Instrumental Case in Russian

In Russian, the instrumental case (творительный падеж) denotes that the noun is an instrument “with” or “by” which the subject achieves an action. For example:

  • Пишу письмо ручкой. = I write the letter with a pen.
  • Она режет мясо ножом. = She cuts the meat with a knife.

Instrumental with the preposition “с”

The preposition “с” (or “со” when followed by two consonants) means “with.” This common preposition has a number of common and colloquial uses in Russian. For example:

  • Мне нравится борщ со сметаной. = I like borsch with sour cream.
  • Дмитрий с Анастасией идут в кафе. = Dmitrii and Anastasia are going to the cafe.
  • Мы с Анастасией идём в кафе. = Anastasia and I are going to the cafe.
  • С днём рождения = Happy birthday!
  • С Рождеством! = Merry Christmas!
  • С новым годом! = Happy new year!
  • С легким паром! = Have a good bath! (lit. with an easy steam!)

The instrumental denoting time and seasonality

The instrumental forms of times of day and the seasons gives the general meaning of “in that period.” For example:

  • утро → утром = in the morning
  • день → днём = in the afternoon
  • вечер → вечером = in the evening
  • ночь → ночью = at night
  • лето → летом = in summer
  • осень → осенью = in autumn
  • зима → зимой = in winter
  • весна  → весной = in spring

The instrumental in adverbial expressions

Beyond denoting time and seasonality, there are many adverbial expressions through which the instrumental case conveys the manner  or the means by which an action is performed. For example:

  • вверх дном = upside down
  • вниз головой = head first
  • бегом = at a run
  • шагом = at a walking pace
  • пение хором = singing in a chorus
  • другими словами = in other words
  • шёпотом = in a whisper
  • ехать поездом = to go by train
  • лететь самолётом = to go / fly by plane
  • любой ценой = at any cost
  • каким образом? = in what way?
  • идти берегом = to walk along the shore
  • ехать лесом = to ride through the forest

Movements of the body and the instrumental

In Russian, the instrumental case is used when describing movements of the body as situations where objects are held with the hands. For example:

  • дигать рукой = to move one's arm
  • качать / кивать головой = to shake / nod one's head
  • махать рукой = to wave one's hand
  • мигать глазами = to blink one's eyes
  • пожимать плечами = to shrug one's shoulders
  • топать ногами = to stamp one's feet
  • щёлкать языком = to click one's tongue
  • шевелить мозгами = to use one's brains (more figurative)
  • хлопать дверью = to slam the door (an example of when an object is held with the hands)

The instrumental with the passive voice

In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action, and the agent (if mentioned) is the entity that performs the action. The Russian instrumental case is typically used to indicate the agent in such constructions, and is sometimes accompanied by the preposition "по" (by) for clarity and emphasis, though the preposition can be omitted in many instances. For example:

  • Правило объясняется учителем. = The rule is explained by the teacher.
  • Книга написана автором. = The book is written by the author.
  • Преступник был пойман по следам полицейским. = The criminal was caught by the police following the tracks.

Using the instrumental to convey similarity

The instrumental can be used to convey similarity. For example:

  • умереть героем = to die like a hero
  • снег лежит ковром = the snow lies like a carpet

Verbs that use the instrumental case

The object of many common Russian verbs takes the instrumental case. Generally these verbs into four main categories: быть (to be) with the instrumental as a predicate, verbs conveying use or control, verbs conveying attitude, and other.

The instrumental as a predicate

The instumental and быть

The instrumental case in Russian is used a predicate to the infinitive, future, imperative, conditional, and gerund forums of the verb "to be" (быть as well as the form являться).

Here are examples of the instrumental with the verb to be:

  • Я хочу быть учителем. = I want to be a teacher.
  • Если бы я был учителем. = If I was a teacher.
  • Быть учителем – благородная профессия. = To be a teacher is a noble profession.
  • Когда-нибудь вы будете стариком. = One day you will be an old man.
  • Не будь трусом. = Do not be a coward.
  • Не будучи знатоком не могу судить. = Not being a connoisseur I cannot judge.
  • Одном из наших главных проблем был транспорт. = One of our main problems was transport.
  • Основной формой работы в школе является урок. = The basic form of work in school is the lesson.
  • Приумножение трафика является приоритетом. = Increasing traffic is a priority.

Please note, when no part of быть is used in the present tense, you simply use the nominative - as you pick up in your first lessons of learning Russian. The one exception here is if you're talking about a temporary state - in which case, you use the instrumental.

  • Я не трус, но я боюсь. = I am not a coward, but I am afraid.
  • Она итальянка. = She is an Italian.
  • Я изучал русский язык, когда был студентом университета. = I studied Russian when I was a student in university (temporary situation - so use the instrumental here).

The instrumental and verbs of state, appearance, manner

Please note, there are also some verbs that behave similarly to быть and use an instrumental predicate. Often, you could swap these verbs' meaning with "to be" and the sentence they're in would still make sense - largely because they convey state, appearance, or manner of being. For example:

  • Он кажется хорошим мальчиком. Он выглядит ангельским. = He seems to be a good boy. He looks angelic.
  • Мой брат записался добровольцем и служил солдатом в армии. = My brother signed up as a volunteer and served as a soldier in the army.

These verbs include:

  • выглядеть = to look
  • казаться = to seem
  • называться = to be called
  • оказываться = to turn out to be
  • оставаться = to remain
  • родиться = to part
  • состоять = to be
  • становиться = to become
  • считаться = to be considered
  • чувствовать себя = to feel
  • записываться = to enrol
  • работать = to work
  • слижить = to serve

Instrumental verbs conveying use or control

  • владеть = to own, have command of
  • дирижировать = to conduct (an orchestra)
  • заведовать = to be in charge of
  • злоупотреблять = to be in charge of
  • командовать = to command
  • пользоваться = to use
  • править = to rule
  • располагать = to have at one's disposal
  • распоряжаться = to manage
  • руководить = to run
  • управлять = to control

Instrumental verbs conveying attitude

  • восхищаться = to be delighted in
  • гордиться = to be proud of
  • грозить = to threathen with
  • довольствоватьвя = to be satisfied with
  • дорожить = to value
  • интересоваться = to be interested in
  • любоваться = to admire
  • наслаждаться = to delight in
  • обходиться = to make do with
  • пренебрегать = to disregard
  • увлекаться = to be obsessed with
  • хвастаться = to boast of
  • щеголять = to flaunt

Other Russian verbs that use the instrumental

  • болеть = to be sick
  • жертвовать = to sacrifice
  • заниматься = to be occupied, engage
  • пахнуть = to smell of
  • прославляться = to be renowned for
  • рисковать = to risk
  • страдать (от) = to suffer from (means to suffer temporarily with "от"; without "от" chronically)
  • торговать = to trade in
  • делиться = to share
  • обмениваться = to exchange

More info on the Russian cases

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