What Does مما كان عليه Mean?


root: ح-و-ل / noun / plural: حالات / definition: state, case, condition

In the post Treasures in Translation, I used a quote from an article to illustrate a cool translation point—the quote being:

وما ينذر بالسوء أن درجة حرارة الأرض أصبحت الآن أعلى مما كانت عليه خلال عصر الهولوسين

…and the translation point being وما ينذر بالسوء (“ominously”).

But there’s another interesting phrase in the quote above—and in many other texts you’ll come across—and that is: مما كانت عليه.

مِمّا كانَ عَلَيه (or كانَت, depending on the gender of what is being referred to) means “than it was (before)”.

So let’s look at that quote again:

وما ينذر بالسوء أن درجة حرارة الأرض أصبحت الآن أعلى مما كانت عليه خلال عصر الهولوسين

So first off, the phrase is referring to درجة الحرارة (“temperature”) which is feminine, so كانت rather than كان is used. And أعلى مما كانت عليه means “higher than it was”.

The structure of this phrase may look a little odd at first glance, so let’s break it down:

مِمّا = a combination of مِن and ما.

مِن literally means “from”, but we know that when من follows comparatives (like أعلى, “higher”), it means “than”.

And ما means “what”—so مما = “than what”.

كان / كانت = this verb, which I’m sure we’re all very familiar with, means “was”.

As mentioned, it agrees with whatever the subject is. Accordingly, we can also have كانوا for example, if the subject is the masculine human plural.

عَلَيه = a combination of the preposition على and the pronoun suffix ـه

Okay, so here’s the part of the phrase where you’re probably like “huh? Why is that there?”

Well, we know على often means “on”, but if you take a look in the dictionary and sift through its many definitions, you’ll find that it also means “in the state of”.

Hence, we see it in phrases like على ما يُرام (“in an excellent state”, literally: in a state (as good as) what could be wished) and على التَّوالي (“continuously”, literally: in a state of continuity).

And the preposition ـه refers back to ما.

So all together, مما كان عليه literally translates to “than what it was in the state of”… thus, idiomatically, “than it was”.

Time for some more examples? I’ve collected the ones below from various news articles:

العالَمُ أَهدَأُ مِمّا كانَ عَلَيهِ مُنذُ 15 عاماً

the world is calmer than it was 15 years ago

(Take a look at The Grammar of Using Arabic Numbers if you’re not sure why the Arabic words for “years” is singular and منصوب here!)

الحَرَكَةُ تُعَدُّ الآنَ أَضعَفَ مِمّا كانَت عَلَيهِ في السابِق

the movement is now considered weaker than it was in the past

هُم أَغنَى مِمّا كانوا عَلَيه عامَ 1950 بِخَمسِ وَعِشرينَ مَرّة

they are 25 times richer than they were in 1950

We also see examples of the phrase without مما in different contexts:

لَمْ تَعُدْ كَما كانَت عَلَيهِ في تِلكَ الحِقبَةِ مِنَ الزَّمَن

it is no longer as it was in that period of time

Above, we have كما (“as”) instead of مما (“than”).

Also note that تَعُدْ in the example above is a completely different verb (derived from عادَ / يَعودُ, “to return”) to تُعَدُّ in the previous example (a passive form of عَدَّ / يَعُدُّ, “to consider”).

I explain the phrase لَم يَعُد/تَعُد in detail in this post: How to Say “No Longer” in Arabic.

أَنَّهُم يَأمُلونَ في عَودةِ الوَضعِ في سوريا إلى ما كان عَلَيهِ قَبلَ الأَزمَة

(that) they hope the situation in Syria will return to what it was before the crisis

And here, the ما from مما is maintained, but we have إلى instead of من.

So there’s another useful structure you should have under your belt—it really does come in handy for writing and translation!

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!مع السلامة

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