Team Nisreen: A thousand ways to ما


Even in fuSHa ما is one of those tricky multifunctional particles that can be used in a large number of different ways – relatively (ما الموصولة), negatively (ما النافية), interrogatively (ما الاستفهامية), surprisingly (ما التعجبية) or even pointlessly (ما الزائدة). In (Levantine) 3aammiye most of these uses have been supplanted. As elsewhere, however, what seems like a standard case of ‘whoa man amiye has no grammar, it’s so much easier than fuSHa’ is unfortunately just a matter of 3aamiyye having a different, but also broad, set of uses for ما. We’ve covered most of its uses elsewhere, so this is more of an index than anything, but I hope it will be helpful.

ما of negation

This one is pronounced maa (with a long aa), and is the only one pronounced as such – the others are all short. As you probably know by now, ما is the most common 3aammiyye negator for verbs and verb-like expressions, as well as in a few strange cases where مو or مش would seem more likely (ما هيك maa heek ‘isn’t it?’ for example). For some speakers ما؟ maa? is their general tag question, without anything else.

In some regional dialects it is used as a general negator for nouns as well.

In Southern Levantine (and regionally in Syria + Lebanon) this maa alternates with the prefix-suffix combination (circumflex in linguistics jargon) ma-sh (with a short vowel) and in some areas with simple -sh: ما بقدرش maba2darsh.

This maa is probably also the source (combined with انو énno) of the Syrian and Lebanese negative ‘to be’: maani, maanak, maanek, maano, maana, maanna, maankon, maanon in Syria (or maali, maalak etc) and manni, mannak, mannek, mannu, manna, manna, mannkon, mannon in Lebanon.

I don’t know how much more information on this maa is needed, but for a couple of examples see here and here, as well as basically any video transcription we’ve ever done.

Connecting ما (independent)

This independent ma (short vowel) was discussed already in the conjunction post but we’ll

‘On its own, ma is used to link together two sentences with a kind of causal relationship (this should not be mistaken for the occasional use of maa, with a long vowel, in various negative meanings). It is always followed by a noun or a pronoun:

ناميين فوق. ما هنن ما نامو من امبارح naaymiin foo2 – ma hénnen maa naamu mén @mbaare7 – they’re asleep upstairs. I mean, they haven’t slept since yesterday

Here ma adds the nuance that the listener and the speaker both understand the obvious intuitive causal connection between what was said before and the sentence prefixed with ma. The same applies in the following sentence although here it can be translated with ‘but’:

مو صايم؟ ما الدنيا رمضان muu Saayem? ma éddénye ramaDaan – you’re not fasting? but it’s Ramadan!’

ما المصدرية (suffix)

This one is basically an extended version of the old ما المصدرية you see in fuSHa, which is added to prepositions to make them into conjunctions (i.e. to make it possible for a preposition to be followed by a whole sentence, not just a noun). A list with examples is included in the conjunctions post but here is a quick reference of prepositions followed by ma:

بعد ما ba3@d ma ‘after’

قبل ما ‪2ab@l ma ‘before’ (followed by subjunctive)

قد ما ‪2add ma ‘as much as, however much as’

لبين ما labeen ma ‘until’ or ‘by the time’

 لحد ما la7add ma ‘until’

حسب ما ‪7asab ma ‘according to how’, ‘depending on’, ‘as’

فوق ما foo2 ma ‘on top of’

متل ما mét@l ma ‘like, as’ (in Jor/Pal زي ما zayy ma)

بلا ما bala ma, بدون ما biduun ma, من دون ما mén duun ma ‘without’

بدال ما, عواض ما badaal ma, 3awaaD ma ‘instead of’

الا ما élla ma ‘certainly’, ‘it is always the case that’

طول ما Tool ma ‘as long as, while’

Not only prepositions can take this suffix. In an extension of the meaning, it is also possible for normal nouns to take it to produce conjunctions expressing location or time. These are also discussed in the conjunctions post:

مكان ما makaan ma, محل ما ma7all ma, مطرح ما maTra7 ma, قرنة ما ‪2érnet ma ‘(in, from etc) the place that’

لحظة ما la7Zet ma ‘the moment that’

مجرد ما mjarrad ma ‘as soon as’, ‘the very moment that’

وقت ما wa2@t ma ‘(at) the time when’, ‘when’

ساعة ما saa2et ma ‘(at) the time when’, ‘when’

يوم ما yoom ma ‘(on) the day when’, ‘when’

There are at least two other conjunction with -ma that are neither prepositions nor normal nouns:

احسن ما a7san ma ‘lest, in case’

لما lamma ‘when’ (although presumably originally from la- + ma)

Comparative ma (suffix)

This is quite a specific Syrian regionalism. For some speakers, -ma can be suffixed to (at least) a7san and aktar with the meaning ‘than’ in comparisons. This should not be mistaken either for the negative maa (a7san maa ‘it’s better for X not to…’) or the set phrase a7san ma ‘lest, in case’.

Subordinator ما (independent)

You’re relatively unlikely to come across this particular ma, and almost certainly will never have to use it, since it tends to be replaceable with other more common particles in similar functions (or just dropped entirely). It is probably an extension, originally, of the ما المصدرية uses given above – but rather than being a suffix it stands alone:

خايف ما khaayef ma ‘I’m worried that…’

بالنادر ما binnaader ma ‘it’s rare that…’

كل مالو ما kéll maalo ma… ‘he keeps on…’ ‘all the time…’

These are probably related to the ما in e.g. fuSHa سرعان ما. In the first construction it can be dropped entirely, and in the second two it can be replaced with la-.

ما التعجبية (prefix)

This is the old ma of exclamation, still used in colloquial. This is generally prefixed in the form of m(a)- to a superlative:

ماحلاه ma7laa ‘how nice it/he is’

Arguably, the ما in ياما yaama ‘how many…’ is also a ما تعجبية, at least in the sense that it is used in exclamations:

ياما في ناس هيك yaama fii naas heek ‘how many people there are like that!’

Superlative ma (suffix)

Also covered in the conjunctions post – this one attaches to superlatives like a7san and makes them into ‘the Xest possible’ or ‘as X as possible’: احسن ما يمكن ‘the best possible’, for example.

ما الشرطية (suffix)

Just as in fuSHa, ma can be suffixed to question words to produce conditionals with the meaning ‘-ever’. This should be a familiar usage from MSA and is also discussed in the conjunctions post. In Syria, this ma sometimes appears as man, not as ma (but has the same meaning).

ايمتى ما eemta ma, eemat ma ‘whenever’

وين ما ween ma ‘wherever’

شو ما shu ma ايش ما eesh ma ‘whatever’

شلون ما shloon ma, كيف ما kiif ma ‘however’

Also included under this are some of the uses of 2add ma, which stands in for the nonexistent 2addeesh ma in ‘however much’ sentences. Not all 2add ma sentences are ‘conditional’, though.


  1. Thank you so much for this blog! Finding decent resources for Levantine Arabic can be difficult so thank you for having this blog around and regularly updating :)

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