Было is neuter gender. But выбор is masculine gender (выбора is genitive case of выбор?). Is there a grammatical reason or even historical reason I missed out?

Additional background: I’m a beginner Russian language learner and my tutor translated “had no choice” for me. He’s a Russian native speaker, and when I posed the question to him, he also couldn’t explain why, other than that «не было выбора» is the proper way to say it. He too was confounded as to why the genders didn’t match.

  • 3
    У вашего русского наставника НЕ БЫЛО ответа на вопрос: "Why didn't the genders match?" – Elena Apr 5 at 16:34
  • My tutor is just a Russian native speaker. He knows enough about grammar but is not a professional teacher. In case it’s relevant, he’s a community tutor on italki.com – Vincent Tan Apr 6 at 4:08
  • 2
    My coursebook teaches that there is an implicit "это" as in "[это] не было выбора" (There was no choice). It is an impersonal construction because the subject doesn't refer to anyone in particular. – tobias Apr 6 at 6:06
  • 1
    @Vincent Tan I gave this phrase as an example of Russian grammar. 'He didn't have answer' = 'у него не было ответа' – Elena Apr 6 at 10:05
  • Andrew - the point is to relate it to something we, the learners, already know in order for us to understand impersonal constructions. Are you serious with your remark? – tobias Apr 6 at 11:21

Russian has two distinctive features.

The first one is the proximal possession. У меня есть выбор ("I have a choice") literally translates as "there is a choice by (or next to) me". Russian does have a verb which means "to have" but its usage is limited compared to most other Indo-European languages.

The second one is the negation genitive (родительный отрицания). It works slightly differently for subjects and objects, but either way, the accusative or the nominative are in some cases replaced with the genitive in negative sentences:

Произошли изменения (nom.) "changes happened" / не произошло изменений (gen.) "no changes happened".

Я пил воду (acc.) "I drank water" / я не пил воды (gen.) "I didn't drink any water"

Note that in the first example, the voice of the sentence changes as well. The sentence becomes impersonal and the verb changes into neuter singular.

In your example, you can see both features in action.

It is thought that Russian acquired both these features from Uralic languages.

  • Is Я не пил воду, negative but accusative, a grammatical sentence in Russian? It would be in Karelian and Saami, probably other Uralic languages also. If so, then I'm sure it will have a different interpretation than я не пил воды. – OmarL Apr 7 at 13:02
  • @OmarL: it is, yes. It would mean "I didn't drink the water", about some particular cup of water. This is, I think, the closest thing Russian has to the definite/indefinite distinction that English and friends express with articles. – Quassnoi Apr 7 at 13:19
  • So then I suppose you could say Не был ответ. Meaning, "[it] wasn't the answer". Say, about a letter you've been waiting for, or something like that. What about Не было ответом? – OmarL Apr 7 at 18:11
  • 1
    @OmarL: no, proximal possession requires the negation genitive. You can only say ответа не было for "there was no answer". You can say это не был ответ "it was not the answer" or это не было ответом "it was not an answer", but in those ответ is a predicate, not a subject. Negation genitive does not work for predicates, only for subjects and objects. – Quassnoi Apr 7 at 18:49

The verb cannot agree with выбор in gender or number because it's not in the nominative case (выбор is not the subject of the sentence). Therefore there's no reason to choose masculine over neuter for the verb agreement.

So the verb is neuter because there actually is no subject. That's similar to a sentence like Повезло!


"Не было выбора" is an impersonal sentence - a sentence without the subject. You can easily relay it and say instead: "Я не имел выбора", where the noun "выбор" functions as a direct object. In affirmative and interrogative sentences the direct object or the noun of the Predicative is in the Accusative case ("Я имел выбор", "Имел ли я выбор?" = "Выбор был", "Был ли выбор?"). And the verb is conjugated according to the gender of the noun, be it an impersonal sentence or a sentence with a subject.

But in negative sentences the direct object or the noun of the Predicative is declined differently, i.e. it demands using the Genitive (Possesive) case: "Я не имел выбора (машины, денег, образования)" = "Не было машины (денег, образования)". With the noun in Genitive the verb is inflected for the Neutral gender.


Не было не склоняется по роду, если речь идёт о предмете или о событии. В таком случае то, что находится после не было отвечает на вопрос чего? Употребляется в среднем роде:

Не было осадков (не было чего?)

Не было всплеска (не было чего?)

Не было монеты (не было чего?)

Склоняется, когда речь идёт о каком-либо признаке (прилагательное). То есть, то, что находится после не было (было) должно отвечать на вопрос каким? (какой?)

(Он) не был красивым (не был каким?)

(Она) не была любимой (не была какой?)

(Оно) не было хорошим (не было каким?)

  • Идея правильная, но есть технические неточности. Не было не может склоняться, потому что это не существительное и не прилагательное. Аналогично, то, что находится после не было не может "употребляться в среднем роде", так существительное не может употребляться в ином роде, чем тот род который оно имеет. – Andrew Savinykh Apr 6 at 9:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.