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I'm confused by long form adjectives (which seem to be more common) and short form adjectives. For example, from свобода (freedom) there is the long form adjective свободный and the short form adjective свободен. How are these forms used differently? Why do two different forms exist (in general)?

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Short adjectives are often used as predicates. I can say Он закончил работу, поэтому он свободен. I can convey the same message by using the long adjective: Он закончил работу, поэтому он свободный, though the first version is more common.

However, you can't use short adjectives as attributes. For example, I can say Свободный человек может заниматься всем, чем захочет, but I can't replace the first word with свободен, because it is an attribute.

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  • I'd say, in modern Russian, a short form adjective is nearly always used as a predicate. When it is not, it is certainly part of an idiomatic expression (examples: красна девица, от мала до велика and others). – Andriy M Nov 25 '12 at 3:34
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    Sometimes short form hints at the fact that the attribute is temporary, or is presented not fully, or it only describes the subject partially, and the subject has many other important attributes. Я свободен may mean "I don't have any work now", but Я свободный implies permanent quality. Птица Говорун умна и сообразительна sounds more natural then умная и сообразительная, as we name two attributes. – Andrey Moiseev Jan 18 '13 at 10:19
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свободный - is more of a quality like 'a free spot'

свободен - is more of a state, how you feel, like 'i am free to do things'

the difference is subtle and depends on the exact meaning

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In Proto-Slavic, third-person pronouns were used as grammatical articles to form pronominal adjectives:

  • великъ домъ (a large house) / великъ-jь домъ (this house is large)
  • глубока рѣка (a deep river) / глубока-ja рѣка (this river is deep)

*jь and *ja here are extinct third-person pronouns meaning a local person participating in the conversation (as opposed to a remote person designated with он, она).

Their traces remain in the language in oblique cases (его but not оного, ему but not оному etc.)

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  • Doesn't really answer the question, but this was a very interesting piece of information. +1 – Armen Tsirunyan Jun 18 '12 at 13:53
  • Exactly, not великъ-iй, but великъ + jь -> великы˅jь. – Netch Jan 18 '13 at 9:37
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Свободный is a persistent attribute, свободен is a temporary attribute. But often the meaning is just the same.

Read this article "Краткая форма прилагательных" on the Russian Wikipedia to find out more, there are a number of different cases.

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  • Свобода - freedom
  • Свободен - free to do something. (Also used to indicate you are free to go") When a prisoner is released from jail he would say "я свободен" or "я на свободе"
  • Свободный - is, like you said an adjective describing the state of things. He is a free man, он свободный человек
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  • What about other adjectives, such as молодой/молод or широкий/широк... Would it be "(too) young to do something" and "(too) wide to do something" respectively? – Philip Seyfi Jun 13 '12 at 20:56
  • молодой - answers to "he is ..", молод - answers to "he is a kind of" – JAM Jun 13 '12 at 20:58
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свободен I would use when "is" in english translation. "He is free = Он свободен"

свободный I would use with the following noun in the sentence. "Free chair may be occupied - Свободный стул может быть занят"

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Simple explanation:

Объект свободен в свободном месте.
An object is free at inoccupied place.

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Some of the short forms have a different meaning than the full forms. Here are some examples (I don't know the general rule):

хороший - хорош - хорош собой
good, kind - tasty (in some contexts) - beautiful

Он хороший друг - He is a good friend.
Он хорош собой - He is handsome. It is incorrect to say "Он хороший собой."
Суп хорош! - The soup tastes good! It is weird (at least for me) to say "Суп хороший"

сильный - силён (в чем-либо)
strong - knowledgeable

Сильный мужчина - A strong man
Он силен в математике - He knows his maths.

добрый - будь добр
kind - please

Добрый доктор Айболит - A good kind Dr. Айболит.
Будь добр, закрой окно. - Be a dear, close the window.

великий - велик
great - too large

Пётр Великий - Peter The Great
Этот костюм мне велик - This suit is too large for me.

смешной - смешон
funny - laughable, ridiculous

Смешная история - A funny story
Ты смешон - You are ridiculous.

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