Category: "Po"

По (часть третья)

by Don  

Today we will talk about another use of по, and this one is a weird one. When you express the idea of giving each individual in a group of people the same quantity of something, you express that quantity after the preposition по. In English we express the idea with the words each or apiece:

Мама дала детям по яблоку. Mom gave the kids an apple apiece.
Учительница раздала школьникам по таблетке «Валиум». The teacher gave a tablet of Valium to each of the schoolkids.

You will notice that in those sentences the dative case was used after по. You are probably thinking, “No problem. I'll just memorize that по in the distributive sense is used with the dative.” You poor sucker. The Russian language is about to kick you in the teeth. Consider the following sentences:

Мама дала детям по два яблока. Mother gave the kids two apples apiece.
Учительница раздала школьникам по две таблетки «Валиум». the teacher gave two tablets of Valium to each of the schoolkids.
Бабушка дала внучкам по два щенка. Grandma gave her granddaughters two puppies each.
Соседка дала ребятам по две кошки. The neighbor lady gave the kids two kittens each.

Pop quiz: what case is used after по when more than one object is distributed? Since два щенка and две кошки occur after по, any normal human being would say that it is the nominative case. There was an old assumption, however, that no preposition can govern the nominative case, which is mostly true in Indoeuropean languages. To be frank, the issue is complicated for reasons that are beyond the goals of this blog. The practical answer is this: when a number other than one is used after по, the number is in the nominative case. The noun that number quantifies shows up in the genitive singular if the number is полтора/ы, два/е, три or четыре, and in the genitive plural for other numbers. So here is a rule of thumb for first- and second-year Russian students:

Distributive по: uses the dative case when talking about a single item; uses nominative case of numbers other than one.

If you want to pursue the question of what the case actually is that по governs, start with Igor Melchuk's excellent book ... Melchuk is a grammatical god to whom I have erected a shrine (along with his publisher... ) in my home. I make a small offering to them every day in a brass bowl. The fire is fueled by pages ripped from People Magazine, which richly deserves to be burned, and the sacrifice is made of my own blood and hair, accompanied by me singing «Я хочу быть с тобой» by Nautilus Pompilius.

По (часть вторая)

by Don  

We previously discussed the use of the preposition по in the sense of “on the subject of.” Another common meaning of по is to indicate the means by which information is communicated, in which case it is usually translated as “on” or “via” in English; in that meaning по governs the dative case:

— Ты читаешь газеты?
— Нет, теперь я узнаю свежие новости по Интернету.
“Do you read the newspapers?”
“No, nowadays I get the latest news on the internet.”
— Как ты пользуешься Интернетом? По кабелю?
— Нет, по спутнику.
“How do you use the internet? By cable?”
“No, by satellite.”
разговор по телефону a telephone conversation
— Мой парень вчера сказал, что он больше не любит меня.
— Ой, ужасно. Но по крайней он это сказал тебе прямо в лицо.
— Нет, в лицо не сказал. Он это сказал по телефону.
— Сволочь! Какой он трус!
“My boyfriend told me yesterday that he doesn't love me anymore.”
“Oh, that's awful. But at least he told you to your face.”
“No, he didn't tell my to my face. He told me on the phone.”
“The bastard! He is such a coward!”
Если увидишь аварию в Америке, звони по телефону 911. If you see an accident in America, call 911.

Don's rant of the day: the idea that we are supposed to capitalize the word Интернет is completely assinine. I refuse to do it in English, no matter what the current stylistic guides say. Nowadays the internet is a generic means of communication, not a capitalizable company like MCI. Lower-case makes sense. But if you are someone trying to get a job somewhere and not get rejected because of ignorami professing current political correctness, then capitalize the word.

But in Russian I'll capitalize it cuz I don't wanna seem like an ignant furriner.

По (часть первая)

by Don  

There's a quirk to spoken human languages: the shorter the word, the more meanings it has, and the longer a word the fewer meanings it has. For instance, “jack” has dozens of meanings, whereas “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” really only has one (or perhaps none, if one assumes the word is never really used in anything but lists of long words). The same is true for Russian. The long preposition накануне has only two meanings, whereas the short preposition по has dozens. Today we will discuss по in the meaning of “on the subject of.” With that meaning по is used with the dative case. First of all, it can be used with nouns that indicate written content, e.g. books and magazines:

Мне надо купить книгу по физике. I need to buy a physics book.
Профессор раздал студентам статью по нанотехнологии. The professor distributed an article on nanotechnology to the students.
«50 Easy Party Cakes» — это книга по украшению тортов необычных форм. (source) “50 Easy Party Cakes” is a book on the subject of decorating unusually shaped cakes.
С сайта можно бесплатно скачать книги по ремонту автомобилей. You can download auto repair books free of charge from

The preposition is also used for lots of things associated with academics, e.g. exams, textbooks, handbooks:

Завтра у нас будет зачёт по американской истории. Tomorrow we will have a pass-fail exam on American history.
Ей нужен справочник по геометрии. She needs a geometry handbook.
Я сейчас читаю онлайн-учебник по английскому языку. (source) I am now reading an online English textbook.
Вчера я написала экзамен по биологии. Не знаю, сдала ли я. Yesterday I took a biology exam. I don't know whether I passed.