So, this word has caused many problems for me. I just can't find any good explanation of this very vague word. Some same that it means moving across the surface of an objects, others say it's like a "distributive" property preposition????? If someone could just provide a detailed explanation on this would, that would be great!

2 Answers 2


Some same that it means moving across the surface of an objects, others say it's like a "distributive" property preposition

It means both of these things, and a number of others. What's more, depending on the meaning, it can agree with dative, accusative, or (very rarely) prepositional. The other meanings include:

  • "as far as"/"all the way up to" (accusative)

с пятого по восьмое апреля "from 5th till 8th April"

вода была по колено "the water stood knee-high"

  • "in" (of disciplines and areas of expertise) (dative):

специалист по сумчатым "an expert in marsupials"

чемпионат по хоккею "ice hockey championship"

  • "after" (residually; this meaning is more pronounced in several other Slavic languages), and hence "based on" (mostly dative):

по роману М. А. Булгакова "based on the novel by M. A. Bulgakov"

оговорка по Фрейду "Freudian slip"

по зрелом размышлении "on serious ('mature') reflection" — this is one of those rare prepositional usages

The по of потом reflects this older meaning of "after".

The list goes on — you also get highly idiomatic things like ночевать по друзьям or ходить по грибы — but the ones above are the most common, in addition to the two you mentioned (which I presume you've already got the hang of.)

Prepositions generally tend to stray far from their original and literal meanings and develop quite a number of secondary ones, but по probably holds the record as Russian prepositions go. It's okay to be baffled by it. And I'm afraid there's really no single meaning of по that could give you an "aha!" moment about all the others.

  • 2
    Not to forget the famous example "по барабану".
    – MigMit
    Jul 26, 2015 at 9:57

It's hard to give a short answer concerning meaning of any common preposition. For example, my dictionary states that there are 28 specific usage cases of "по".

Yet quite often "по" is used along with the Dative case to denote that some action takes place on the surface of an object. "По" has no direct counterpart in English since it means both "on" and "over" (like bread and butter).

Note also: "Я мажу масло на хлеб" - "I make bread and a butter"; "Я мажу масло по хлебу" - "I spread butter over bread".

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