Surnames Right

"Thanks for last week's column on Russian surnames," a friend of mine said to me the other day, "but I'd like to know what good it does to know where last names come from if you can't figure out how to conjugate the darned things." He had a point. Getting the right ending on a lot of Russian surnames is a topic worthy of separate consideration.

The easiest ones are the ones that end in -skii or -skaya. Last names like Dostoevsky or Tolstaya decline just like ordinary adjectives in both singular and plural.

With common last names ending in -in, -ov and -ev, and their feminine forms -ina, -ova and -eva, the situation is a little trickier and it is important to be aware of it since names like Ivanov, Petrov and Sergeyev are some of the most common Russian surnames.

For the masculine forms, these names decline just like ordinary nouns, except for the instrumental case which infuriatingly takes not the noun ending -om, but the adjectival ending -ym. Therefore, it is correct to say something like, vchera ya razgovarival s Borisom Yeltsinym and Ivanom Ivanovym (Yesterday I was talking to Boris Yeltsin and Ivan Ivanov). Since this type of situation is quite common, it is worthwhile making a point of remembering it.

If that were not bad enough, the feminine forms of these names take standard adjectival endings in every case, except the accusative where they are treated like ordinary nouns. You might say, for instance, ya govoril o Mashe Ivanovoi (I was talking about Masha Ivanova), but for the accusative, you must say, ya videl Mashu Ivanovu (I saw Masha Ivanova).

To make things more confusing, consider a last name like Lebed', which is taken from the word for "swan." Such names decline like ordinary nouns in masculine forms, but have no feminine forms at all: A woman would also be called Lebed' and this form would remain the same in all cases. Oddly enough, this also applies to names that end in -a, like Glinka. For men, the name Glinka declines like a normal feminine noun, while for women, the name does not decline at all: Ya videl Mikhaila Glinku i Ninu Glinka (I saw Mikhail Glinka and Nina Glinka).

The same general rule of thumb applies to foreign names. The masculine forms decline like ordinary nouns while the feminine form is treated as indeclinable. One would say, for instance, Ya govoril s Billom Klintonom i Khillari Klinton (I was speaking to Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton).

The complicated situation with Russian surnames may well explain why Russians address one another by their first names and patronymics. A mouthful like Vsevolod Vyacheslavovich doesn't seem quite so bad in this context.