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I understand the declension of что --  it's inanimate/неодушевлённый, so of course it should be

Nom: что Acc: что Gen: чего Dat: чему Inst: чем Prep: чём

Likewise  кто is animate/одушевлённый, so it should be

Nom: кто Acc: кoго Gen: кoго Dat: кoму Inst: кем Prep: кoм

These are basically just modified versions of the standard masculine adjective declension pattern (somewhat like the declension of "день" -- the nominative is irregular, but everything else is normal).

But if что is inanimate, then shouldn't also "ничто" be inanimate/неодушевлённый? And yet "ничто" always seems to be declined as if it were animate/одушевлённый (кто and никто don't have this consistency issue, for example).

Specifically, I have noticed that

"ничего"

is almost always used for the accusative form of ничто, even though I would have only expected it to be used for the genitive form. 

Can someone help me?

EDIT: Here are some (probably incorrect) examples of what I am talking about:

Это не возможно делать эту задачу.

but/а

Это не возможно делать ничего.

EDIT: Here is a related question on this website which phrases the issue better than I do:

Direct object of negated verbs takes which case?

According to this website:

In "proper" Russian, the direct object of the negated verb is supposed to be put into the genitive case regardless of gender. This doesn't always happen in speech, but it is nonetheless recommended, particularly in writing.

Apparently this is also an issue in other Slavic languages: http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/all-slavic-languages-genitive-after-negated-verbs.710336/

And apparently it is also a very complicated issue in Russian, since there has been much linguistic research (apparently for even more than a century) into when and why the genitive is sometimes used for the direct objects of negated verbs, and it seems like basically there are no hard-and-fast rules and whatever rules exist are rapidly changing over time:

http://people.umass.edu/partee/docs/SLS06_handout.pdf

https://www.academia.edu/5479874/Changing_semantic_factors_in_case_selection_Russian_evidence_from_the_last_two_centuries

This feature of Russian might explain why genitive is usually listed before accusative in declension tables written in Russian, since the genitive is in some cases associated with direct objects.

When I asked my native-speaker friend about this, they gave one answer, then decided that answer was wrong, gave the opposite answer, and then admitted that they don't know.

Since the accusative is used always for direct objects in other languages, and it is used sometimes for the direct objects of negated verbs in Russian, and there is no 100% rule mandating that the genitive must be used for such direct objects, I think I am probably just going to always use the accusative for the direct object, regardless of whether the verb is negated or not, and let the chips fall where they may. It doesn't seem like there is any practical advantage to using two different cases for direct objects anyway, whereas there are many obvious disadvantages to such a system.

  • 2
    одушевлённый and неодушевлённый are the terms you're looking for, for animate/inanimate. not живой/неживой – Nikolay Ershov May 19 '16 at 14:00
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    yes, that's what it means, and that's what "animate" literally means too — it's a calque. – Nikolay Ershov May 19 '16 at 14:05
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    "Acc: кего Gen: кего" - wrong. – Anixx May 19 '16 at 15:13
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    Both should be "кого". Prep: ком – Anixx May 19 '16 at 15:17
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    Why do you claim that ничто in acc is ничего? Any examples? – Anixx May 19 '16 at 15:19
7

Negation of existense (i.e. "no such thing") in Russian requires Genitive. Ничего is Genitive. That's it.

Accusative Ничто is a special object. It isn't nothing. It's Nothing.

But the difference may seem very subtle for English speakers. Consider

Ничто на земле не проходит бесследно --> Nothing on earth goes without leaving a trace
И поэтому знаю: со мной ничего не случится! --> And so I know that nothing [bad] happens to me!

  • This is a stupid question but are you sure negation requires Genitive? I asked my friend this same question once, and they gave the same answer, and then they said they made a mistake and what they sad was incorrect (they're a native Russian speaker) -- can you link to a reference which discusses how to form negations in Russian (presumably using Genitive)? – Chill2Macht May 19 '16 at 17:59
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    @William Nothing = no + thing. Saying "no such thing" in Russian is "нет + Genitive". But when saying "not this" you should use "не + Nominative" (or "не+Accusative" if it's appropriate). – Matt May 19 '16 at 18:23
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    @William Well, that depends on what you're trying to say. "No, it doesn't matter" --> "Нет, ничего" (adverb rather than pronoun); "There is nothing here" --> "Здесь ничего нет" (inverse order is a bit more usual); "very little; nothing to say of" --> "нет ничего" (colloquial); "it isn't just nothing" --> "это не ничто" (a special object). – Matt May 20 '16 at 8:46
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    @William "Не ничего" is usually wrong, unless you specially negate the word "ничего": "Ну ты как? Ничего?" - "Не ничего" --> "So how are you? It's OK?" - "Not OK". – Matt May 20 '16 at 8:48
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    @William And if there is no "нет" or "не", then is "ничто" guaranteed? No. First of all, there is an adverb "ничего", see above; second, one may omit "нет", so it becomes: "There is nothing here" --> "Nothing" --> "Ничего"; third, "ничто" is most often a subject, e.g.: "Ничто не забыто" --> "Nothing is forgotten"; fourth, do not confuse it with compound conjunctions: "Это было не что иное, как..." --> "That was nothing else but..." – Matt May 20 '16 at 9:04
3

On my map the accusative of ничто is still ничто. Example:

Из-за кризиса все облигации превратились в ничто.

I cannot come with an example where ничто would be in accusative but having the form ничего.

  • see the answer below -- also I'll try to dig up some more concrete examples later when I have the time. – Chill2Macht May 19 '16 at 16:07
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    @William in those examples it is in Genitive. – Anixx May 19 '16 at 17:30
  • Why is it Genitive in those examples? – Chill2Macht May 19 '16 at 17:57
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    @William If a verb is negated, its object usually takes the genitive instead of the accusative. E.g. Я сказал правду. vs Я не сказал правды. When the direct object is ничто, the verb is (almost) always negated: Я ничего не скажу. It happens because ничто means an absent object, which makes the action impossible. That's why Russians tend to use double negation in English. – thorn Sep 6 '16 at 13:55
  • @thorn Is there a rule somewhere that the direct object is in the genitive when the verb is negated? Or a table of verbs for which the direct object switches to the genitive from the accusative? Because I have also seen many examples where the direct object is still in the accusative even when the verb is negated, which is why I am confused by this. "Да, я люблю музыку. Нет, я не люблю музыку." In all languages I know besides Russian, the direct object has the same case regardless of whether or not the verb is negated. Thus when and why it is "Нет, я не люблю музыки" is hard to understand. – Chill2Macht Sep 6 '16 at 15:39
2

Another difference between these words, not yet mentioned, is that "ничего" is used in everyday's language, while "ничто" is more "literary" or "poetic", so to speak. Even when one says "Из-за кризиса все облигации превратились в ничто", this phrase has a somewhat "epic" sound.

  • Also, "ничего" is easier to pronounce, so it is more natural in conversation. – ddbug Sep 10 '16 at 1:14
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"Ничто" can be used as zero, void.

"ничего" is accusative word "ничто". "Ничего" can be used as assessment of what is happening.

-"что произошло?"

-"Ничего."

It also used to express inability to doing something.

"Я ничего не умею."

  • Right, but why would ничего be used instead of ничто? That's what I don't understand. – Chill2Macht May 19 '16 at 16:06
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    Что произошло? Ничего не произошло. Чего не произошло? Ничего. – alamar May 20 '16 at 12:54
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    @William Because "ничего" is in the genitive case. After a negated verb the object can be in the genitive. Here you are saying something like "there is nothing that I know how to do" – VCH250 May 20 '16 at 13:12
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Building on Kovyl's post: a good example is the line from Olga Berggolts' poem at the Piskaryovskoe Cemetery, where many victims of the WWII blockade of Leningrad are buried:

Никто не забыт, ничто не забыто

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