Usona Esperantisto № 2009:2

Where do those “n”s go?

In issue 2008/5 of Usona Esperantisto, Gary Grady presented an excellent way of looking at verb transitivity — it’s all in the meaning, or definition, of the verb. I’d like to suggest an unusual but useful viewpoint for a related issue that students often find problematic: where to place the accusative -n in a sentence.

In English we usually use the term “direct object” for accusative, but that term is a poor fit for the use of the -n ending in Esperanto. A complete description of its functions using grammatical terms would be lengthy, complicated, and undoubtedly discouraging to most students. Fortunately, for most purposes it’s unnecessary. There is another simpler way to look at it: fundamentally, the -n means “not subject.”

A single clause (propozicio in Esperanto) has only one predicate. (Although it may consist of more than one verb, the verbs all function together on, and from, the same subjects and objects.) Every noun (or word that functions like a noun, such as pronoun or rilativo which connects a subordinate clause) in a single clause must be a subject unless it has a “tag” that indicates otherwise.

There can be a compound subject; i.e., more than one subject linked by a conjunctive connector word such as kaj. For example, Kuko kaj glaciaĵo gustas bone.

There are three kinds of “not subject” tags:

  1. The simplest tag is the -n ending, which may mean “direct object.” But it is also used for many other grammatical functions which most of us don’t even learn about in English.

    a. Kato vidas muson.
    b. Katon vidas muso.

  2. Preposition: any noun that is the object of a preposition cannot be a subject.

    a. en skatolo
    b. por la lernejo
    c. pro maldiligento

  3. A connector verb that in some way equates two (or more) nouns. The most common verb for this is “is” (esti), but any verb that can indicate a state or change of state can function this way. For example, “equal”(egali), “remain” (resti), “become” (iĝi or fariĝi), “make” (igi, fari, elekti, and many others). If the verb indicates that something is, in some way, equal to something else, then ordinarily both of them do not need any other tag to indicate that they are not the subject, therefore an -n ending is normally not used.

    a. Ŝi estas forta knabino.
    b. [Malgraŭ la akcidento,] li restas policisto.
    c. [Per muelado,] greno iĝas faruno.
    d. [Per fuŝa kuirado,] mi igis ĝin kaĉo.
    e. Oni elektis lin prezidanto.

The latter two examples are worthy of some special consideration, because in each case, one of the two nouns being equated does have the -n ending. A verb that means “to cause something to be or become something else” tends to form a more complex clause that can be confusing. In example (d) above, Mi igis ĝin (la farunon) kaĉo, means “I made it (the flour) [into] mush,” so the flour, or in this sentence “it” (ĝin), is equated with mush. However, “it” (ĝin) is the direct object of the main clause, so it needs the -n. It serves double duty in the sentence. Example (e) presents the same situation: in Oni elektis lin prezidanto (“They elected him president”), he is the one chosen — the direct object of the verb “elected” — but he is also the one they made into president by that choice, so the verb is equating him with president.

There is another situation similarly confusing with some compound sentences where the connecting word seems to play a double role in the two clauses. For example, Ne preteratentu, kio estas antaŭ via nazo. The connector word kio seems to be the direct object of the primary clause (what you shouldn’t overlook), yet here it does not use the -n ending. Why not? The answer is found in the key word “seems” — in fact, this is a case of leaving out part of the sentence that is nevertheless understood. The complete sentence would be Ne preteratentu tion, kio estas antaŭ via nazo. The real object of the primary clause is often left out, but to clearly understand the sentence, it is useful to mentally put it back in. Just remember that the connector word itself (rilativo, usually a ki-word) cannot be left out.

In NPIV there is a note that one should not leave out the pronoun referred to by the connector word if it is not in the same case as the connector word. (In my example, the word tion should not be left out of the sentence, because the connector word kio doesn’t have the -n that tion has.) This is very good advice, as it would eliminate the confusion that arises in cases like my example. Unfortunately, in practice many people don’t follow that advice, so it is useful to understand this form even if one heeds the advice and doesn’t use it.

This method is a very useful way to check something that you just wrote. Read through it again, looking at every word that functions like a noun to see if it has a not-subject tag. Make sure that you don’t have more subjects than you intend in each clause, and that each clause has a subject — the right one.

That is most of what you need to know about using -n. Two more points come to mind:

There is a common-sense rule that forbids using -n for more than one grammatical function in the same clause (except for indicating direction of movement in a prepositional phrase).

  1. Not good: Mi instruas mian fratinon Esperanton.
  2. Good: Mi instruas mian fratinon pri Esperanto.
  3. Good: Mi instruas al mia fratino Esperanton.
  4. Even better: Mi instruas al multaj amikoj de mia fratino Esperanton!

There is still the use to indicate direction toward the object of a positional preposition (but not with a directional one such as al or el).

  1. Kato iras en la necesejon.
  2. Kato kuras al sia manĝejo.
  3. Birdo flugas inter la kurtenon kaj la fenestron.
  4. Birdo flugas el la kaĝo sur mian kapon.
    (Without the -n endings here it would mean that the cage is on my head.)

Finally, it is necessary to remember that adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify with regard to case and plurality (i.e., if the noun has endings -j and/or -n, its modifying adjectives must also have them.