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 www.avto-knigi.ru можно бесплатно скачать книги по ремонту автомобилей. You can download auto repair books free of charge from www.avto-knigi.ru.

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.

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