The Idaafa

The idaafa is an extremely important construction in Arabic. It is very easy, basic, and ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL for any student of the language who wants ever to be able to do anything at all in Arabic. I am upset about the number of students who have had several years of Arabic and do not know the difference between an idaafa and a noun-adjective phrase. In fact, many students do not seem to know the difference between an idaafa and a French horn. The noun-adjective phrase will be taught in the next chapter. The French horn will not.

The word idaafa means “addition” or even “annexation”. The idaafa is used to indicate possession in Arabic. In English we say “John’s book”. In Arabic we say “the book (of) John”. Below are some examples of idaafas, their translations into English, and an explanation.

   1. A university professor (a professor of a university)

١. أستاذُ جامعةٍ

   2. The office director (the director of the office)

٢.  مدير المكتبِ

   3. A teacher’s house (a house of a teacher)

٣. بيتُ مدرسٍ

   4. The teacher’s house (the house of the teacher)

٤. بيتُ المدرسِ

   5. An office director’s car (a car of a director of an office)

٥. سيارةُ مديرِ مكتبٍ

   6. The office director’s car (the car of the director of the office).

٦. سيارةُ مديرِ المكتبِ


The translations in parentheses are literal translations; the others are what would most likely actually be used.

Now let’s study the idaafas above. In sentence one we have a standard two-term idaafa. The first term is the thing possessed. It can be in any case depending on its use in the sentence. But, the first term of an idaafa never has nunation. The second term of this idaafa is in the genitive. IN AN IDAAFA, THE SECOND TERM AND ANY FOLLOWING TERMS ARE ALWAYS GENITIVE. Since the second term in this particular idaafa جامعة is indefinite, it will take nunation. Because the second term is indefinite the entire idaafa is indefinite. Thus we have “a professor of a university”.

Now look at the second idaafa. The first term is مديرُ. It does not have nunation because the first term of an idaafa NEVER has nunation. The second term of this idaafa المكتبِ is in the genitive case because the second term of every idaafa in the entire length and breadth of the history of this great language is always genitive.

But we have a difference between this second idaafa and the first idaafa. The second term of the second idaafa المكتبِ is definite. Because it is definite, it will not have nunation. But there is something even more important. Because the second term is definite, THE ENTIRE IDAAFA IS DEFINITE.

Thus, this idaafa means, literally, “the director of the office”. This means that the first term of this idaafa is definite even though it does not itself have the definite article. Now hear this: THE FIRST TERM OF AN IDAAFA NEVER HAS THE DEFINITE ARTICLE. This means that the first term of an idaafa never has the definite article.

The third idaafa is indefinite because the second term of that idaafa is indefinite. The fourth idaafa is a definite version of the third.

The fifth idaafa has three terms; the last two terms themselves being an idaafa. The first term is nominative because I put it in the nominative. As you know, the first term of the idaafa will be in the case that the sentence requires. The second term of this idaafa is genitive, because the second term of all idaafas is always genitive. However, the second term of this idaafa does not have nunation because it is followed by yet another term. The last term of the idaafa,  مكتبِ is, of course, genitive. Since it is  indefinite it has nunation. THE LAST TERM OF AN IDAAFA IS THE ONLY TERM OF AN IDAAFA THAT CAN HAVE NUNATION. An idaafa can have an unlimited number of terms,  although you will rarely see one with more than four.

The first term of the fifth example is سيارة which is feminine. When speaking, the ة of any term except the last term of an idaafa must be pronounced. That is, you would say “sayyaaratu mudiiri maktabin”. Often American students forget to do this.

The sixth idaafa is a definite form of the fifth. This entire idaafa is definite BECAUSE THE LAST TERM OF THE IDAAFA IS DEFINITE. Since the last term is definite there is no nunation in this idaafa. THE LAST TERM OF AN IDAAFA IS THE ONLY TERM THAT CAN EVER HAVE THE DEFINITE ARTICLE.

Here are the important rules about an idaafa which you must remember:

1.  An idaafa consists of two or more nouns.

2.  If the last term of the idaafa is definite, the entire idaafa is definite.

3.  If the last term of the idaafa is indefinite, then the entire idaafa is indefinite.

4.  The first term of the idaafa can be in any case required by the use of that word in the sentence.

5.  All terms other than the first term MUST be in the genitive case.

6.  The only term in an idaafa that can have nunation is the last term of the idaafa. It will only have nunation if it is indefinite.

7.  If you like to memorize lists of things as a means to demonstrating knowledge of a subject, I recommend you study Buddhism.

I know that this explanation may seem repetitive. But you must know these things. If you do not understand what an idaafa is, or do not understand the relationship of the words in an idaafa to each other, you will never understand Arabic above the level of a two year old, or of an American journalist.

One question that I am often asked is: How does a student spot an idaafa? What I tell them is this:  whenever you see two nouns or more in a row, and the first noun does not have a definite article (or a pronoun suffix) then assume that you have an idaafa. Pronoun suffixes are discussed briefly below and in detail in the next chapter. Remember also that an adjective will never be the second term of an idaafa. (See note A below).

Another thing that a student should be aware of is that nothing can come between two terms of an idaafa except the demonstratives تلك , ذلك ,هذه ,هذا the dual forms of these words, and their plurals. (The dual and plural forms will be discussed later on in Part One.) If anything else appears between two words that you think are in an idaafa relationship with each other, then you do not have an idaafa – ever.

Also be aware, while you are reading an idaafa, that as soon as you come to a word with the definite article or a pronoun suffix, you have reached the end of the idaafa.

Here are some examples of these things that you should be aware of.

   1.  The director of this office is a moron

١. مديرُ هذا المكتب بليدٌ

   2.  The study of Arabic grammar is enjoyable

٢. دراسةُ قواعد اللغةِ العربية ممتعةٌ

   3.  Her office is a large office.

٣. مكتبُها مكتبٌ كبيرٌ


The first sentence has an idaafa as its subject مديرُ هذا المكتب. The word هذا does not interfere with the idaafa relationship of the noun before it and after it since هذا forms one unit with the noun which follows it. The noun after هذا is in the genitive case as it is the second term of the idaafa. The last word in that sentence is in the nominative since it is the predicate of the equational sentence.

The second sentence has as its subject a three-term definite idaafa. The last word in the idaafa is اللغةِ.  You know it is the last word in the idaafa because it is the last of the nouns and it has the definite article. Even if you did not know the meaning of العربية, which comes after اللغةِ, you would know that  العربية  could not possibly be part of the idaafa since it comes after a word which has a definite article on it. If you know that العربية  is an adjective, that would also tell you that it cannot be part of the idaafa.

The third sentence has مكتبُها as its subject. You may recall that ها is a possessive pronoun suffix for the third person feminine singular (it corresponds to هي).Since it comes between two nouns, those nouns cannot be in an idaafa with one another.  (In fact, Arab grammarians would understand the suffix ها to be the second term of the idaafa “مكتبُها“)  Since possessive pronouns are grammatically definite, they will always end an idaafa and define it, whenever they are used. Possessive pronouns will be discussed in Part D of the next chapter. Do not worry about them for now.

Note A: There is an exception to this rule. Sometimes an adjective can stand in place of a noun. For example, محمد  may be known as الكريم “the generous” or “the noble.” This title can stand in place of the name محمد Thus بيتُ الكريمِ “the house of the generous (Muhamad),” is an idaafa with an adjective as its final term.

Now do Drill 4 Parts 1-3.

10 comments… add one
  • Hi,

    Just wanted to get some clarification on the following point: مديرُ هذا المكتب. in this sentence isn’t هَذَا considered as مُضَاف اليهِ and المَكْتَبِ is بَدلٌ for هَذَا?



    • Hasan,

      That is the difference between teaching Arabic to non-natives verses natives. Non-natives are taught to consider هذا and a definite word following it to be one unit. The concept of apposition – which is بدل in Arabic – is something usually left out in university classes at this level.

      • Thanks for the clarification.

  • Why aren’t examples 1,3, & 5 ustaadun, baitun, and sayaaratun? Aren’t they indefinite subjects?

    • Nevermind, I figured it out.

  • Thanks for this amazing resource. It would be really helpful throughout if terms like genitive had the Arabic word majrur with them as (hope it’s not just me) a lot of English grammar is a bit of a mystery. Thanks for starting right from the basics and using such excellent examples to demonstrate.

  • Very, very, very helpful. And witty and memorable. شكراً!

  • Super helpful! Thanks.

  • How would you translate “The small children of the faithful elders”?


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