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Lesson 4b: Definite Nouns

Lesson 4, Part A:
  • Intro
  • Dialogue
Lesson 4, Part B: Lesson 4, Part C:
  • Sun and Moon Letters
  • Expressing Likes with أحِب

The definite article ال
Definiteness is a very important concept in Arabic. Whether a noun is definite changes how you use it with adjectives, verbs and connect it with other nouns. The definite article ال placed before a noun is one way to make something definite:

A student
The student

Notice how in "The student" the "L" in "Al" is not pronounced but instead stress is placed on the letter after it. This is covered at the end of this lesson under "Sun and Moon Letters".

Differences between "ال" and "The"
Sometimes, like the example above, the definite article ال functions like the word "the" in English and its absence can be translated as the word "a". However the definite article is also commonly used in Arabic when talking about an object or concept in general. Here are some examples:

اُحِب القَهوَة
uHib al-qahwa
I like coffee
التاريخ مُمتِع
a-ttaariikh mumti3
History is interesting

A very important rule that you should always keep in mind:

Arabic sentences NEVER start with an indefinite noun

What makes a noun definite?
Along with gender and number (singular/plural), definiteness is something you will need to keep track of for all nouns since it affects how you conjugate adjectives as well as other words. The definite article is not the only way a noun can be definite.

There are four ways a noun can be definite:
• The definite article (covered in this chapter)
• An Idafa phrase (covered two chapters later) such as "The wife of John" or "The city of Boston"
Possessive endings (covered two chapters later) like "my car" or "her book"
Proper Nouns (i.e. Names) like John, Mohamed, Morocco, Paris, etc..

Remember: In Arabic a sentence can NEVER start with an indefinite noun.

Adjectives and ال
The placement of the definite article can completely alter the meaning of similar looking phrases. Take a look at these three examples which combine the word girl بِنت and the word beautiful جَميلة. Can you guess what they mean?

1 بِنت جَميلة
bint jamiila
2 البِنت جَميلة
al-bint jamiila
3 البِنت الجَميلة
al-bint al-jamiila

First note that jamiila is feminine since it must match the gender of the noun it describes. When we introduced adjectives we said that an adjective needs to match the noun it describes in gender, number and definiteness. In the first example both بِنت and جَميلة are indefinite so this means "A beautiful girl". However, it is only a phrase and needs to be part of a complete sentence such as "I saw a beautiful girl". In the third example both البِنت and الجَميلة are definite so this means "THE beautiful girl". Once again this is a phrase that is only part of a complete sentence.

The second example is different. It is a complete sentence that means "The girl is beautiful". Notice this is the same "X is Y" pattern used for "They are students" or "I am a doctor". Here are the phrases/sentences with their translations.

بِنت جَميلة
A beautiful girl
البِنت جَميلة
The girl is beautiful
البِنت الجَميلة
The beautiful girl

You may be wondering if you can use this "X is Y" pattern to say something like "A girl is a student". Of course the answer is "NO YOU SILLY GOOSE!!!!" because No Arabic sentence starts with an indefinite noun!!.