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Russian singular pronouns and gender

The Russian greeting здра́вствуйте (hello) is a command that literally means be healthy. Notice that there are two ways of saying hello. One is formal; you’d use it with strangers and in formal situations; it has the plural/formal imperative ending, –те. The other, здра́вствуй, is informal; it is used in the singular (i.e., addressing one person) with family members, close friends, peers, and children. This distinction between formal and informal is also made in Russian in the pronouns for the word you. Let’s take a look at all of the subject pronouns in Russian, starting with the ones referring to just one person.

я I
ты (inform.) you
он he or it (if masculine, i.e., ending in a consonant)
она́ she or it (if feminine, i.e., ending in a vowel or sometimes the soft sign)
онó it (if neuter, i.e., ending in -o or -e)
вы (form.) you (singular)

As you can see, there are two forms of the singular you in the table above. Ты is informal; вы is formal.

Notice that the third person singular pronoun is either masculine (он) or feminine (она́). It can also be neuter (оно́) when it replaces a neuter inanimate noun, such as вино́ (wine). We call these distinctions “gender.” All Russian singular nouns, whether they refer to human beings or inanimate things, have gender.

You can see that the nouns бизнесме́н (businessman) and рестора́н (restaurant) are masculine because both end in a consonant, just like the masculine personal pronoun он. On the other hand, the nouns америка́нка (female American) and маши́на (car) are feminine because they end in an a, just like the feminine personal pronoun она́. It is important to know that the Russian pronouns , она́, and the plural form, они́ (they) can refer to human beings as well as to inanimate objects while оно́ refers only to inanimate objects. Only third person Russian pronouns have gender; all others are “gender blind.” Russian pronouns are rarely omitted from the sentence even though they may seem redundant, as the verb ending clearly indicates the referent.