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There is a well-known rule that a masculine noun is animate if its Accusative form has a non-zero ending. However, I haven't noticed this information to be mentioned in dictionaries... Maybe I just don't know what each part of a dictionary article means.

But then I thought that maybe the opposite is true (as each definition is de facto an equivalence relation): if the word is animate, than its Accusative requires a non-zero ending. But in this case, how do I decide if a noun is animate or not?

Animate is everything that is alive. This is a common definition. But let's consider two words that are practically synonyms:

  • я вижу (кого? что?) труп - null ending => not animate
  • я вижу (кого? что?) покойника - non-zero ending => animate

Where's the logics? Both corpses are dead and can't be considered animate.

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Indeed, it is not always possible to know, whether a noun is animate or inanimate.

The general rule is that nouns that denote animate objects (people or animals) are grammatically animated, i.e. the form of their Accusative case coincides with the form of their Genitive case. Inanimate objects (basically, the rest of the world) behave like grammatically inanimate: their Accusative case coincides with their Nominative case.

However, there are some exceptions.

First, whether a noun is animate or inanimate cannot be seen in case of nouns that do not change morphologically (like пальто or Пьеро). But their animatedness can be identified by the endings of adjectives that describe these nouns:

Я вижу грустного Пьеро, but
Я вижу старое пальто.

More problems arise in cases when semantic and grammatical animatedness do not coincide. I will try to list these cases here:

Names of aggregations: народ, толпа, стая. They denote animate objects, but behave like inanimate nouns. Истребить целый народ.

Names of anthropomorphous objects (e.g. toys): кукла, снеговик, матрёшка, марионетка, робот, солдатик. They denote inanimate objects, but behave like animate nouns. Слепить толстого снеговика.

Names of card and chess figures: валет, король, слон и т.п. They denote inanimate objects, but behave like animate nouns. Побить чужого валета.

Names of mechanisms and tools that sound like names of people: дворники. They have the same form as animate nouns, but be careful: when they denote inanimate objects, they change like inanimate nouns. Сломать дворник у машины.

Finally, there are cases when the noun can be both used as animated and as inanimate and denote the same thing (I only know three cases, but there might be more):

Запускать воздушный змей and Запускать воздушного змея
Изучать микробы, бактерии and Изучать микробов, бактерий
Готовить кальмары, креветки, моллюски and Готовить кальмаров, креветок, моллюсков (but always изучать кальмаров, кревечток, моллюсков).

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  • 1
    I suggest to give the complete list of exceptions, since that was the thing Umari asked about. Could you, please, add марионетка, матрёшка and робот to the list of anthropomorphuous objects?
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 19 '13 at 0:04
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    Also foods: есть кальмары/кальмаров but only изучать кальмаров в среде их обитания
    – Quassnoi
    Feb 19 '13 at 8:38
  • @YellowSky Feel free to edit the answer to add further exceptions on your own.
    – Olga
    Feb 19 '13 at 12:14
  • Whether a noun is animate or inanimate, along with what gender a noun has, is reflected without exception not by its own endings, but by the endings of the adjectives that are used with it. For instance, папа "is" grammatically masculine because adjectives that modify it have masculine endings, regardless of the endings on папа looking feminine. And коллега has общий род since it can take adjectives of either gender (depending on the colleague). Similarly, the way to know a noun is animate or not, without exception, is in fact to look at the adjectives that modify it.
    – KCd
    Feb 19 '13 at 13:36
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    @KCd I see your point now. Yes, very true, adjectives in general are a very good indicator of the morphological properties of nouns that they describe. Let me only note that it is not only helpful for native speakers, but for everyone who reads a text in Russian, sees a new word and by adjective ending figures out its gender, animateness and other properties.
    – Olga
    Feb 20 '13 at 10:26
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Where's the logics? Both corpses are dead and can't be considered animate.

Труп and покойник differ in meaning.

Труп is "corpse, dead body". This means material remains.

Покойник is "late, deceased". This means a person who had passed away.

Consider the two examples:

  • Вороны, разумеется, прилетали клевать трупы в верхнем ярусе ворот. Акутагава Рюноскэ, "Ворота Расёмон", пер. Н .Фельдмана

  • Покойник был дурак и так любил чины, // Что требует в аду короны сатаны. Роберт Бернс, "Надпись на могиле честолюбца", пер. С. Я. Маршака

You can't swap the words in the excerpts above.

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Покойник retains qualities of a personality which a труп does not.

We can speak about name, age, property, character, relatives, friends, colleagues, occupation, nationality of a покойник.

We cannot speak about say, relatives or name of a труп. Труп is a body, corpse, покойник is a person.

Consider

Покойник был старый

Means the deceased was old when he died.

Труп был старый

Means the corpse was lying here for a long time since the death.

Покойник can be молодой, but a труп only can be свежий.

Similar distinction exists not only among the dead but also among the alive: compare "человек" and "тело человека". While both may refer to the same physical object, the "тело" is inanimate. We can speak about water and fat reserves of a "тело человека" but we can talk about water and fat reserves of a человек only in the sense of property.

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