Быть (have, there is/are)

by Don  

Every once in a while when you are studying a foreign language, you have to learn to do some grammatical contortion and say something in a way that seems bizarre in contrast to your native language. For us English speakers, learning how to say “have” in Russian is one of those.

In an English sentence like “John has a book.” John is the subject of the sentence. The thing that he has is the direct object. To communicate the same idea in Russian, you have to rephrase the sentence as “At John there is a book.” Specifically, when a person has something, the person shows up in the genitive case as the object of the preposition у, and the thing the person has shows up in the nominative case, and the “there is/are” is expressed by the word есть.

У Ивана есть книга. John has a book

Есть is the present tense form of the verb быть, so if you want to put those sentences in the past or future, you use the past and future forms of быть to say “At John there was a book” and “At John there will be a book.”

У Ивана была книга. John had a book
У Ивана будет книга. John will have a book

When an organization (as opposed to a person) has something, then instead of using the preposition у, the prepositions в and на are used with the prepositional case. Thus “The university will have/has/had a dormitory” comes out:

В университете будет общежитие.
В университете есть общежитие.
В университете было общежитие.

“The post office will have/has/had a fax machine” comes out:

На почте будет факс.
На почте есть факс.
На почте был факс.

Actually these sentences can be translated two different ways. «На почте есть факс» can be translated either “The post-office has a fax machine” or “There is a fax machine at the post office.” If these types of sentences use prepositions other than у-в-на, usually “have” is not the best translation:

Под кроватью есть чемодан. There is a suitcase under the bed.
За домом есть сарай. There is a shed behind the house.
Над городом есть тучи. There are clouds above the city.

1 comment

Comment from: Mirek [Visitor]

Hi,thank you for your page. I have a question concerning this subject. Why is it that “есть” sometimes is ommited? For example, i find:

-у меня 99% точности. у меня учёт,как в аптеке.

-у неё в спальне висела картина.

-какое у него приятное лицо сентиментальное серце, как хорошо он знает искусство?

- поэтому он регулярно покупал у вас чёртвые булочки.

- я получил эту болезнъ от сына. у него это болезнь хроническая.

- …что у вас очень податливая натура.

- я первый раз был на матче и не знал, какой характер у болельщиков.

I hope you can help me!

Don responds: Mirek, that’s an excellent question. I’m afraid the answer is fairly complex. For a discussion of it, I would refer to the есть discussion in ‘Advanced Russian’ by Nakhimovsky and Leed, as well as Catherine Chvany’s article on existential ‘be.’

Among my rules of thumb are the following.

Don’t use есть when:

  • referring to inalienable possession, i.e. body parts, character, etc. «У меня две руки». No есть is used here because two arms are presumably a permanent attribute.
  • focus is on specifying the quantity of the object. «У тебя есть братья?» — «Да, у меня два брата».
  • focus is on specifying the quality of the object. «Какая у тебя квартира?» — «У меня двухкомнатная квартира».
  • discussing diseases or medical conditions. «У тебя грипп?» — «Нет, просто простудился.»
  • discussing schedules. «У меня сегодня физики и химия.»
  • the у phrase is simply the equivalent of a possessive, e.g. «у неё в спальне» = «в её спальне».
  • the у phrase is the equivalent of “at so-and-so’ place.” For instance, one might have a phone conversation like this: «Где ты?» — «Я у Веры. Мы смотрим телевизор.» “Where are you?” “I’m at Vera’s. We’re watching TV.”

Hope that helps! D.

01/22/13 @ 20:28

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