There are two main words for that in Arabic: an and anna. So before you can make a sentence starting with I believe that, you need to know the difference between the two, and which one to use when.


Hello and welcome to another Language Learner Friday.  Today we are going to be looking at how to express the word ‘that’ in Arabic. ‘That’ in English is a subordinating conjunction, we say ‘I hope that…’, ‘I fear that…’, ‘I know that…’. If you take that ‘that’, the subordinating conjunction in English – we have a main verb;: ‘I fear’, ‘I know’, ‘I believe’, then we have the subordinating conjunction ‘that’, and then we have a subordinate clause, ‘I know that Zaid is ill’, ‘I fear that Zaid is ill’.  So how do you translate that ‘that’ into Arabic?  That is what we will look at in this lesson.

Let’s take our main sentence: ‘Zaid is ill’ (zaidun maridun).  This is going to be our underlying sentence which we are going to use as our subordinate clause, ‘I fear that Zaid is ill’ and ‘I know that Zaid is ill’.  Taking our basic sentence ‘Zaid is ill’, this is our straight forward nominal sentence in Arabic: zaidun maridun; we have a subject and a predicate, a mubtada’ and a khabar.  Suppose we want to say ‘I know that Zaid is ill’, we use the word for I know (a’lamu) and the word we are going to use for ‘that’ is anna.  Those of you who have studied Arabic will know anna moves the subject into the accusative and it leaves the predicate as it was.  Now suppose rather than saying ‘I know that Zaid is ill’, I want to say ‘I fear that Zaid is ill’, here we are not going to use anna we are going to use an.  So why is it when we use the verb ‘I know’ we say a’lamu anna but when we say ‘I fear that Zaid is ill’ we say akhafu an?  The difference between the two is when we use verbs which express the idea of something being established in some way then we are going to use anna: ‘I know that Zaid is ill’, ‘I am certain that Zaid is ill’, ‘I heard that Zaid is ill’. When you are using verbs which express some sort of uncertainty, you are not sure whether or not it is the case akhafu an: ‘I fear that Zaid is ill’, we are going to use an rather than anna: akhafu an yakuna zaidun maridan

Now the way an works in Arabic; firstly it has to be followed by a verb, because an is a subjunctive particle so you need a subjunctive verb.  Whereas in our underlying sentence ‘Zaid is ill’ we don’t need a copula verb ‘to be’ in the middle, you just say ‘Zaid ill’, that is the way Arabic works.  Now because we are using an we have to bring that verb ‘to be’ out of its hiddenness and express it explicitly: akhafu an yakuna. So the verb yakuna, which was always there, it was understood: zayd (yakunu) maridun ‘Zaid is ill’, but we never expressed it now we have to mention it explicitly because the an requires us to do so, and the way an works is it moves that verb into the subjunctive (mudari’ mansub), and the way the verb yakunu it moves the predicate into the accusative.  Just as the anna moved the subject into the accusative, yakunu is going to move the predicate of the underlying sentence into the accusative: an yakunu zaidun maridan.  That is the basic difference between the two when you are using verbs which are expressing some degree of certainty, that something is established, you use anna, and when you are using verbs when something is not established yet, e.g. ‘I fear that…’, ‘I hope that…’, ‘I want that…’, you use an, and if the thing that you are hoping or fearing or wanting is a nominal sentence then you have to bring out the hidden ‘is’ in the middle and express it as a subjunctive verb.

Finally we have examples where you can use both, take the sentence ‘I believe that Zaid is ill’. So you have to start thinking: is this of the first category, which is expressing something established or is this of the second category which is expressing something which is not established.  Do you use anna here or an?  In fact you can use either, because the Arabs look at this from both perspectives, they can say well this is something established in your belief system that ‘Zaid is ill’. On the other hand clearly this is not as strong as saying ‘I know that Zaid is ill’ or ‘I’m certain that Zaid is ill’. Because it is not as strong and there is some level of uncertainty we are going to allow the use of an as well.  So you can say ahsabu anna zaidan maridun or ahsabu an yakuna zaydun maridan, ‘I believe that Zaid may be ill’.

So I hope that helped, basically there are 2 ways of expressing ‘that’: anna and an.  Some verbs definitely take anna, some verbs definitely take an, and some verbs can take either.  Hope that was useful. I will see you next week for another Language Learner Friday.