Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wrong is Sometimes Right

??????? ???????: hodgepodge, mishmash

I adore web sites and radio shows where bewildered Russians ask questions about the language and smart Russians give authoritative answers. I like them for three reasons -- one adult and two utterly childish. The adult reason is that it's a good way to master what I like to call loftily "the finer points of language use." The immature reasons for this are: 1) it makes me feel better to know that native speakers make mistakes, and 2) when I make the same mistakes and someone corrects me, I can pretend that "??? ??? ???????." (Everyone says it.)

In my ??????? ??????? (hodgepodge, from a kind of soup that mixes all kinds of ingredients) of tricky Russian, the first frequent error is the current year. How do you say that you did something in 2007? Here, like some native speakers, I was led astray by the first year in this millennium. ? ???????????? ???? ? ?????? ??????. (In 2000, I bought a car.) But with years, only the last digit gets declined: ? ??? ?????? ?????? ???? ?????? ?????????. (In 2001, the car broke down.)

The second tricky bit is remembering the singular form of nouns that are most commonly used in the plural -- mostly things that come in pairs and cover body parts that come in pairs: ????? (slippers), ???????? (flip-flops), ???????? (gloves), ??????? (low boots), ?????? (boots), ????? (socks). Lots of native speakers get these wrong. It's ???? ?????, ???? ????????, ???? ????????, ???? ???????, ???? ?????, ???? ?????. What if you want to buy three pairs of socks? In other words, what's the genitive plural of ?????? If you want to be proper, say: ??? ???????? ?? ?????? ??? ???? ??????. But so many people have gotten this wrong over the decades that their mistake is now listed as an acceptable variant, so you can also say ??? ???? ?????.

What about the genitive cases of kilograms and grams? Most of the time at the market, I avoid the problem by using the word ???? (kilo), which -- thank God! -- doesn't decline. But the full word is ?????????, so if you want to buy five kilos of apples, you should ask for ???? ??????????? ????? -- not ???? ?????????. And if you are buying tomatoes or eggplants, don't make another common mistake: Ask for ???? ??????????? ????????? / ?????????? (a lot of people say ???? ??????????? ???????/ ????????.)

With ?????? (grams), I give up. An around-the-table focus group revealed that people say, --?????? ???????? (How many grams?) "????? ????????? ????? ???????. (356 grams). ?????? ??? ??????. (203 grams). So far, so good because ?????, a masculine noun, declines normally. But then everyone said: --?? ?????. (100 grams). It should be ??? ???????. Perhaps the problem with my focus group was that we were measuring our grams in vodka, but my guess is that although ??? ????? is grammatically wrong, it's turning into another acceptable variant.

And for the grand prize in tricky grammar, what do these five verbs have in common: ?????????? (to vacuum), ?????? (to act strangely), ???????? (to win), ??????? (to convince), ??????? (to sense)? They are verbs that don't have a first person singular form, according to most dictionaries. ??? ?????????. (She's vacuuming.) ?? ?????. (He's acting weird.) ?? ???????. (We'll win.) ?? ???????. (You'll be convincing.) ??? ??????. (They'll sense it.)

But when you try to say that you are doing these actions, you stumble through several attempts like ???????? ... ???????? ... before grinding to a halt. Why isn't there a first person form? Beats me! The only reason I can find is that the logical forms are hard to pronounce or don't "sound right," and so they were rejected altogether.

But who cares? It means that everyone else has to do the housework.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.