I read the phrase начать с дерева in the context of a young man wanting to change his life and deciding to start by planting a tree.
Why is дерева in the genitive case, while I would have expected the instrumental?
A grammar book of mine indeed indicates that с can be followed by a genitive or an instrumental, but is there a rule telling which to choose?
Or should I just learn for each possible combination verb+с what the correct case is?

  • Or should I just learn for each possible combination verb+с what the correct case is? < this. – Quassnoi Dec 8 '15 at 8:33
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    Phrases involving с + genitive that are useful: (1) с этой точки зрения ("from this point of view"), (2) с одной стороны ... с другой стороны ("on the one hand... on the other hand," or literally "from one hand... from the other hand"), (3) начиная с девятнадцатого века ("starting in the 19th century", or literally "starting from the 19th century"). – KCd Dec 9 '15 at 6:13

With instrumental, с means "with". With genitive, с means "from" or "off" — that is, moving away from a thing's surface (as opposed to из which is for moving away from inside a thing). You take a thing "off" a shelf (с полки) but "from" a cupboard (из шкафа). For all intents and purposes, this с is a different preposition than the one meaning "with".

Among the more abstract meanings of с+genitive, the most common one is "beginning with", "from X onwards", or "since" when talking about time. Now of course, with prepositions used abstractly it's not always easy to figure out the underlying metaphor; начать с дерева is, literally, to "start from a tree" rather than with a tree, whereas in English one more commonly begins/starts "with" things. There's no particular reason why it's one or the other (or something else entirely); so I suppose with some verbs, you just have to learn it.

Still, you might want to first try and see if you can follow the logic behind which с it is; there are many cases where, abstract or not, that logic is plain enough, e.g. in взыскать с должника, it's clear that the debt is collected "from" someone rather than "with" them — whereas in расплатиться с кредитором, it makes mor sense to say that a debt are settled "with" a lender rather than "from" them.

  • Thank you for your (as usual) crystal-clear comment, dear Nikolay. I am really amazed by your linguistic and didactical talent. May I take the liberty to ask what your mother tongue is? [ I'm curious because usually people are not so good at explaining the whys and wherefores of their native language since everything seems so natural to them :-)] – Georges Elencwajg Dec 8 '15 at 13:27
  • While we are at it, could you please also explain when от is used for translating from ? – Georges Elencwajg Dec 8 '15 at 13:38
  • Glad to hear that :) My mother tongue is Russian; my mother, however, was a translator from Czech and Polish, so already the lullabies and nursery rhymes I grew up with were in several different, but not completely different, languages — and that I suppose was where it all began. – Nikolay Ershov Dec 8 '15 at 17:58
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    От is for either leaving the vicinity of a thing, or becoming a breakaway part of it. Prepositions of to/from motion can be rather neatly arranged in pairs: из is the inverse of в (the accusative one, "into"), с (+genitive) is the inverse of на (+accusative), and от is the inverse of к. A letter from someone is письмо от — but note that a letter from someplace is письмо из (or, occasionally, письмо с). – Nikolay Ershov Dec 8 '15 at 18:10
  • Thanks again for your supplementary explanations, Nikolay (and the fragment of your autobiography!). – Georges Elencwajg Dec 8 '15 at 19:29

начать с дерева = start from a/the tree

начать с деревом = start having a/the tree

  • с + instr. = "with"
  • с + gen. = "from" (more or less, for some meanings of "from")

Others have already given more precise answers about the above, so I will just mention the fairly rare

с + acc.

which is used in sentences like

размером с морскую свинку = about the size of a guinea pig

размером с тыкву = roughly as big as a pumpkin


С can be followed by genitive, accusative or instrumental, but it's not the preposition which governs the case of a complement, it's the verb or noun it completes.

Начать с + gen. literally means "start from (the top of) the tree", the preposition c here being used in the sense "from the top of", as opposed to из "from the inside of" and от "from the proximity of".

This verb governs с + gen. in the same way жить, брать and even смеяться and бить in some dialects do: брать с него долг, жить с нетрудовых доходов, **смеяться с клоуна, **бить с локтя. It's just how these verbs work.

The last two examples are dialectal and sound quite peculiar to those not used to them, but totally OK to those who are.

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