The Meaning of لم يكن لـ

إبْداعي

root: ب-د-ع / adjective / definition: creative


I was tempted to write another literature-inspired post this week (especially considering I just completed my first piece of creative writing Arabic homework which was so fun to do!), but how long can we go without some good old grammar?!

A long while ago, when I was reading ألف شمس ساطعة, an interesting grammatical structure popped up in the second chapter. The sentence read:

(…) قالت إنها لم تكن لتعيش في بيت أبيها

Okay, so what’s this “لم تكن لـ + verb” structure here?


لَم يَكُن لِـ or ما كانَ لِـ followed by المضارع المنصوب (a present tense subjunctive verb) can be translated as:

  • he was not in a position to…
  • he was not the type of person to…
  • he could not…

Remember that both verbs (يكن or كان and the verb following لـ) have to conjugate according to the subject.

So let’s go back to the quote:

(…) قالتْ إنَّها لَمْ تَكُنْ لِتَعيشَ في بَيتِ أبيها

We can see that تكن and تعيش are both referring to a female subject, and تعيش ends in a fatha (rather than the default damma) because it’s المضارع المنصوب.

From the Arabic, we could translate it into English as:

she said that (she could not/she was not in a position to/she was not the type of person to) live in her father’s house

Fortunately, seeing as the book was originally written in English, we don’t have to deal with the decision of how to word it best in this context.

The original simply reads: she said she wouldn’t live in her father’s […] house—where “wouldn’t” encompasses the meanings of both “could not” and “not the type of person to”, although I guess that’s open to interpretation too.


I hope this was useful and I’d really recommend taking a look into all the different ways كان can be used because it’s such a versatile verb! Even its entry in the Hans Wehr is a little treasure trove.

There are actually a few other كان-inspired posts on this blog as well, like كان Plus a Past Tense Verb and كان Plus the Future Tense—and of course you’ll find lots of كان in context in the Wehr Wednesdays, literature translation, and headline analysis series.

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See you on my next post, مع السلامة!



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