While trying to augment my knowledge on Russian numerals with regard to how they combine with nouns and adjectives, I paid a visit to Reverso after learning that any adjectives placed between the numeral and the noun must be

in the genitive plural if the singular form of the noun is masculine or neuter


in the nominative plural if the singular form of the noun is feminine.

Source: ТРОЙКА, section 15.2, p. 486

Side Note: If you cannot access the link above (where you'll have to click "Next" a few times before you get to the correct page), the following is also from the book (although I added a few personal touches to enhance the learning process):

Side Note: For those of you who have yet to learn this, it may help you to know that rules of animacy do not apply to this rule because rules of animacy only apply to the accusative case in Russian. The rules listed at the top of this post refer to numeral-noun phrases in the nominative case.

However, while going through sentences at Reverso, looking for good examples, I kept coming across combinations that confused me because they did not seem to be adhering to the rules I placed at the top of this post. Here are some examples:

Три маленьких бабочки смотрят на тебя.
Three little butterflies looking at you.

Потому что у меня есть три маленьких буквы для тебя.
Because I've got three little letters for you.

Initially, I thought that I might have just stumbled upon a couple of less than standard translations at Reverso, but then I went to search Russian web pages via Google's search engine. (Initially, I tried Google's Ngram, but this didn't yield anything.) What I discovered, via a search of Russian web pages, somewhat surprised me. Though there was clearly more evidence of these types of constructs according to the rules I laid out above there was still quite a few that did not seem to be following it. See the image below for the details:

After thinking about this a bit more, I see now that the numbers for "три маленьких буквы" quite possibly indicate the use of the accusative case.

This made me rather curious, so I returned to the Ngram and ran a few other searches. You’ll find visual representations of those searches below:

As you can see, the searches involving masculine or neuter nouns were quite consistent, but not so with the feminine noun — война. Is this presence of using genitive plural for the adjective between a numeral and its noun (as in “две мировых войны) just an indicator of bad writing (somewhat implausible) or is something else going on? If the noun “война” were an animate noun, I suppose one could make a case that instances of “две мировых войны” must be examples of where it is in the accusative case, but it is my understanding that only things like people and animals are considered “animate” and wouldn’t “два” then take the form of “двух” (instead of “две”)?

Regardless, what I found via searches seems to contradict what I now have come to understand about this rule and have seen echoed in a similar post:

Numerals changing the case of adjectives and nouns

Here’s a screenshot of the part that is germane to this post:

As an aside, wouldn’t “два” then be “две” if the noun was feminine (regardless of whether it was in nominative or accusative case)? I guess it’s possible that whoever wrote it is just using “два” in its default/base form. Regardless, the rule seems to correspond with what I find in one of Wiktionary’s declension charts. Here’s an annotated screenshot so you can see what I mean:

This declension chart seems rather similar to other charts I’ve seen — where “ые” is listed for the nominative plural and accusative inanimate plural and “ых” for genitive, prepositional, and accusative animate plural.

I’ve added the declension chart for “два” to assist with understanding:

It doesn’t help that the rows for “animate” and “inanimate” have been flipped — in the chart for “мировой” “animate” is listed before “inanimate.” In this chart, you have the opposite, but I hope it helps just the same.

As for the feminine noun example I used earlier:

две мировых войны
две мировые войны

another theory I have is that this is perhaps some sort of intentional literary style intended to, perhaps, make some sort of statement about the “animacy” a war may have. Or am I way off base there? Another theory is that at one time it was acceptable to use “две мировых войны” for the genitive case (instead of "двух"). But wouldn’t you then have to change “войны” to “войн”? Would love to have your thoughts on this.

At this point in my inquiry, I decided to stop speculating and just post this question here to see if anyone might have an answer.

Just to recap in more general terms, are these patterns I've observed due to any recent changes in the Russian language or is it more due to the differences that tend to develop between formal writing and less formal writing? Or are they just mistakes/flukes/anomalies that a beginning student shouldn’t pay attention to?

BTW, I have visited the following:

Five + adjective + noun — what case is adj in?

Numerals and cases - why in this sentence the adjective is in plural form?

Numerals changing the case of adjectives and nouns

Agreement of numerals, adjectives and nouns

and even

Двадцать один хорош(?) год - declension after number 21

but none of them really seem to address my latest point(s) of confusion about the Russian language.

As always, thanks in advance for sharing your knowledge on this topic. Please cite a source(s) in your answer, if it makes sense to do so and it is not too inconvenient.

  • Can you maybe split this lengthy text into several shorter, more focused questions?
    – ddbug
    Aug 19 '17 at 23:36
  • Thank you! Now I don't have to read War and Peace!
    – CocoPop
    Aug 19 '17 at 23:56
  • Yes, @ddbug, I can split this up as requested.
    – Lisa Beck
    Aug 20 '17 at 0:02
  • I'm here all week, padumpum!
    – CocoPop
    Aug 20 '17 at 0:02
  • @CocoPop I'm glad I was able to give you something to read!
    – Lisa Beck
    Aug 20 '17 at 0:35

Both nominative plural and genitive plural adjectives can be used with feminine nouns. Nominative plural is preferred.

Lisa, you are not the first to notice this variation (and well done spotting it!).

Most sources use language such as 'usually', 'more often', 'genitive is preferred', etc. when describing this phenomenon. Here is a quote from Rosenthal:

§193. Adjective-noun agreement following numerals two, three and four

  1. In such constructs the adjective modifying a feminine noun most often appears in the nominative case (or the accusative case with inanimate nouns), plural. E.g.: две большие комнаты выходили окнами в сад; купила четыре фарфоровые чашки; на изгороди из трех жердей сидели три женские фигуры (А.Н. Толстой); По этим дорогам двигаются две большие колонны немцев (М. Бубеннов). When the noun phrase is preceded by a preposition, both nominative/accusative and genitive are possible: на две равные части – по две столовых ложки. If the nominative plural of the feminine noun differs from its genitive singular in stress (го́ры – горы́, слёзы – слезы́), then usually genitive plural is preferred for the adjective: две высоких горы, две крупных слезы. Например: Три серых струны натянулись в воздухе (Горький); Две сильных мужских руки подхватили ее (А. Коптяева). The choice of the adjective form can be affected by the form of the predicate: Разыграны три золотые медали. – Разыграно три золотых медали.

The translation is mine. Here is the Russian original:

§193. Определение при существительном, зависящем от числительных два, три, четыре

  1. При существительных женского рода в указанных условиях определение чаще ставится в форме именительного падежа (или совпадающего с ним винительного при неодушевленных существительных) множественного числа. Например: две большие комнаты выходили окнами в сад; купила четыре фарфоровые чашки; на изгороди из трех жердей сидели три женские фигуры (А.Н. Толстой); По этим дорогам двигаются две большие колонны немцев (М. Бубеннов). При наличии перед всем оборотом предлога возможны варианты; ср.: на две равные части – по две столовых ложки. Если формы именительного падежа множественного числа существительных женского рода отличаются по ударению от формы родительного падежа единственного числа (ср.: го́ры – горы́, слёзы – слезы́), то определение в рассматриваемой конструкции обычно ставится в родительном падеже множественного числа: две высоких горы, две крупных слезы. Например: Три серых струны натянулись в воздухе (Горький); Две сильных мужских руки подхватили ее (А. Коптяева). На выбор формы определения может оказать влияние форма сказуемого; ср.: Разыграны три золотые медали. – Разыграно три золотых медали.

(The bold emphasis was added by me to highlight the use of the 'variative' language.)

Here is another quote from

Граудина, Ицкович, Катлинская. Грамматическая правильность русской речи. Стилистический словарь вариантов. М., 2001:

"In these constructs feminine nouns can have both genitive and nominative determiners, e.g.: две новых книги, две смежных комнаты, три столовых ложки — три оригинальные статьи, две основные задачи, три столовые ложки. Genitive is preferred when the nominative form of the noun is different from its genitive in stress: три высо́ких горы́ (cf. высо́кие го́ры), две ру́сых косы́ (cf. ру́сые ко́сы). For other cases some textbooks recommend the nominative – possibly, trying to differentiate feminine nouns from masculine and neuter nouns. But in reality feminine nouns can take dependent adjectives of either form, taking into account the stress-related limitations we have just pointed out."

Russian original:

«При существительных жен. рода прилагательное в описываемых конструкциях может выступать в форме как родительного, так и им. падежа, ср.: две новых книги, две смежных комнаты, три столовых ложки — три оригинальные статьи, две основные задачи, три столовые ложки. Форма род. падежа предпочитается в тех случаях, когда форма им. падежа мн. числа существительного отличается по ударению от формы, зависящей от числительного: три высо́ких горы́ (ср. высо́кие го́ры), две ру́сых косы́ (ср. ру́сые ко́сы). Для других случаев некоторые пособия рекомендуют формы им. падежа — по-видимому, из стремления разграничить падежную форму прилагательного при существительных, с одного стороны, мужского и среднего, а с другой — жен. рода. Но практически при существительных жен. рода (с указанным выше ограничением, связанным с особенностями ударения) возможны обе формы прилагательного».

And here are the scans of the relevant pages:

Page 32 Page 33

Both sources claim that genitive plural should be used for the adjective when the noun differs in genitive singular and nominative plural. But that contradicts your Google NGram research and a few Google searches that I've just done (using quotes to match exact phrases):

  • "две мировые войны" 120000
  • "две мировых войны" 49100

  • "две высокие горы" 5980

  • "две высоких горы" 638

  • "две новые игры" 18700

  • "две новых игры" 3040

  • "две длинные косы" 3830

  • "две длинных косы" 1150

Thus I would conclude that nominative plural is preferred in most cases.


Here is a third source to support the same viewpoint, the fundamental Русская грамматика, Volume 2, §1817, page 57:

2) Если в сочетание с числительным входит су­ществительное жен. р., то нормальны обе формы прилагательного — и им. и род. п.: две молодые женщины — две молодых женщины, какие-то четыре девочки — каких-то четыре девочки, обе дворовые собаки — обе дворовых собаки, четыре большие избы — четыре больших избы, две женских руки — две женские руки; На счету у нашей команды четыре золотых и три серебряные медали (газ.).

Note the last example that uses both nominative and genitive in the same sentence!

That's all I could find on the subject in the two volumes. No mention of which form is preferred. I guess the authors, being wise people, followed the rule "to err less often, say less" or "my tongue is my enemy" (Язык мой — враг мой).

  • First of all, I love the answer you provided and the research you've done for it. In fact, I'm still working through it/trying to get my mind back into this topic to digest it all. You offered to translate some of the Russian into English and if you're still willing to do that, it would definitely be appreciated by me (and quite likely others). My Russian really isn't that good, and, to be blunt, neither is Google Translate's, but quite possibly it's better than mine. Nevertheless, I am assuming that GT's bilingual abilities do not surpass yours.
    – Lisa Beck
    Sep 1 '17 at 2:37
  • I have just found a similar discussion here: russian.stackexchange.com/questions/511/… Dec 29 '17 at 6:05

I found a couple of threads after posting this that somewhat touch on this subject. I don't know why they didn't show up for me when I conducted my initial search. I may have overlooked them. However, rather than add an addendum to a long post, I'll try to summarize and synthesize them for an answer. Truth be told, they might be a bit too advanced for the level of the post I wrote. I am referring mainly to this thread here:

How to decline adjectives modifying feminine nouns after 2, 3, 4?

That post contains a comment with a link to another post that I now see is a bit irrelevant to my question(s), so I've omitted it, but you can access it by going to the link above. I'm referring here to an answer by Quassnoi and I quote from it a bit later in this answer but most of it is unrelated to this post here. What follows are three points that address my question(s) in this thread. Please don't construe my attempt to answer my own question as a sign that I am not also interested in answers from others, especially those who can do so with specifics/details/cited sources. Most of my attempt here will be much broader in scope.

1) The general rules laid out at the top of the post that starts my thread here (Can anyone clear up ...?) should suffice in most situations. How do I know that? I don't. All I can tell you is that I've seen that rule in a pretty reputable Russian textbook and have seen several examples of where that rule is applied. Those that don't follow those rules appear to be the exception rather than the rule, but I haven't queried the entire Russian lexicon or even a scientifically measured portion of it (e.g., the first 100 most common Russian adjectives and nouns and all the many permutations of how they could combine with "2," "3," and "4"). It could be done, but it would take me a lot of time and I suspect that I would discover what the Russian textbook ТРОЙКА has already provided me with its rule.

2) In the thread titled, "How to decline adjectives ..." (the one I mention earlier in this answer), the author of it (KCd) refers to the number-adjective-noun rules for feminine nouns. To refresh, it is this:

Any adjectives placed between the numeral and the noun must be in the nominative plural if the singular form of the noun is feminine.

KCd writes (paraphrasing a source):

... this rule is "normally" true if the noun has the same stress in genitive singular and nominative plural ...

... if the noun has different stress in genitive singular and nominative plural then the adjective is "normally" genitive plural (e.g., три различных стороны).

To help visualize this and corroborate it, I've added a screenshot from Wiktionary:

This is good information to have, but it doesn't explain to me why I've seen so many instances of "две мировых войны." You can see from the image below that even though the form of the plural changes from nominative to genitive, the stress stays the same:

Note how the stress from genitive singular to nominative plural changes, which is what KCd is referring to.

3) This comes from Quassnoi's answer. A large part of it was in Russian, and, after using Google Translate, I realized that it doesn't actually address my question except for one thing and that is what was said in reference to a rule he was citing from a book by Dietmar Rosenthal titled, Справочник по правописанию и литературной правке для работников печати. In reference to the rule referenced from the book, Quassnoi writes:

This rule is not strict and is often violated.

And perhaps, that can be said of any rule.

  • > And perhaps, that can be said of any rule. Some rules are stricter than others. E.g. this rule is strict: all perfective verbs and participles that have the prefix вы- bear stress on that -вы: выкристаллизовавшегося. I'm yet to see any exceptions to this rule. Aug 20 '17 at 12:52
  • So true, Sergey. Some rules are stricter than others. It is good to be aware of this, so thank you for pointing that out.
    – Lisa Beck
    Sep 1 '17 at 2:53
  • For any of you who may have seen my answer previously, I made some edits to it. When I first wrote it, I had not interpreted what KCd had written, but with a fresher set of eyes, it all made sense and I have edited that portion (content for bullet #2) to reflect that.
    – Lisa Beck
    Sep 1 '17 at 2:56

As a native speaker, I shortly pounded on both options, such as

  • две мировые войны
  • две мировых войны.

I, from my feeling of the language, consistently prefer the first option in all examples. The only exception might be if the noun is not in the nominative. Compare:

  • Две мировые войны — больше, чем достаточно.
  • Он прошел две мировые войны. / Он прошел две мировых войны.

Here I prefer the second option, but it's declination and not usage per se. Hope this helps.

As a funny side note, possibly somewhat related is the old Moscow theater pronunciation, seen in old Soviet films, from, like 50s and in some public talks, like in some songs by Vysotsky, when he (debatably on purpose) tries to sound more intelligent. They mangle -ая in -ыя in adjectives, there are also some further cases.

It might be a similar effect to what you are observing: the natural change in the language, that was sort of kept on purpose in an elitist group. In your case it might be rather the folk language, though.

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