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September 2, 2020

Why the Russian Sentence Structure Helps You Speak 60% More Fluently

Russian sentence structure is awesome:

My uncle me asked to him salt to pass.

That sounds wacky.

But in Russian it’s a correct sentence if we keep the Russian word order the same:

Мой дядя меня попросил ему соль передать.

That’s cool. 

In this guide you learn how to form the Russian sentence structure AND why it helps you sound more fluent than you actually are:

How to form the Russian sentence structure

Russian word order is much more flexible than English. In English (or Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian etc) every sentence starts clearly with the subject. 

Then comes the verb.

The object follows.

And after that all the other sentence parts come.

Russian is similar, but it’s also completely different. 

Russian word order has a general structure

In contrast to what you may read on other sites, Russian word order is NOT completely random.

There is a general structure to most sentences…

… and it’s the same as in English.

Or at least the base.

я еду на работу – I’m going to work

subject + verb + (preposition) + object.

  • Subject = I / я
  • Verb = am going / еду 
  • Preposition = to / на
  • Object = work / работу 

So, especially in the beginning, you can just take the English sentence you’ve got in your mind, and literally translate it to Russian.

95% of the time that works completely fine, and creates nice correct sentences.

Some examples:

  • Дай мне соль – Give me the salt
  • Я стираю свою стирку каждые выходные – I do my laundry every weekend
  • Бизнесмен продал свой бизнес за 1 миллион долларов – The businessman sold his business for 1 million dollar

Because of cases, you can create ‘random’ sentences

Now, this is where things become awesome for us as Russian learners:

As you know, Russian uses cases.

A case is when a noun changes its ending, according to its function in the sentence.

English used to have something similar.

  • I hit her
  • She hits me

When ‘I’ am hitting someone, it’s ‘I’. When someone else is hitting ‘me’, it’s not ‘I’, but ‘me’.

She/her works the same way.

This is the essence of Russian cases.

Only in Russian, EVERY single word changes into 6 forms.

In a nutshell:

  • nominative case = subject
  • accusative case = direct object
  • genitive case = of + noun
  • dative case = to + noun
  • instrumental case = with + noun
  • prepositional case = in + noun

This stuff is arguably the most difficult part of Russian grammar. So don’t worry if you don’t get it. It will take time to learn it well.

But to the more important part here:

In English the sentence structure dictates what the function of a word is.

  • The man bites the dog
  • The dog bites the man

The words don’t change. You only know who’s biting who, by seeing whether the dog or the man is before the verb in the sentence.

In Russian it’s different:

  • Мужчина кусает собаку (the man bites the dog)
  • Собака кусает мужчину (the dog bites the man)

It’s the same as with ‘’I hit her’’ / ‘’she hits me’’.

Now, in Russian even when you switch the positions of the nouns, but KEEP them in their form, it’s completely correct:

  • собаку кусает мужчина 
  • мужчину кусает собака 

Even though the positions have switched, any Russian person knows who is biting who. Because the word endings (which indicate structure!) haven’t changed.

It’s this exact thing that allows you to create – at first sight – completely random sentences.

Yesterday I bought a present for my friend

Literal translation is: Вчера я купил подарок другу.

In Russian you can also say this as:

  1. вчера я другу купил подарок
  2. вчера я другу подарок купил
  3. вчера я подарок купил другу
  4. вчера я подарок другу купил
  5. вчера купил я другу подарок
  6. вчера купил я подарок другу
  7. вчера купил другу я подарок
  8. вчера купил другу подарок я
  9. вчера купил подарок я другу
  10. вчера купил подарок другу я
  11. вчера другу я подарок купил
  12. вчера другу я купил подарок
  13. вчера другу купил подарок я
  14. вчера другу купил я подарок
  15. вчера другу подарок купил я
  16. вчера другу подарок я купил
  17. вчера подарок я купил другу
  18. вчера подарок я другу купил
  19. вчера подарок купил я другу
  20. вчера подарок купил другу я
  21. вчера подарок другу я купил
  22. вчера подарок другу купил я
  23. я вчера купил другу подарок
  24. я вчера купил подарок другу
  25. я вчера другу купил подарок
  26. я вчера другу подарок купил
  27. я вчера подарок купил другу
  28. я вчера подарок другу купил
  29. я купил вчера другу подарок
  30. я купил вчера подарок другу
  31. я купил другу вчера подарок
  32. я купил другу подарок вчера
  33. я купил подарок вчера другу
  34. я купил подарок другу вчера
  35. я другу вчера подарок купил
  36. я другу вчера купил подарок
  37. я другу купил подарок вчера
  38. я другу купил вчера подарок
  39. я другу подарок купил вчера
  40. я другу подарок вчера купил
  41. я подарок вчера купил другу
  42. я подарок вчера другу купил
  43. я подарок купил вчера другу
  44. я подарок купил другу вчера
  45. я подарок другу вчера купил
  46. я подарок другу купил вчера
  47. купил вчера подарок другу я
  48. купил вчера подарок я другу
  49. купил вчера я другу подарок
  50. купил вчера я подарок другу
  51. купил вчера другу я подарок
  52. купил вчера другу подарок я
  53. купил я подарок вчера другу
  54. купил я подарок другу вчера
  55. купил я вчера другу подарок
  56. купил я вчера подарок другу
  57. купил я другу вчера подарок
  58. купил я другу подарок вчера
  59. купил другу подарок вчера я
  60. купил другу подарок я вчера
  61. купил другу вчера подарок я
  62. купил другу вчера я подарок
  63. купил другу я подарок вчера
  64. купил другу я вчера подарок
  65. купил подарок другу я вчера
  66. купил подарок другу вчера я
  67. купил подарок вчера я другу
  68. купил подарок вчера другу я
  69. купил подарок я вчера другу
  70. купил подарок я другу вчера
  71. другу вчера купил подарок я
  72. другу вчера купил я подарок
  73. другу вчера подарок купил я
  74. другу вчера подарок я купил
  75. другу вчера я купил подарок
  76. другу вчера я подарок купил
  77. другу я купил вчера подарок
  78. другу я купил подарок вчера
  79. другу я подарок вчера купил
  80. другу я подарок купил вчера
  81. другу я вчера купил подарок
  82. другу я вчера подарок купил
  83. другу купил я вчера подарок
  84. другу купил я подарок вчера
  85. другу купил подарок вчера я
  86. другу купил подарок я вчера
  87. другу купил вчера подарок я
  88. другу купил вчера я подарок
  89. другу подарок я купил вчера
  90. другу подарок я вчера купил
  91. другу подарок купил я вчера
  92. другу подарок купил вчера я
  93. другу подарок вчера я купил
  94. другу подарок вчера купил я
  95. подарок вчера я другу купил
  96. подарок вчера я купил другу
  97. подарок вчера купил другу я
  98. подарок вчера купил я другу
  99. подарок вчера другу купил я
  100. подарок вчера другу я купил
  101. подарок я вчера купил другу
  102. подарок я вчера другу купил
  103. подарок я купил вчера другу
  104. подарок я купил другу вчера
  105. подарок я другу вчера купил
  106. подарок я другу купил вчера
  107. подарок купил вчера я другу
  108. подарок купил вчера другу я
  109. подарок купил я вчера другу
  110. подарок купил я другу вчера
  111. подарок купил другу вчера я
  112. подарок купил другу я вчера
  113. подарок другу вчера купил я
  114. подарок другу вчера я купил
  115. подарок другу я купил вчера
  116. подарок другу я вчера купил
  117. подарок другу купил я вчера
  118. подарок другу купил вчера я

That’s a total of 119 ways to say 1 sentence!

Now, of course some of these structures are less used than others. And some even for Russians would sound a little bit off, but not incorrect.

Still, you can almost pick any word order and have it be understandable for Russians.

The last word is emphasized

Another important thing to know in the Russian sentence structure is that in general the last word is emphasized.

  • Вчера я купил подарок другу – here you want to say you got it for a friend yesterday, not for your mom.
  • Вчера я купил другу подарок – meaning you got him a present, and not gave him a card with 1000 rubles.
  • Вчера другу подарок я купил – meaning you bought him a present, not made him a cake.
  • Я купил подарок другу вчера – meaning you got it yesterday, not today.

This is only if the other words are not emphasized. You can easily manually override this ‘last-word-emphasis’ by stressing the word you want to pop out.

Prepositions and other word combinations tend to stay together

Now, even though the Russian sentence structure is more random than English, it doesn’t mean you can just completely forget about it.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. prepositions always stay before their connected noun (or in front of the adjective that is connected to the noun)
  2. adjectives are virtually always in front of their connected noun
  3. if 2 stand alone sentences are connected by ‘and’ (и), or a comma, you cannot mix the 2 sentences.
  4. when sentences become longer, connected words tend to stay together subject/verb, verb/object etc.
  5. the genitive case can be found virtually always after the noun it possesses.
  6. when the same case is found multiple times, it tends to stay close together to the verb it’s connected with.

Some examples of these Russian word order rules:

  1. Я иду в большой супермаркет – I go to the large supermarket
  2. Я хочу поехать в солнечную испанию – I want to travel to sunny Spain
  3. Я хочу жить в солнечной испании и каждый день пить коктейли на пляже – I want to live in sunny Spain and drink cocktails on the beach every day.
  4. мне нравится подарки дарить друзьям – I like giving presents to friends
  5. На отдыхе мы остановились в пляжном домике моего дяди – On holiday we stayed at the beach house of my uncle
  6. See example 4.

How the Russian sentence structure helps you speak Russian

At first sight it seems that all this randomness is NOT going to help you speak conversational Russian.

The opposite is true.

Randomness actually makes it a lot easier to speak Russian well.

There are 3 main reasons:

You can just start speaking anywhere

Since you do not have to start a sentence with a specific word, you can simply start with the first word that comes to your mind.

Want to tell someone you’re going to the supermarket? But only remember the words for ‘to the supermarket’ (в супермаркет)?

Start with them, say them slowly and think of the other words as you speak:

в супермаркет…  я…. иду!

Or forgot the words for to the supermarket? But remember how to say I go?

я иду…. в супермаркет!

It may not seem like a huge difference. But this second that you can start speaking earlier makes you sound more fluent than if you were learning another strict-word-order-language such as Spanish or Dutch.

When Rusian people hear me speak Russian, they always say that my sentences flow rather well. I think this level of ‘flowing well’ can be reached much earlier with Russian than with most other languages that do not have the random Russian word order.

You don’t need to ‘prepare’ the sentence as much

This flows automatically from the first benefit: if you can just start speaking, you do not have to stop before each sentence, and mentally think out how and what you’re going to say.

In the beginning you still need to think about what you’re going to say of course, but you can stop thinking about the strategic placement of words.

This has the same effect of allowing your sentences to flow better into each other.

In the beginning once you’re still translating sentences from your native languages to Russian, this effect won’t be as pronounced.

Later when you are on the verge of being able to ‘think’ in Russian, you’ll feel this benefit speeding up your speech…

… and make you sound more fluent than if you would’ve put the same amount of time into speaking Italian. (or any other language, really)

You can think ‘on the go’

If you can just start speaking, and not worry too much about the Russian sentence structure, what happens?

You gain precious time.

Time while speaking.

Time that can be used to think about what you’re going to say next.

Especially once you reach upper beginner level, you can start thinking in Russian.

And that’s when you notice something:

All the common words that you’ve been practicing for a long time, are now stored into your long-term memory.

And if you’re fresh and have slept well, these words come easily to your mind.

It also doesn’t require too much effort to say them, since you’ve put in the work to practice pronouncing them often.

Less mental effort to pronounce words + less mental  effort to think of new words = more free mental bandwidth to do other things, such as:

  • focus on pronouncing each word correctly
  • focus on correctly saying the case endings
  • focus on creating longer, or more complicated sentences
  • focus on faster speaking (while keeping your speech correct)

The downside of the random Russian word order

Remember what made this random sentence structure possible in the first place?

Cases.

If the ending of each noun in itself shows you the function of the word in the sentence, you can place it anywhere you want.

Now, this does mean you need to learn cases… (blehhh)

There’s no way around it.

And as much as I hate to say it, this takes a lot of time. 

It took me over 3 years of learning Russian to get the cases more or less correct most of the time (80+%). 

And now after 5 years? I still make mistakes once a while. Though if I consciously slow down my speech, they’re very minimal.

Pro tip: swallow the endings while saying cases. Russians do this as well. No one hears the difference between девушке and девушки if you speak at a regular speed and make sure to quickly go into the next word. Even if people hear the difference, they don’t care. It’s obvious what you mean most of the time anyways.

Pro tip 2: if you consciously emphasize saying the cases correctly every day during your speaking practice, you can cut my timeline for you to learn cases in half. I did not consciously do this, and swallowed my endings a lot so I didn’t feel the need to practice cases specifically.

Here are some pages that can help you with cases:

Why English is so difficult for Russians

Russians can skip the cases in English, since we don’t use them. But they get an equally large problem in return.

Strict. Word. Order.

All the benefits we spoke about in the previous paragraphs that make it easier for foreigners to sound more fluent than they actually are… Russians experience the opposite.

And since they never got used to a language with strict word order, it’s quite difficult to get used to it.

Russians cannot just start with any word in English.

Russians also need to ‘prethink’ the entire sentence in their minds before speaking.

So I’m very happy that Dutch is similar to English (in words and grammar, but also sentence structure). So I never had to deal with this problem learning English.

And while cases are difficult to learn in Russian, once you’ve got them down, they’re not that difficult anymore.

And then you can use the random word order to make your speech sound conversational (even fluent, I’d say), faster than you think…

Good luck 🙂



Struggle with conversations in Russian? My book the Russian Conversational Blueprint gives you clear instructions and daily tasks to follow to get to an intermediate Russian level in the next 6 months. Learn more.


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Author: Ari Helderman


I started learning Russian seriously in January 2016, and haven't stopped since. I created this site to help other foreigners speak Russian. You can follow my progress in Russian on my YouTube channel Ари Говорит по-русски.

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