The grammar of the Polish language is characterized by a high degree of inflection, and has relatively free word order, although the dominant arrangement is subject–verb–object (SVO). There are no articles, and there is frequent dropping of subject pronouns. Distinctive features include the different treatment of masculine personal nouns in the plural, and the complex grammar of numerals and quantifiers.
Regular morphological alternation
Certain regular or common alternations apply across the Polish inflectional system, affecting the morphology of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and other parts of speech. Some of these result from the restricted distribution of the vowels i and y, and from the voicing rules for consonants in clusters and at the end of words. Otherwise, the main changes are the following:
- vowel alternations, arising from the historical development of certain vowels, which cause vowel changes in some words depending on whether the syllable is closed or open, or whether the following consonant is soft or hard;
- consonant changes caused by certain endings (such as the -ie of the locative case, and the -i of the masculine personal plural), which historically entailed palatalization of the preceding consonant, and now produce a number of different changes depending on which consonant is involved.
Polish retains the Old Slavic system of cases for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. There are seven cases: nominative (mianownik), genitive (dopełniacz), dative (celownik), accusative (biernik), instrumental (narzędnik), locative (miejscownik), and vocative (wołacz).
There are three main genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Masculine nouns are further divided into personal, animate, and inanimate categories, which take different endings in the accusative. Some nouns with inanimate meaning (such as papieros "cigarette"; especially many loanwords relating to information technologies, e.g. komputer, walkman, blog) are treated as grammatically animate.
Masculine nouns typically end in a consonant, although a few (mainly personal names and words for people) end in -a, or more rarely -o (those that end -y or -i in the singular decline like adjectives). Feminine nouns end in -a, or less commonly a consonant (always a soft or hardened consonant). Neuter nouns end in -o or -e, or in a few cases -ę.
Typical declension patterns are as follows:
- klub ("club"; an inanimate masculine noun) – N/A klub, G klubu, D klubowi, I klubem, L/V klubie. Plural: N/A/V kluby, G klubów, D klubom, I klubami, L klubach.
- mapa ("map"; a feminine noun) – N mapa, G mapy, D/L mapie, A mapę, I mapą, V mapo. Plural: N/A/V mapy, G map, D mapom, I mapami, L mapach.
- mięso ("meat'; a neuter noun) – N/A/V mięso, G mięsa, D mięsu, I mięsem, L mięsie. Plural: N/A/V mięsa, G mięs, D mięsom, I mięsami, L mięsach.
A common deviation from the above patterns is that many masculine nouns have genitive singular in -a rather than -u. This includes all personal and animate masculines (ending in a consonant). Also masculine animate nouns have accusative singular equal to the genitive singular (in -a). Masculine personal nouns also have accusative plural equal to genitive plural, and often have nominative plural in -i.
Adjectives agree with the noun they modify in terms of gender, number and case. They are declined according to the following pattern (dumny means "proud"):
- masculine singular: N/V dumny, G dumnego, D dumnemu, A dumny (for inanimate nouns)/dumnego (animate), I/L dumnym
- feminine singular: N/V dumna, G/D/L dumnej, A/I dumną
- neuter singular: N/V/A dumne, G/D/I/L as masculine
- plural: N/V/A dumne (but for masculine personal nouns N/V dumni A dumnych), G/L dumnych, D dumnym, I dumnymi
|Case||Singular number||Plural number|
|Not masculine personal |
i.e. masculine impersonal,
feminine, and neutral
For a table showing the declension of Polish adjectival surnames, ending in -ski/-ska or -cki/-cka, see Declension of adjectival surnames.
Most short adjectives have a comparative form in -szy or -iejszy, and a superlative obtained by prefixing naj- to the comparative. For adjectives that do not have these forms, the words bardziej ("more") and najbardziej ("most") are used before the adjective to make comparative and superlative phrases.
Adverbs are formed from adjectives with the ending ie, or in some cases -o. Comparatives of adverbs are formed (where they exist) with the ending -iej. Superlatives have the prefix naj- as for adjectives.
The personal pronouns of Polish (nominative forms) are ja ("I"), ty ("you", singular, familiar), on ("he", or "it" corresponding to masculine nouns), ona ("she", or "it" corresponding to feminine nouns), ono ("it" corresponding to neuter nouns), my ("we"), wy ("you", plural, familiar), oni ("they", corresponding to a masculine personal group – see Noun syntax above), one ("they" in other cases; group where are only girls/women).
The polite second-person pronouns are the same as the nouns pan ("gentleman, Mr"), pani ("lady, Mrs") and their plurals panowie, panie. The mixed-sex plural is państwo. All second-person pronouns are often capitalized for politeness, in letters etc.
For the full declension of these pronouns, see Pronouns in the article on Polish morphology. Subject pronouns can be dropped if the meaning is clear and they are not emphasized. Sometimes there are alternative forms available for a given personal pronoun in a given case:
- there may be a form beginning with n-, used after prepositions (for example, the accusative of ona is nią after a preposition rather than ją);
- there may be a clitic form, used when unstressed, but not after prepositions (such as mi as the dative of ja, an alternative to mnie).
The reflexive pronoun for all persons and numbers is się.
The possessive adjectives (also used as possessive pronouns) derived from the personal pronouns are mój, twój, jego (m., n.)/jej (f.); nasz, wasz, ich. There is also a reflexive possessive swój. The polite second-person pronouns have possessives identical to the genitives of the corresponding nouns, although there is a possessive adjective pański corresponding to pan.
The demonstrative pronoun, also used as a demonstrative adjective, is ten (feminine ta, neuter to, masculine personal plural ci, other plural te). The prefix tam- can be added to emphasize a more distant referent ("that" as opposed to "this").
Interrogative pronouns are kto ("who") and co ("what"); these also provide the pronouns ktoś/coś ("someone/something"), ktokolwiek/cokolwiek ("anyone/anything"), nikt/nic ("no one/nothing").
The usual relative pronoun is który (declined like an adjective). However, when the antecedent is also a pronoun, the relative pronoun used is kto or co (as in ten kto "he who" and to co "that which"). The word który also means "which" as an interrogative pronoun and adjective.
The pronoun and adjective wszystek means "all". It is used most commonly in the plural (wszyscy means "everyone"), and in the neuter singular (wszystko) to mean "everything". The pronoun and adjective każdy means "each, every", while żaden means "no, none".
For full information on the declension of the above pronouns, see Pronouns in the article on Polish morphology.
When the referent of a pronoun is a person of unspecified sex, the masculine form of the pronoun is generally used. When the referent is a thing or idea that does not correspond to any specific noun, it is treated as neuter.
Numbers and quantifiers
The basic numerals are 0 zero, 1 jeden, 2 dwa, 3 trzy, 4 cztery, 5 pięć, 6 sześć, 7 siedem, 8 osiem, 9 dziewięć, 10 dziesięć, 11 jedenaście, 12 dwanaście, 13 trzynaście, 14 czternaście, 15 piętnaście, 16 szesnaście, 17 siedemnaście, 18 osiemnaście, 19 dziewiętnaście, 20 dwadzieścia, 30 trzydzieści, 40 czterdzieści, 50 pięćdziesiąt, 60 sześćdziesiąt, 70 siedemdziesiąt, 80 osiemdziesiąt, 90 dziewięćdziesiąt, 100 sto, 200 dwieście, 300 trzysta, 400 czterysta, 500 pięćset, 600 sześćset, 700 siedemset, 800 osiemset, 900 dziewięćset.
These numerals are inflected for case, and also to some extent for gender. For details of their inflection, see Numbers and quantifiers in the article on Polish morphology.
Thousand is tysiąc, treated as a noun (so 2000 is dwa tysiące, etc.). Million is milion, billion (meaning a thousand million) is miliard, a million million is bilion, a thousand million million is biliard, and so on (i.e., the long scale is used).
Compound numbers are constructed similarly as in English (for example, 91,234 is dziewięćdziesiąt jeden tysięcy dwieście trzydzieści cztery).
When a numeral modifies a noun, the numeral takes the expected case, but the noun may not; also the gender and number of the resulting noun phrase may not correspond to that of the noun. The following rules apply:
- The numeral jeden (1) behaves as an ordinary adjective, and no special rules apply. It can even be used in the plural, for example to mean "some" (and not others), or to mean "one" with pluralia tantum, e.g. jedne drzwi "one door" (drzwi has no singular).
- After the numerals dwa, trzy, cztery (2, 3, 4), and compound numbers ending with them (22, 23, 24, etc. but not 12, 13, or 14, which take -naście as a suffix and are thus not compound numbers at all), the noun is plural and takes the same case as the numeral, and the resulting noun phrase is plural (e.g. 4 koty stały, "4 cats stood").
- With other numbers (5, 6, etc., 20, 21, 25, etc.), if the numeral is nominative or accusative, the noun takes the genitive plural form, and the resulting noun phrase is neuter singular (e.g. 5 kotów stało, "5 cats stood").
- With the masculine personal plural forms of numbers (as given in the morphology article section), the rule given above – that if the numeral is nominative or accusative the noun is genitive plural, and the resulting phrase is neuter singular – applies to all numbers other than 1 (as in trzech mężczyzn przyszło, "three men came"), unless the alternative nominative forms dwaj, trzej, czterej (for 2, 3, 4) are used (these take nominative nouns and form a masculine plural phrase).
- If the numeral is in the genitive, dative, instrumental or locative, the noun takes the same case as the numeral (except sometimes in the case of numbers that end with the nouns for 1000 and higher quantities, which often take a genitive noun regardless).
Polish also has a series of numerals called collective numerals (liczebniki zbiorowe), namely dwoje (for 2), troje (for 3), czworo (for 4), pięcioro (for 5), and so on. These are used with the following types of nouns:
- Personal and animate neuter nouns (e.g. dziecko ("child"), kocię ("kitten"))
- Non-masculine personal pluralia tantum, i.e. nouns that do not exist in the grammatical singular (such as drzwi ("door(s)"), urodziny ("birthday(s)"))
- Plural nouns referring to a group containing both sexes (for example, czworo studentów refers to a group of four students of mixed sex)
For the declination of collective numerals by case, see the morphology article section. They all follow the rule that when the numeral is nominative or accusative, the noun becomes genitive plural, and the resulting noun phrase is neuter singular. In this case the genitive noun is also used after the instrumental of the numeral.
Certain quantifiers behave similarly to numerals. These include kilka ("several"), parę ("a few") and wiele ("much, many"), which behave like numbers above 5 in terms of the noun cases and verb forms taken. There are also indefinite numerals kilkanaście, kilkadziesiąt, kilkaset (and similar forms with parę-), meaning "several-teen", several tens and several hundred.
Quantifiers that always take the genitive of nouns include dużo ("much, many"), mało ("few, little"), więcej ("more"), mniej ("less") (also najwięcej/najmniej "most/least"), trochę ("a bit"), pełno ("plenty, a lot").
The words oba and obydwa (meaning "both"), and their derived forms behave like dwa. However the collective forms oboje, obydwoje (in the nominative/vocative), when referring to a married couple or similar, take the nominative form of the noun rather than the genitive, and form a masculine plural noun phrase (oboje rodzice byli, "both parents were", cf. dwoje rodziców było).
For the declination of all the above quantifiers, see the morphology article section.
Polish verbs have the grammatical category of aspect. Each verb is either imperfective, meaning that it denotes continuous or habitual events, or perfective, meaning that it denotes single completed events (in particular, perfective verbs have no present tense). Verbs often occur in imperfective and perfective pairs – for example, jeść and zjeść both mean "to eat", but the first has imperfective aspect, the second perfective.
Imperfective verbs have three tenses: present, past and future, the last being a compound tense (except in the case of być "to be"). Perfective verbs have a past tense and a simple future tense, the latter formed on the same pattern as the present tense of imperfective verbs. Both types also have imperative and conditional forms. The dictionary form of a verb is the infinitive, which usually ends with -ć (occasionally with -c). The present-day past tense derives from the old Slavic "perfect" tense; several other old tenses (the aorist, imperfect, and past perfect) have been dropped.
The present tense of imperfective verbs (and future tense of perfective verbs) has six forms, for the three persons and two numbers. For example, the present tense of jeść is jem, jesz, je; jemy, jecie, jedzą (meaning "(I) eat" etc. – subject pronouns may be dropped), while the future tense of the corresponding perfective verb zjeść is zjem, zjesz etc. (meaning "(I) shall eat" etc.)
The verb być has the irregular present tense jestem, jesteś, jest, jesteśmy, jesteście, są. It also has a simple future tense (see below).
The past tense agrees with the subject in gender as well as person and number. The basic past stem is in -ł; to this are added endings for gender and number, and then personal endings are further added for the first and second person forms. Thus, on the example of być, the past tense forms are byłem/byłam ("I was", masc/fem.), byłeś/byłaś, był/była/było; byliśmy/byłyśmy ("we were" all gender mixes (except:)/a group of all fem.), byliście/byłyście, byli/były.
The conditional is formed from the past tense plus by, the personal endings (if any) coming after the by. For example: byłbym/byłabym ("I would be", masc/fem.), byłbyś/byłabyś, byłby/byłaby/byłoby; bylibyśmy/byłybyśmy, bylibyście/byłybyście, byliby/byłyby.
The personal past tense suffixes, which are reduced forms of the present tense of być, are clitics and can be detached from the verb to attach to another accented word earlier in the sentence, such as a question word (as in kogoście zobaczyli as an alternative to kogo zobaczyliście "whom did you see"), or (mostly in informal speech) an emphatic particle że (co żeście zrobili? "what did you do"). The same applies to the conditional endings (kiedy byście przyszli as an alternative to kiedy przyszlibyście "when would you come").
If by introduces the clause, either alone or forming one of the conjunctions żeby, iżby, ażeby, aby, coby, it forms the subjunctive mood and is not to be confused with the conditional clitic by. For example, "He wants me to sing" might be chce, aby(m) śpiewał, chce, żeby(m) śpiewał or chce, by(m) śpiewał. Such clauses may express "in order that", or be used with verbs meaning "want", "expect", etc.
The future tense of być ("be") follows the pattern of a typical present tense: będę, będziesz, będzie, będziemy, będziecie, będą. The future tense of other imperfective verbs is formed using the future of być together with the infinitive, or the past form (inflected for gender and number, but without any personal suffixes), of the verb in question. For example, the future of robić ("do, make") has such forms as będę robić/robił/robiła, będziecie robić/robili/robiły. The choice between infinitive and past form is usually a free one, but with modals governing another infinitive, the past form is used: będzie musiał odejść (not będzie musieć...) "he will have to leave".
The second personal singular imperative is formed from the present tense by dropping the ending (e.g. brać: 2/3S present bierze(sz), imperative bierz), sometimes adding -ij or -aj. Add -my and -cie for the 1P and 2P forms. To make third-person imperative sentences (including with the polite second-person pronouns pan etc.) the particle niech is used at the start of the sentence (or at least before the verb), with the verb in the future tense (if być or perfective) or present tense (otherwise). There is a tendency to prefer imperfective verbs in imperative sentences for politeness; negative imperatives quite rarely use perfectives.
Other forms of the verb are:
- present adverbial participle (imperfective verbs only), also called gerund, as śpiewając (meaning "(when) singing", "by singing", etc.)
- present adjectival participle (imperfective verbs only), formed from the gerund by adding adjectival endings, as śpiewający etc., meaning "singing" (as an attributive adjective), although such participles can be used to form extended adjectival phrases, which (usually unlike in English) can precede the noun.
- passive participle (all transitive verbs), in -ny or -ty (conjugated as an adjective). This often corresponds to the English past participle, both in fully adjectival use and in passive voice.
- subjectless past tense, formed as the past participle but with the ending -o (e.g. śpiewano "there was sung").
- past active participle (perfective verbs only), like zabiwszy "having killed" (from zabić "kill"); this form is invariant.
- verbal noun, formed from the past participle with the ending -ie, e.g. śpiewanie. This is a neuter noun.
Polish uses prepositions, which form phrases by preceding a noun or noun phrase. Different prepositions take different cases (all cases are possible except nominative and vocative); some prepositions can take different cases depending on meaning.
The prepositions z and w are pronounced together with the following word, obeying the usual rules for consonant cluster voicing (so z tobą "with you" is pronounced stobą). Before some consonant clusters, particularly clusters beginning with a sibilant (in the case of z) or with f/w (in the case of w), the prepositions take the form ze and we (e.g. we Wrocławiu "in Wrocław"). These forms are also used before the first-person singular pronouns in mn-; several other prepositions also have longer forms before these pronouns (przeze mnie, pode mną etc.), and these phrases are pronounced as single words, with the stress on the penultimate syllable (the -e).
Common prepositions include:
- na, with the locative with basic meaning "on", and with the accusative with basic meaning "onto" (also metaphorical meanings)
- w, with the locative with basic meaning "in", and with the accusative with basic meaning "into" (also metaphorical meanings)
- z, with the instrumental comitative meaning "with" (in accompaniment of); with the genitive meaning "from, out of"
- do/od, with genitive, meaning "to, into/from"
- dla, with genitive, meaning "for"
- o, with locative meaning "about", also with the accusative in some constructions
- przed/za/nad/pod with instrumental meaning "before, in front of/behind/over/under", also with the accusative in some meanings (and genitive in the case of za); there are also compound prepositions sprzed/zza/znad/spod ("from in front of" etc.) taking the genitive
- przez with the accusative, meaning "through" etc.
- przeciw(ko) with dative, meaning "against" (but naprzeciw(ko) "opposite" takes genitive)
- po, with locative meaning "after", also with the accusative in some meanings
- przy, with locative, meaning "next to" etc.
- bez, with genitive, meaning "without"
Common Polish conjunctions include i (and less commonly oraz) meaning "and", lub and albo meaning "or", ale meaning "but", lecz meaning "but" chiefly in phrases of the type "not x but y", że (or more formally sometimes iż) meaning "that", jeśli meaning "if" (also gdyby, where by is the conditional particle), czy meaning "whether" (also an interrogative particle), kiedy or gdy meaning "when", więc, dlatego and zatem meaning "so, therefore", ponieważ meaning "because", choć/chociaż meaning "although", and aby/żeby meaning "in order to/that" (can be followed by an infinitive phrase, or by a sentence in the past tense; in the latter case the by of the conjunction is in fact the conditional particle and takes personal endings as appropriate).
In written Polish, subordinate clauses are normally set off with commas. Commas are not normally used before conjunctions meaning "and" or "or".
Basic word order in Polish is SVO; however, as it is a synthetic language, it is possible to move words around in the sentence. For example, Alicja ma kota ("Alice has a cat") is the standard order, but it is also possible to use other orders to give a different emphasis (for example, Alicja kota ma, with emphasis on ma ("has"), used as a response to an assertion of the opposite); general word order controls theme and rheme information structure with theme coming first.
Certain words, however, behave as clitics: they rarely or never begin a clause, but are used after another stressed word, and tend to appear early in the clause. Examples of these are the weak pronouns mi, go etc., the reflexive pronoun się, and the personal past tense endings and conditional endings described under Verbs above.
Polish is a pro-drop language; subject pronouns are frequently dropped. For example: ma kota (literally "has a cat") may mean "he/she/it has a cat". It is also possible to drop the object or even sometimes verb, if they are obvious from context. For example, ma ("has") or nie ma ("has not") may be used as an affirmative or negative answer to a question "does... have...?".
Note the interrogative particle czy, which is used to start a yes/no question, much like the French "est-ce que". The particle is not obligatory, and sometimes rising intonation is the only signal of the interrogative character of the sentence.
Negation is achieved by placing nie directly before the verb, or other word or phrase being negated (in some cases nie- is prefixed to the negated word, equivalent to English un- or non-). If a sentence contains a negative element such as nigdy ("never"), nikt ("no-one"), etc., the verb is negated with nie as well (and several such negative elements can be combined, as in nikt nigdy nie robi nic, "no-one ever does anything", literally "no-one never doesn't do nothing").
The equivalent of the English "there is" etc. is the appropriate part of the verb być ("to be"), e.g. jest... ("there is..."), są... ("there are..."), był(a/o)... ("there was..."), etc., with a noun phrase in the nominative. The negative form is always singular (and neuter where applicable), takes the noun phrase in the genitive, and uses ma rather than jest in the present tense: nie ma kota ("there isn't a cat", also "the cat isn't there"), nie było kota etc. (as usual, the word order is not fixed).
Where two concepts are equated, the particle to is often used instead of a part of być, with the nouns expressing the concepts in the nominative case (although verb infinitives can also be used here: istnieć to cierpieć "to exist is to suffer"). There are also sentences where to appears to be the subject of być, but the complement is in the nominative and the verb agrees with the complement: to jest... ("this/it is..."), to są..., to był(a/o)..., etc.
There are various types of sentence in Polish that do not have subjects:
- Sentences where the subject pronoun is dropped (see above), but is still understood.
- Sentences formed from certain verbs that can appear (in third-person singular neuter form) without a subject, corresponding to an English impersonal "it", as in padało ("it was raining/snowing").
- Sentences with verbs in second-person singular masculine (or sometimes third-person masculine personal plural) form, but no subject, corresponding to English "you" with general meaning, as in robisz to ("you do this", i.e., "one does this").
- Sentences with the reflexive particle się but no subject, the verb being third-person singular, as in tutaj pije się wódkę ("here one drinks vodka/vodka is drunk") – note that the logical direct object is in the accusative, not the nominative as in analogous constructions in other languages such as Russian.
- Sentences with the subjectless past tense form of the verb (see Verbs above).
- Sentences with impersonal particles such as można ("it is possible"), wolno ("it is permitted").
The use of the cases of nouns is as follows:
- The nominative (the dictionary form of a noun) is used for sentence subject and for certain complements (as in sentences of the form X to Y "X is Y", to jest Y "this is Y").
- The genitive is used for possessor and similar (equivalent to English "of X" or "X's"), for the direct object of negated verbs, as the object of some verbs and prepositions, as an object with partitive meaning and in some fixed expressions, and for nouns governed by certain numbers and expressions of quantity (see Numbers and quantifiers below).
- The dative is used for indirect objects, to denote the party for whom something is done or the "party concerned" in certain expressions (such as wolno mu, "he is allowed", lit. "it is allowed to him"), and as the object of some verbs and prepositions.
- The accusative is used for the direct object of verbs that are not negated, as the object of some prepositions, and in some time expressions.
- The instrumental is used for the means (instrument) by which something is done, for example pociągiem (instrumental of pociąg "train") means "by train". It is also used for a noun complement of być ("to be"), and for the complements and objects of some other verbs and some prepositions.
- The locative is used only as the object of certain prepositions (particularly w "in" and na "on", when they have static meaning).
- The vocative is used to indicate who or what is being addressed. However, with personal names, in colloquial speech, the nominative is usually used instead.
Polish does not regularly place nouns together to form compound noun expressions. Equivalents to such expressions are formed using noun-derived adjectives (as in sok pomarańczowy, "orange juice", where pomarańczowy is an adjective derived from pomarańcza "orange"), or using prepositional phrases or (equivalently) a noun in the genitive or other case.
A group of nouns connected by a word for "and" is treated as plural. It is masculine personal plural if it contains any male person (in fact, if it contains any person and any masculine noun).
Adjectives generally precede the noun they modify, although in some fixed expressions and official names and phrases they can follow the noun (as in język polski "Polish language"; also dzień dobry "good day, hello").
Attributive adjectives agree in gender, number and case with the noun they modify. Predicate adjectives agree with the relevant noun in gender and number, and are in the nominative case, unless the subject is unspecified (as in some infinitive phrases), in which case the adjective takes the (masculine/neuter) instrumental form (for example, być mądrym, "to be wise", although the nominative is used if the logical subject is specified). The instrumental is also used for adjectival complements of some other verbs, as in czynić go mądrym ("make him wise").
With pronouns such as coś ("something") (but not ktoś "someone"), if the pronoun is nominative or accusative, the adjective takes the genitive form (coś dobrego "something good").
Adjectives are sometimes used as nouns; for example, zielony ("green") may mean "the/a green one" etc.
Compound adjectives can be formed by replacing the ending of the first adjective with -o, as in formalno-prawny ("formal (and) legal").
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- Migdalski K. The Syntax of Compound Tenses in Slavic, Utrecht 2006
- Anastasia Smirnova, Vedrana Mihaliček, Lauren Ressue, Formal Studies in Slavic Linguistics, Cambridge Scholar Publishing, Newcastle upon Type, Wielka Brytania, 2010: Barbara Tomaszewicz, Subjunctive Mood in Polish and the Clause Typing Hypothesis