I have always been puzzled as to why the Russians almost never use verbs of possession akin to "have" or "own."

Instead of such verbs, the Russians use the preposition у, whose primary or original meaning is "near" or "at", and sometimes additionally use the verb быть ("be") in the appropriate tense: у меня (есть/была/будет) машина (literally "а car is / was / will be near me"), у моей подруги хороший характер, у него много денег, у этой рыбы острые зубы, у меня хорошее настроение, у меня много дел, and so on. Even if a Russian needs to explicitly stress ownership of, for example, an apartment, he will say something like у меня квартира в собственности rather than я имею квартиру or я владею квартирой, even despite that the latter two constructions are grammatically okay.

The very same grammatical construction is used to express proximity: У дворца роскошный парк ("there is a beautiful park near the palace").

I initially thought that avoiding verbs of possession is common to Slavic languages, but I proved to be wrong. Most other Slavs express possession by verbs akin to "have". For example, in situations where a Russian says у меня много дел, a Pole will say mam wiele rzeczy do zrobienia, and a Serb will say имам пуно посла. It would be pretty unusual for a Russian to say имею много дел, but this is precisely what most other Slavs will say. And below are the most common ways to say "how many yachts do you have?" and "I have a plane" in various Slavic languages:

Polish: Ile masz jachtów? Mam samolot.

Czech: Кolik jachet máš? Mám letadlo.

Serbian: Колико јахти имаш? Имам авион.

Russian: Сколько у тебя (есть) яхт? У меня (есть) самолет.

So my question is this: Why do Russians, in contrast to most other Slavs, almost not use verbs of possession akin to "have"? In other words, what was the main cultural, historical, or mentality-related factor that resulted in such a difference?

I want to read interesting explanations or hypotheses rather than meaningless answers like "that's the way it is" or "that's just how Russian has evolved." After all, I already know that it is the way it is and that it is how Russian has evolved. The question is why.

Any thoughts are very welcome.

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    Good question and I'm also interested in reading any attempts of an answer. Two remarks, however: 1) "the preposition у, which means "near"' - no, it does not mean near in the 'у меня/тебя/него..'. 2) You do need to make an effort and come up with shorter questions. There is a lot of redundancy and it simply takes too long to read. Needless to say, most people just give up after the first paragraph, some don't even start scared off by the size of it, but for those few who do read - it's too verbous, to the point where one feels annoyed (as one's time is limited). – tum_ May 20 '19 at 23:40
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    @tum_ One page is "too long to read"? It's about time we launch Twitter.SE :) – Dmitry Grigoryev May 21 '19 at 7:53
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    I'd hazard a guess that Slavic languages other than Russian were much more exposed to influences from western European languages with a strong tradition of using "to be" and "to have", mostly due to geographical proximity. – Dmitry Grigoryev May 21 '19 at 8:00
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    @DmitryGrigoryev "For whom how"(c) Справедливости ради, ситуация постепенно исправляется - её первые вопросы были раза в два-три объёмнее. И я не первый, кто просит быть покороче. Дело ведь не в объёме, как таковом, а в сомнительной оправданности такого объёма - т.е. басню явно можно сократить без ущерба для смысла. – tum_ May 21 '19 at 8:47
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    @tum_, I rather disagree. This is a perfect question of proper length; more should be like that, rather than the primitive twitter-style ones. It shows the rationale and some research effort, which is good. – Zeus May 24 '19 at 1:02

First of all, a shameless plug of my earlier answer on why у does not quite mean "near" (but something more akin to the French chez, i.e. a place/household/domain notion used in the abstract.)

Secondly, I have a general impression that languages usually start out not having a verb for "to have", and then some evolve it and some don't. Entire language families (as far as I'm aware) do without it, such as Turkic or Semitic. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European of Schleicher's fable doesn't have it, and over all the massive updates it received through the years, no-one challenged the part where "sheep that had no wool" was expressed as "sheep to which wool was not".

Since not much is known about Proto-Slavic syntax and idiomatics, it's hard to make the claim that the у меня construction is older than the reflexes of *jьměti/*jьmati in West and South Slavic languages; у меня is also obviously not quite the same as the proposed Proto-Indo-European dative construction ("is to me"). However, what's fairly clear is that this verb started out with a more literal meaning ("to take") and that's pretty much how all Indo-European languages got their "have" verbs: they were all originally verbs for literal taking or holding. If we trace the history of Spanish all the way back to PIE, we can even see it happening twice. First there were the reflexes of the Latin habeo "hold", then Spanish relegated them to a purely auxiliary function and made tener (also "to hold") its "having" verb.

So in the end, apparently it's not how Russian has evolved; it's how other related languages have evolved and Russian stayed a little more conservative: while not keeping the oldest hypothesised construction, it settled on a similar one instead of the more radical and expressive "hold=>have" approach.

  • A very intetesting answer. Do you have any hypothesis why Russian stayed more conservative? – Mitsuko May 21 '19 at 0:44
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    @Mitsuko Maybe an areal thing. Likely related to the copula-dropping (at least the two phenomena go together in Semitic and Turkic languages too); It could be that when the copula becomes mandatory, its existential meaning weakens, and expressions of the type "at/to me is(=exists)" are not as clear anymore. – Nikolay Ershov May 21 '19 at 1:15
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    @Mitsuko Russian probably stayed more conservative because it had less intense contacts with other languages, being spoken mostly on the periphery of Europe, as compared to Central European languages. – alamar May 22 '19 at 11:01
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    Hungarian (a completely unrelated language) also has no verb "to have". "I have a dog" would be translated as "Van egy kutyám" = "There is a dog of mine" ("van"="there is", "egy"="a", "kutya"="dog", "kutyám"="my dog" / "dog of mine"). – Matt May 23 '19 at 8:52
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    I don’t think we can really make any such sweeping statements as “languages usually start out not having a verb for ‘to have’”. While it’s true that there are many languages which don’t (including PIE, meaning that all Indo-European languages fit the model of developing ‘have’ verbs from other material), there are also many languages which have had ‘have’ verbs as far back as we can tell. The opposite also occurs, with languages losing their ‘have’ verbs in favour of circumlocutions. All we can really say is that some have ’em and some don’t. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 23 '19 at 16:00

First of all, I agree with Nikolay Ershov and others who point out that your understanding of "у" is incorrect: it really mostly means belonging (even stronger than chez) and only secondarily and colloquially you can use it to talk about proximity.

Russian absolutely has a verb for ownership, the same "иметь" you mention, but:

  • it must be used logically, in the way English uses "own". "Имею много дел" doesn't make sense for the simple reason that you can't own tasks. "Имею машину" absolutely does make sense and is something a Russian would say.

  • As Andrey pointed out, Russian likes to align the grammatical subject of a sentence with the true subject of what you're talking about, so:

    ** Имею машину: I am really talking about myself and what awesome possessions I have, hence I am the subject.

    ** У меня есть машина: I am emphasising the car, hence it is the subject. This would be used, for example, if you want to give someone a ride.

It does blur, especially in informal speech.

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    As a Russian, I have to say that this answer is wrong and misleading. No one in Russia would ever say «имею машину», and the part about emphasis also doesn’t make any sense. The only case when one would use «иметь» with an object is in a sentence like «Иметь или не иметь машину - личный выбор каждого» (roughly “To have or not a have a car is a personal choice”). Saying something like «я имею машину» is akin to saying “me like food” in English. – Alexander Revo May 21 '19 at 17:24
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    Also, the verb «иметь» in colloquial Russian can (and often does) also mean “to have sex with”, so you definitely don’t want to say «я имею собаку» instead of “I have a dog”. – Alexander Revo May 21 '19 at 17:31
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    Maybe it's a regional thing? I'm not a linguist, but in my circle (Moscow) both forms are used. But I guess the most canonical use of "имею" is less about car (or dog) ownership and more "имею право" - I have a right. – Jen I May 21 '19 at 19:29
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    You're right about "имею право", but that's pretty much idiomatic. You can also run into it textbooks ("причастие имеет зависимое слово", "электрон имеет заряд", etc.) or hear it during a lecture at university, but other than that it's either used in infinitive like in my first example or "у ... есть" is used. I am also from Moscow. – Alexander Revo May 21 '19 at 20:04
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    Also, could you provide some citation for the "formal distinction" that is given in your answer? Because unless you have a source to back it up, I would suggest that this part should be removed, because that doesn't sound like proper Russian at all. – Alexander Revo May 21 '19 at 20:12

(Here is an empirical explanation of the modern habbit; I'm not a linguistics specialist and could only speculate on the reasons of such pattern)

Because complicated morphology allows us Russians not to.

Using a verb usually implies some action. Having/possessing something is not an action - it's a statement. We don't use a verb for a statement in general - and the language doesn't utilize any auxiliary verbs. A verb is summonned when there is an actor (initiative), action or time involved.

"Я имею ложку" thus sounds unnatural (though grammatically acceptable and would be understood by anyone). It hints you are for some reason active or agitated about this simple fact of possession.

Also we don't have subtle verb times. There are only past, present and future ones. One cannot express if one is doing something currently (continuous time) or does the thing in general (simple time). Thus "я имею ложку" is also obscure and frustrating - it is not clear if you're just the spoon's owner or going to do something weird with it (see below).

P.S. The direct use of the possession verb "иметь" can also be easily recognized as an obscene joke or assault, because that verb also means "willingly undertake a sexual intercourse with smb/smth in the active role, probably without consent". Please avoid using it altogether if that's not your intent.

P.P.S. Note that recently colloquial Russian language have adopted some foreign phrases and idioms with possession semantics. Those've been eventually converted to the local form of "[у]-[кого-то]-[есть]-[что-то]", but originally we had their counterparts deprived of possession. E.g. "I have an idea" - before adopting the idiom we used to form a phrase along the "I thought about it thoroughly...decided..." etc. We don't "have" snacks, lunches or ideas. We eat/produce them. "Having" is an alien idiom for a Russian. I guess this adds to the low frequency of using "иметь" even in its prime, formal meaning.

  • You say, "Having/possessing something is not an action - it's a statement. We don't use a verb for a statement in general - and the language doesn't utilize any auxiliary verbs". But in phrases like у меня есть машина there is a verb - есть. This verb is the third person present tense of быть. – Mitsuko May 24 '19 at 4:09
  • @Mitsuko I would say that "есть" is frequently omitted, unless you are explicitly claiming ownership and even then it could. For example, "are you going by bus? - no, I have a car" would probably colloquially be: "поедешь автобусом? - у меня машина" , if the asker didn't know the other person has a car. The only place where I would expect the verb is if it was used in the question, to which I am giving the answer: "Do you have a car? Yes, I have a car." – Gnudiff May 28 '19 at 7:51

So my question is this: Why do Russians, in contrast to most other Slavs, almost not use verbs of ownership akin to "have"? In other words, what was the main cultural, historical, or mentality-related factor that resulted in such a difference?

There is a widely supported theory that Uralic languages have had a strong grammatical influence on East Slavic.

Usually, these East Slavic phenomena are attributed to the Uralic influence:

  1. Proximal possession ("there is at me" vs. "I have")
  2. Genitive in negative clauses (пью воду / не пью воды)
  3. Vowel reduction (аканье)
  4. Absence of the copula in affirmative sentences (я человек vs. *я есть человек)
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Quassnoi May 24 '19 at 8:58
  • Vowel reduction (аканье) is also present in Belarusian. They even write like that in their orthography. Although Belarus is not a place where uralic tribes ever lived. Also in Russia, the Russian dialects without аканье (without vowel reduction) are spread exactly in the places (north of Moscow) where thousand of years ago uralic tribes lived. And the dialects which do have аканье vowel reduction are Southern dialects, where uralic tribes didn't live. Not to mention almost no loan words from Uralic languages. So I think this theory has no ground – smsrecv Sep 28 '20 at 18:52
  • @smsrecv: is that your original research or you are quoting someone? Just to clarify, this theory is not something I came up with. It was first put forward more than a century ago and is most extensively developed by Wolfgang Veenker and his followers. When you are saying it has no ground, is it based only on what you've expressed in your comment? Or there is a work you're referencing which is criticizing this theory? Thanks! – Quassnoi Sep 28 '20 at 20:28
  • You would be denying that Belarusians also have vowel reduction from "o" to "a"? Or that Russian dialects North of Moscow (where finno-ugric peoples lived about 1 thousand years ago) have no vowel reduction from o to a? I'm not quoting someone. It's my opinion. If these 4 arguments are the ground of that theory then it's quite shaky. (not to mention it's quite old). By the way Slovene also has akanye as well as some serbo-croatian dialects. – smsrecv Sep 29 '20 at 12:06
  • @smsrecv: thank you for clarification – Quassnoi Sep 29 '20 at 16:13

I want to summarize what I read on this topic. I did a lot of research and found some interesting things. Possibly you will find my analysis interesting. Comments with opinions are very welcome.

I first tried to find the etymological origin and the original meaning of the preposition у and opened the etymological dictionary by Preobrazhensky. Here is what he says:

У предл. c P.; звачения , во власти, при, близ, около; напр., просить y кого-нибудь; «у порога наш супостат». ... Значение предл. y во власти развилось из преф.; напр. «спроси y отца» звачит «от отца того, что есть во власти отца» — и т.п.

This source clearly says that possession was a derived, not original, meaning.

To verify this, I talked with a Polish exchange student to find out what the same preposition u means in his language and whether this preposition can be used to express possession in Polish. He gave me two example sentences:

(1) Mam kota.

(2) U mnie jest kot.

He explained me the difference between the two sentences. Sentence (1) means, "I have a cat," "I own a cat." The sentence says that the cat is mine. Sentence (2) means, "There is a cat at my place." It is not necessarily my cat. It well may be a stray cat who came to my place to eat something. The cat is just close by.

Asked how he would say "this fish has sharp teeth" in Polish, he said, "Ta ryba ma ostre zęby," and added that it is impossible to express the same idea by means of the preposition u. He said that an attempt to do so would sound "fake and stupid" despite that it perfectly works in Russian: "У этой рыбы острые зубы."

The explanations by the Polish student in conjunction with what Preobrazhensky says made me pretty confident that possession was not the original meaning of the preposition у. The original meaning appears to be proximity or rather "somewhat displaced from."

I also recalled what I had heard about the Indigenous Australians: They lived in tribes, where every single thing belonged to the whole tribe, and their languages did not develop general verbs of possession akin to "have." I quote from a research article:

Kayardild, a Tangkic language spoken until recently by Kaiadilt people of Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia (Evans 1995, 1998), has few verbs of possession and no general verb of possession akin to “have”. The verb karrngija, “keep, keep hold of”, frequently used in discussion of country, can mean “look after”, “guard”, and “be responsible for” something in one’s possession (Evans 1995:55). Yolngu use the word dja:ga (“look after”) in a similar way, as well as ngayathama, “hold”. ... The Kayardild language has no general concept of “property” (Nicholas Evans pers. com.). The same may be said for Yolngu dialects. (Source)

So my wild imagination shows me the following scene. Imagine a Slavic tribe, where every single thing belongs to the whole group. One man, Dobrynya, asks his tribesmen, "У кого сейчас большой топор?" ("Who is the big ax close by?") He gets an answer, "Наверно, у Пересвета - он вчера им рубил дерево." ("Probably Peresvet - he was seen using it to cut a tree yesterday.") Dobrynya goes to Peresvet and takes the ax in order to use it. Now the ax is "у Добрыни." Neither Dobrynya nor Peresvet own the ax - the ax merely was "у Пересвета" and now is "у Добрыни." Dobrynya will use the ax and keep it until someone else takes it to use it. The ax is in collective ownership, and Dobrynya is now the temporary ax keeper, the current holder. He will keep the ax close by - "будет держать у себя."

So I hypothesize that the form "у меня," originally meaning proximity, was also used to express keeping a tool. After all, the tool was kept by its keeper close by.

It is a matter of fact that for some cultural or historical reasons the Russians, unlike most other Slavs, failed to deeply incorporate the concept of ownership into their language and, in particular, to develop wide usage of verbs of possession akin to "have," so the form "у меня" survived and is nowadays used to express both proximity and possession.

What could the reasons be? I studied the history of Russia in detail and see some possible factors. I will list them below.

  1. The Russian culture is highly collectivistic. Until the very last centuries, Russian villagers tended to live in extended families, where many things were considered belonging to the whole family. Even if a certain thing was de facto used solely by a single member of the family, he was probably highly reluctant to say something like "I own it," because such a statement could be interpreted as "I will never give this thing to anyone" and make others very angry, especially the head of the extended family, who could see this as a challenge of his authority and respond, "You own nothing here." To avoid social conflicts and avoid being deemed selfish, people apparently had to use the most neutral form - "у меня."

  2. Unlike most other Slavs, the Russians were for a few centuries under the Mongol-Tatar yoke, which substantially affected the development of the Russian culture in many ways. The Mongols and Tatars were nomads and had values and mentality very different from those of the Russians, who were settlers. The Mongol mentality was: Everything belongs to the Great Khan and everyone is his servant. During the period of the yoke, no Russian really owned anything in Russia: The Mongols and Tatars chose temporary land managers from noble Russians and gave them temporary permissions to manage various Russian lands - "ярлыки на княжение." At the very same time most other Slavs were developing their settler cultures in a natural way, not being affected by nomads, and therefore were in a much better position to develop the concept of ownership and integrate it into their languages.

  3. For most of the time after the Mongol-Tatar yoke, Russia was characterized by a strong "power vertical," with absolute power of the tsar within the entire tsardom as well as with absolute power of land managers within their lands. This more or less resembled the social structure of the Mongol Empire. The land managers were called "помещики," from "помещать" ("to put"), and were "put" on their lands by the tsar, who could later "put" them on different lands.

  4. Serfdom was abolished in Russia very late, in 1861. Before the reform, an overwhelming majority of Russians could not own anything, simply because of being serves.

  5. In 1917, just a few decades after the abolishment of serfdom, Russia became a communist country, where the concept of ownership again became almost non-existent. People worked in "колхозы" (collective farms) and lived in state-owned flats, many of which were "коммунальные квартиры" shared by a number of families. No one owned lands or factories. I think the communists strongly disliked the verbs of ownership like "иметь," "обладать," "владеть" and may have discouraged their use in schools, newspapers, on radio, and so on. It is only in the 1990s that Russia ceased to be a communist country.

In view of such history it is not surprising to me that the concept of ownership has not yet been deeply integrated into the Russian language.

So my short answer is this: Apparently, the form "у меня" originally meant proximity and then was also used to express keeping a tool, and this form survived and is nowadays used to express both proximity and possession, as the Russian language did not deeply incorporate the concept of ownership and, in particular, did not develop wide usage of verbs of possession akin to "have," with some of the possible preventing factors being the Mongol-Tatar yoke, late abolishment of serfdom, and the communist regime.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Quassnoi May 25 '19 at 16:23
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    1. Russian culture IS NOT collectivistic. 2. Russian culture is to a very tiny degree influenced by mongols. 4. Serfs had legal possessions. – Anixx May 22 '20 at 23:14
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    If you want another example, here is from Hebrew: "I have a girlfriend" = "Yesh li xavera" (literally: "Is to me girlfriend"/ "Есть мне подруга"). Try to apply your theory there as well. By the way, "есть мне" also can be used for possession in Russian (as in "есть мне отрада/забава/развлечение"). This use sounds archaic in Russian. – Anixx May 22 '20 at 23:27

'Near' has nothing to do with 'zero copula' (that's what you tried to explain). In modern Russian it is presented in past/future tense and, in some cases, present/can be added in tense:

У меня была машина/у меня (есть) машина/у меня будет машина (I had a care/I have a car/I will have a car)

I'm not convinced that all thoughts and interesting explanations are useful and fruitful. 'Zero copula' and 'zero verbal predicate' in Russian are relatively well-studied. Zero copula wasn't in use until XIV century as well as zero inflection. And it seems that these events are somewhat related - zero declensional inflection indicates nominative case, zero copula indicates present tense.

  • The verbs you wrote - была, есть, будет - are not verbs of possession and generally mean was, is, and will be, respectively. In contrast to the Russians, most other Slavs express possession by using a verb of possession (analogous to "have") and no preposition at all: Mam samolot. Имам авион. Whence cometh the difference? – Mitsuko May 20 '19 at 23:10
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    In your examples for other Slavic languages don't have pronouns and verb takes function of pronoun. So in Russian 'у' is a preposition for a pronoun. Also in this example, 'была, есть, будет' play role of verbs of possession. – Maxim Kuleshov May 20 '19 at 23:19
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    Not at all. For example, in Polish you can as well say, Ja mam samolot. There is still no preposition in this phrase. The Poles usually omit the pronoun ja in such phrases because the latter is simply redundant - the ending of the verb already makes it clear that the speaker speaks about himself. It is the first person singular form of the verb. The Polish verb mieć is a verb of possession and is analogous to the English verb *have. – Mitsuko May 20 '19 at 23:38
  • The Russians, in contrast, use the verb быть, analogous to the English verb be, and the preposition y. The Poles have the same verb - być - but do not use it to express possession. To express possesson, they use mieć, which is analogous to the Russian verb иметь. And иметь is pretty rarely used by the Russians to express possession. I practically never saw expressions like я имею много дел, я имею машину, я имею вопрос. Instead, the Russians say, у меня (есть) много дел, у меня (есть) машина, у меня (есть) вопрос. – Mitsuko May 20 '19 at 23:46
  • So whence cometh the difference? – Mitsuko May 20 '19 at 23:49

Russians just omit this verb "have" - "иметь", to simplify the sentence. The same way Americans simplify a lot of words, verbs, nouns. For example, Americans simplify the questions like, Where have you been? They can ask: Where you been? (have is assumed here). Or, Tom already leave? (instead of - Tom did already leave?). A lot of words in a lot of languages just omitting for simplification, but everybody understands. Because our mind has a nice ability to insert missed words in the sentence.


An important point to note here is that the grammar of a language is its lower level description that you are not going to be aware of if you speak the language fluently. People did not learn a language in a formal way as we do today in schools for most of history. The vast majority of the speakers of a language that doesn't have a verb for "to have" wouldn't be aware of that fact at all. So, they would then not invent a verb for "to have" just because a related language they speak does have such a verb. Subjectively it seems like their own language actually does have a verb for "to have".

I personally experienced this with the language Bengali that I learned as a child, but which was not the language of the country I grew up in. I never took formal language lessons in Bengali. It never dawned on me that there is no "to have" in Bengali until I studied Latin in school. So, I was using a construction using "to be" all the time from childhood onward and I never even knew it. When I was studying Latin in school I noticed some similarities with grammar of Latin and Bengali. When I learned the construction in using "to be" to implement "to have", I realized that this is the same in Bengali.


It's not just avoiding of 'have'. The very similar behaviour is in typical Russian CV. Applicants usually write something like 'в компании Альфа я был на должности заместителя начальника департамента маркетинга' which is 'In Alpha inc, I was a deputy manager of the marketing department'. At the same time an European would write 'I have done paperwork with Word and Excel in Alpha inc'.

At the first glance, the example would show avoiding of 'do'. But actually it's a difficult problem of Russian society. Every official sentence have to be ranged according a social importance. 'The Alpha' inc is the most important part, so it has to be the first. Then it should be person as 'I'. And the next it should position. The actual deeds might go only after the position name.

The next point is that more important words cannot depend on a less important one. That's why 'I' cannot interact with 'Alpha inc' or 'the marketing department' cannot have 'I'/'me'.

This is why a Russian would say 'квартира у меня в собственности' (and 'у меня квартира в собственности' isn't always correct, it could be used only with emphasis in the person). 'квартира' is more important, it should go first and 'я' don't interact with it.

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