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With masculine and neuter nouns, два and три take the genitive singular. With feminine nouns it is at least usually taught that две and три also take the genitive singular. But how do we know? Given that this form of a feminine noun is almost always the same as the nominative plural, can we not with equal justification say that these numerals take the nominative plural? Or might we not say that they take the form that expresses both of those functions?

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    Related russian.stackexchange.com/questions/13618/… – V.V. Apr 6 '18 at 3:54
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    So, you don't like the simple rule and you want to have a complex rule with the same outcome? Don't forget about words like "сестра" which have different stress in genitive and nominative plural. – AlexVB Apr 6 '18 at 6:22
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    "Given that this form of a feminine noun is always the same as the nominative plural" - well, this is not given! It's not correct. – Abakan Apr 6 '18 at 6:30
  • I'd forgotten about сестра. What other such words are there? Are they all in a small group where the only change is in stress? I've noticed that many Russian people will say that две takes the nominative plural. So we could perhaps define an unusual nominative plural for words in this small group. There is a question of form and function. – user10435 Apr 6 '18 at 8:05
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    Also "гроздья" - nom. pl. but "грозди" - gen. sing. – ttaaoossuu Apr 6 '18 at 9:38
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But how do we know?

Historically, Russian cases are defined by the questions the nominals put into each case answer.

This might not the best way to define a case, because using this definition you can't tell partitive from genitive as in чая vs чаю, or locative from prepositional as in о лесе vs в лесу, but it's how it works in traditional grammars which trace back to Meletius' Church Slavonic grammar.

However, this definition is good enough to tell the two cases apart in your case. You can't ask in Russian две кто? or две что?, you'd have to ask две кого? or две чего? which undoubtedly puts the corresponding word into genitive or its varieties (or which nominative is not).

Given that this form of a feminine noun is always the same as the nominative plural, can we not with equal justification say that these numerals take the nominative plural?

The feminine nominals are not always the same as nominative plural as in genitive singular.

The paradigm differs for all adjectives and ordinal numerals:

  • красивые (f. nom. pl.) / красивой (f. gen. sg.)
  • первые (f. nom. pl.) / первой (f. gen. sg.)

, for nouns with mobile stress:

  • ре́ки (nom. pl.) / реки́ (gen. sg.)
  • во́ды (nom. pl.) / воды́ (gen. sg.)

, for nouns with a mobile vowel in the root:

  • сёстры (nom. pl.) / сестры (gen. sg.)
  • зори (nom. pl.) / зари (gen. sg.)

, for ad-hoc declension paradigms resulted from the gender shift:

  • гроздья (nom. pl.) / грозди (gen. sg.)

This said, numerals in две, три and четыре undoubtedly govern singular genitive even for feminine nominals.

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  • Good answer. Аnd for "three of these" one says три этой rather than три эти. – user10435 Apr 6 '18 at 16:34
  • @TheEarth Well you say neither because “three of these” does not have a natural equivalent in Russian. The most natural thing to hear would be “эти три” (“Видишь сливы? Эти три съешь, а остальные унеси”). But usually there’s some kind of noun there (“три килограмма вот этого”, “эти три штуки”). – Roman Odaisky Apr 6 '18 at 17:55
  • I've heard native speakers say "три этой" to mean "three of these (postcards)(открытки)", the noun being understood. Your examples don't translate to English phrases containing "three of these". – user10435 Apr 7 '18 at 0:34
  • @The Earth i can envision a native speaker say "десять этой" and in fact any numeral, but such use pertains to a specific situation where there's say a product whose gender is feminine and the person asks a vendor to allocate them so and so items of this product, it's in fact a shorthand of a phrase "три штуки этой", and as we can see the word whose Genitive is governed by the numeral is штуки, whereas Genitive of этой is in turn governed by the noun штуки (кого? чего? - этой) – Баян Купи-ка Apr 7 '18 at 7:01
  • That's "десять (штук) этой (открытки)". What I've heard is "десять этих (открыток)" and "три этой (открытки)". – user10435 Apr 7 '18 at 14:40
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I'd argue that the case of сестра is a proof that the Genitive feminine form is singular and not plural. Other such words are башка (if we accept its Nom. pl. as бошки, Gen. - башки) and весна (вёсны vs весны respectively), зима (stress variation: зИмы vs зимЫ respectively), беда (stress variation: бЕды vs бедЫ respectively).

We also may consider two other genders which clearly provide singular forms and i personally as a native speaker (which isn't of course any proof) perceive the feminine flexion as of a singular form and because with numerals you expect some sort of oblique case.

In my opinion the forms of feminine Nom. pl and Gen. sing (in this particular case) are simply homonyms, they are spelled and often sound alike but function differently.

But maybe historical philology can provide more conclusive clues.

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