Russian orthography

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Russian orthography (правописание, pravopisaniye, Russian pronunciation: [prəvəpʲɪˈsanʲjə]) is formally considered to encompass spelling (орфография, orfografiya, [ɐrfɐˈɡrafʲɪjə]) andpunctuation (пунктуация, punktuatsiya, [punktuˈatsɪjə]). Russian spelling, which is quite phonemic in practice, is a mix of the morphological and phonetic principles, with a few etymological orhistoric forms, and occasional grammatical differentiation. The punctuation, originally based onByzantine Greek, was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reformulated on the French andGerman models.

NOTE: The IPA transcription attempts to reflect vowel reduction when not under stress. The sounds that are presented are those of the standard language; other dialects may have noticeably different pronunciation for the vowels.


Russian is written with a modern variant of the Cyrillic alphabet.

Morphological principle

Under the morphological principle, the morphemes (roots, suffixes, infixes, and inflexional endings) are attached without modification; the compounds may be further agglutinated. For example, the long adjective шарикоподшипниковый, sharikopodshipnikoviy [ˈʂa.rʲɪ.kə.pɐtˈʂɨ.pnʲɪ.kə.vɨj] ('relating to ball bearings') may be decomposed as follows (words having independent existence in boldface):

'sphere' diminutive suffix combining interfix 'under'
(preposition or prefix)
'tenon' suffix indicating agency adjectival suffix inflexional ending, nominativemasculine singular
'little sphere', 'ball'
'ball bearing'
'relating to/of ball bearings'

Note again that each component in the final production retains its basic form, despite the vowel reduction.

The phonetic assimilation of consonant clusters also does not usually violate the morphological principle of the spelling. For example, the decomposition of счастье [ˈɕːa.sʲtʲjɪ] ('happiness, good fortune'), is as follows:

с часть [ье]
/s/ /t​͡ɕastʲ/ / ʲje/
(prefix or preposition)
'part' (here in the related meaning 'fate') (suffix for formation of abstract noun of state)

Note the assimilation with сч- so that it represents the same sound (or cluster) as щ- The spelling <щастие> was fairly common among the literati in the eighteenth century, but is usually frowned upon today.

Phonetic principle

The phonetic principle implies that:

  • all morphemes are written as they are pronounced in isolation, without vowel reduction, Church Slavonic style, or, more strictly, taking inflexion into account (this in combination with the morphological agglutination described above is sometimes called the morphemic principle);
  • certain prefixes that end in a voiced consonant (in practice, only those in -з /z/) have that consonant devoiced (become [s]) to voicing assimilation. This may be reflected orthographically. For example, for the prefix/preposition без [bʲez] 'without':
безумный [bʲɪˈzu.mnɨj] 'mindless', 'mad' (ум [um] 'mind')
бессмертный [bʲɪsˈsmʲɛ.rtnɨj] 'immortal' (смерть [smʲerʲtʲ] 'death')
  • certain roots and prefixes occasionally do have their vowel modified in individual cases to reflect historical changes in pronunciation, usually as a result of being unstressed, or conversely, stressed. In practice, this usually applies to -o- /o/ changing to -a- [ɐ] or [ə](akanye), and alternations between the allophonic vowels [ɨ] and [i] (represented by ы and и respectively):
рост [rost] 'growth'
расти [rɐˈsʲtʲi] 'to grow'
история [iˈsto.rʲɪ.jə] 'history'
предыстория [ˈprʲɛ.dɨˈsto.rʲɪ.jə] 'prehistory'
  • the spelling of borrowed words is usually phonetic, until the word is fully adapted:
кафэ [kɐˈfɛ] 'café' (pre-1918)
кафе [kɐˈfɛ] 'café' (modern)

Note that the unpalatalized [f] above has remained.

Etymological principle

The fact that Russian has retained much of its ancient phonology has made the historical or etymological principle (dominant in languages like English, French, and Irish) less relevant. Because the spelling has been adjusted to reflect the changes in the pronunciation of the yersand to eliminate letters with identical pronunciation, the only systematic examples occur in some foreign words and in some of the inflectional endings, both nominal and verbal, which are not always written as they are pronounced. For example:

русского [ˈru.skə.və]
not *[ˈru.sko.ɡo]
'of the Russian'
(adj. masculine/neuter genitive singular)
хочешь [ˈхo.t​͡ɕɪʂ]
not *[хo.t​͡ɕeɕː]
you (sg) want
present second person singular, -e- conjugation
смотришь [ˈsmo.trʲɪʂ]
not *[ˈsmo.trʲɪɕː]
you (sg) are looking
present second person singular, -и- conjugation

Grammatical principle

The grammatical principle has become stronger in contemporary Russian. It specifies conventional orthographic forms to mark grammatic distinctions (gender, participle vs. adjective, and so on). Some of these rules are ancient, and could perhaps be considered etymological; some are based in part on subtle, and not necessarily universal, distinctions in pronunciation; and some are basically arbitrary. Here are some characteristic examples:

  • for nouns ending in a sibilant -ж /ʐ/, -ш /ʂ/, -щ /ɕː/, -ч /t​͡ɕ/, a soft sign ь is appended in the nominative singular if the gender is feminine, and is omitted if masculine:
дочь [dot​͡ɕ] daughter F -
меч [mʲet​͡ɕ] sword M -
грач [ɡrat​͡ɕ] rook (Corvus frugilegus) M modern levelling: Lomonosov (1755) gives грачь
(Though based on common ancient etymology, by which a hard sign ъ was appended to masculine nouns before 1918, both symbols having once been pronounced as ultra-short or reduced yers, the modern rule is nevertheless grammatical, because its application has been made more nearly universal.)
  • The past passive participle has a doubled -нн- /nn/, the same word used as an adjective has a single -н- /n/:
варёный [vɐˈrʲo.nɨj] 'cooked/boiled'
варенный [ˈva.rʲɪn.nɨj] '(something that has) been cooked/boiled'
жареный [ˈʐa.rʲɪ.nɨj] 'fried'
жаренный [ˈʐa.rʲɪ.nɨj] '(something that has) been fried'
(This rule is partly guided by pronunciation, and has its origins in the nineteenth century. Russian phonological processes often transform the -e before the single -н- in the adjective into a -ё- but not universally so. This rule is therefore considered one of the difficult points of Russian spelling, since the distinction between adjective (implying state) and participle (implying action) is not always clear. A proposal in the late 1990s to simplify this rule by basing the distinction on whether or not the verb is transitive has not been formally adopted.)
  • Prepositional phrases in which the literal meaning is preserved are written with the words separated; when used adverbially, especially if the meaning has shifted, they are usually written as a single word:
во время (чего-либо) [vɐ ˈvrʲe.mʲə] 'during the time (of something)'
(он пришёл) вовремя [ˈvovrʲɪmʲə] '(he arrived) on time'
(This is extracted from a whole set of extremely detailed rules about run-together, hyphenated, or separated components. Such rules are essentially arbitrary. There are enough sub-cases, exceptions, undecidable points, and inconsistencies that even well-educated native speakers sometimes have to check in a dictionary. Arguments about this issue have been continuous for 150 years.)


Basic symbols

The full stop (period) (.), colon (:), semicolon (;), comma (,), question mark (?), exclamation mark (!), and ellipsis (...) are equivalent in shape to the basic symbols of punctuation (знаки препинания [ˈznakʲɪ prʲəpʲɪˈnanʲə]) used for the common European languages, and follow the same general principles of usage.

The colon is used exclusively as a means of introduction, and never, as in slightly archaic English, to mark a periodic pause intermediate in strength between the semicolon and the full stop (period) (cf. H.W. Fowler, The Kingˈs English, 1908).

Comma usage

The comma is used very liberally to mark the end of introductory phases, on either side of simple appositions, and to introduce allsubordinate clauses. The English distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses does not exist:

Итак, царя свергли! So the tsar has been overthrown!
Мужчина, которого вы вчера сбили, умер. The man you ran over yesterday has died.
Это странное явление, о котором так часто пишут в газетах, так и остаётся без научного объяснения. This strange phenomenon, which is so often reported in the press, remains unexplained by science.


The hyphen (-), and em-dash (—) are used to mark increasing levels of separation. The hyphen is put between components of a word, and the em-dash to separate words in a sentence, in particular to mark longer appositions or qualifications that in English would typically be put in parentheses, and as a replacement for a copula:

Наш телефон: 242-01-42. Our telephone: 242-0142. or Our telephone is 242-0142.
Без сильной команды — такой, которую в прошлом собирал и тренировал Тихонов — Россия не взяла золотую медаль на Олимпиаде-2002. Without a strong team (like the one that Tikhonov in the past selected and trained), Russia did not win the gold medal at the 2002 Olympics.

In short sentences describing a noun (but generally not a pronoun unless special poetic emphasis is desired) in present tense:

Мой брат — инженер, его начальник — негодяй. Этот дом — памятник архитектуры (but: Я студент, он водитель.). My brother is an engineer, his boss is a scoundrel. This building is an architectural landmark. ('I am a student, he is a driver.')

Direct speech

Quotes are not used to mark paragraphed direct quotation, which is instead separated out by the em-dash (—):

—  Я Вас обожаю! — сказал мишка лисе. 'I adore you!' said the bear to the fox.


Inlined direct speech and other quotation is marked at the first level by angled brackets («»), and by lowered and raised reversed double quotes („“) at the second:

Гончаров начинает «Фрегат „Паллада“» словами: «Меня удивляет». 'Goncharov begins his "Frigate Pallada" with the words: "I am surprised."'

Unlike American English, the period or other terminal punctuation is placed outside the quotation. As the example above demonstrates, the quotes are often used to mark the names of entities introduced with the generic word.

Parenthetical expressions

These are introduced with the international symbol of parentheses (). However, their use is typically restricted to pure asides, rather than, as in English, to mark apposition.



As in many languages, the spelling was formerly quite more phonemic and less consistent. However, the influence of the major grammarians, from Meletius Smotrytsky (1620s) to Lomonosov (1750s) to Grot (1880s), ensured a more careful application of morphology and etymology.

Today, the balance between the morphological and phonetic principles is well established. The etymological inflexions are maintained by tradition and habit, although their non-phonetic spelling has occasionally prompted controversial calls for reform (as in the periods 1900-1910, 1960-1964). A primary area where the spelling is utterly inconsistent and therefore controversial is:

  • the complexity (or even correctness) of some of the grammatical principles, especially with respect to the strung-together, hyphenated, or disjoint writing of the constituent morphemes.

These two points have been the topic of scientific debate since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the past, uncertainty abounded about which of the ordinary or iotated/palatalizing series of vowels to allow after the sibilant consonants ж[ʐ], ш [ʂ], щ [ɕɕ], ц [ts], ч [tɕ], which are not standard in their hard/soft pairs. This problem, however, appears to have been resolved by applying the phonetic and grammatical principles (and to a lesser extent, the etymological) to define a complicated though internally consistent set of spelling rules.

In 2000-2001, a minor revision of the 1956 codification was proposed. It met with public protest and has not been formally adopted.


The modern system of spelling was rationalized by Grot in the 1880s. The spelling reform of 1918, though drastically changing the appearance of the language by eliminating four letters, did not introduce fundamental theoretical changes to the principles he laid down.

Contemporary spelling and punctuation follow the 1956 rules, which were aimed at codifying existing practice rather than establishing new principles.


  1. Russian language
  2. Russian alphabet
  3. Russian orthography
  4. Russian phonology
  5. Russian grammar
  6. IPA for Russian
  7. Russian-Cyrillic alphabet
  8. Informal romanizations of Russian
  9. Languages of Russia
  10. List of countries where Russian is an official language
  11. List of English words of Russian origin
  12. List of languages of Russia
  13. Spelling rule
  14. Romanization of Russian
  15. Russian language-History of the Russian language
  16. List of Russian language television channels
  17. Reduplication in the Russian language
  18. Reforms of Russian orthography
  19. Rules of Russian Orthography and Punctuation
  20. Russian language-Runglish
  21. Russian exonyms
  22. Russian Morse code
  23. Russian sayings
  24. Russianism
  25. Russophone
  26. Slavic languages
  27. Test of Russian as a Foreign Language
  28. The differences of Moscovian and St.-Petersburg's speech
  29. Vowel reduction in Russian
  30. Russian proverbs
  31. Russian proverbs:USSR
  32. ALA-LC romanization for Russian
  33. Great Russian language
  34. Olympiada of Spoken Russian
  35. Russian cursive
  36. Russian jokes
  37. Russian National Corpus


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