A student recently asked me a difficult question:
Do we conjugate كُلُّ نَفْسٍ as feminine or masculine?
The reason why this is a tricky question is because technically the word كُل is a masculine word and نَفْسٍ is technically a feminine word. Generally the response would be that you go with the first word, and since it is masculine you would conjugate the verb accordingly. But when we read the translation “every soul” the emphasis is on “soul” not “every”, so shouldn’t the verb be conjugated on what is being emphasized? This is what I hope to explain.
It is important to state a few things. The conversation surrounding masculine and feminine words is not a conversation of strict rules but rather preferences. It is incorrect to say that either is wrong since there is always evidence supporting both opinions. (That is unless it is a an actual person or animal with that specific gender).
The subtleties usually fall under what words are feminine, since the original state is considered to be a masculine word in the linguistic sense, not in terms of gender. One of the categories of feminine words is called:
The scenario presented here is when there is an إضافة construction (meaning there is a مضاف و مضاف إليه), as in the example above كُلُّ نَفْسٍ.
If the مضاف is masculine and the مضاف إليه is feminine, the مضاف can be treated as a feminine word.
An example of this can be found in the Quran:
﴾وَجَاءَتْ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّعَهَا سَائِقٌ وَشَهِيدٌ﴿ – And every soul will come, with it a driver and a witness.
This is not unusual when it comes to an إضافة construction. We also see that the مضاف إليه has the ability to affect the definiteness of the مضاف.
For example if I wanted to say: “The tall boy of Azhar” it would be, طالبُ الأزهر الطويلُ. The reason why الطويلُ is definite is because it is the adjective of طالبُ, and adjectives must copy the definiteness of the word it is describing, hence طالبُ is be treated as a definite word.
As stated earlier, this conversation is a fluid one. For example, how would someone say 3 souls? The rules for numbers are complicated:
- You can use numbers as an إضافة construction
- If you choose to do that, the number has to be the مضاف and the مضاف إليه must be plural
- The gender of the number will be the opposite of the singular gender version of the مضاف إليه
The way we would say 3 souls is: ثَلاثُ الأَنْفُسِ. The reason why ثَلاثُ is masculine is because the singular of الأَنْفُسِ is نَفْسٍ which is feminine, thus the number would need to be masculine.
There is a category of masculine words called المذكر المؤوَّل. Essentially this is when one interprets a feminine word as masculine. So in this case someone may understand نَفْسٍ to be رجل, which is masculine which in turn would make the number feminine. Thus you could also say ثَلاثَةُ الأَنْفُسِ.