Written by: Olivera Tolimir

There are seven grammatical cases in Serbian. Two (Nominative and Vocative) are never used with a preposition. The last Serbian case, Locative, is always used with a preposition.

Instrumental is one of the five remaining Serbian cases we can use with and without a preposition, depending on the context. With Instrumental, it can sometimes be tricky to distinguish whether we should use the preposition s(a) or not. The rules are easy, but many people slip up there.

The preposition s(a) means with. It’s the most common preposition used in Instrumental.

Let’s explain the parentheses now. This preposition has two forms: and sa. We use the second one when the word after the preposition starts with s, š, z, or ž. The rule exists because it would be difficult to pronounce s sestrom or s žabom.

Instrumental got its name for marking an instrument we use to do something. For example, you can say, Pišem olovkom (write with a pencil). As you can see, we don’t use the preposition s(a) in this case.

But if you spent time with Serbians, you might have noticed they sometimes say, Pišem olovkom. It’s grammatically incorrect. But people sometimes feel the need to emphasize the Instrumental by using the preposition even when it’s abundant.

But when do we use the preposition s(a), then?

When to Use the Preposition “SA”

When Talking About Company

We use the preposition s(a) when talking about people. Specifically, we use it for people doing something together.

For example:

  • Putujem s prijateljima na more. (I travel to the seaside with friends.)
  • Tata popravlja slavinu s vodoinstalaterom. (Dad is fixing the faucet with the plumbers.)
  • Učenici razgovaraju s profesoricom. (Students are talking with the (female) professor.)
Two girls sitting on a couch and eating pizza. They're dressed casual and smiling.
(Serbian cases made easy: try saying, "I'm eating pizza with my friend" in Serbian!)
How would you say, “I’m eating pizza with my friend” in Serbian?

When Describing Things

We use Instrumental to explain the specifics of an object. We often use it to describe the kind of clothes or food. For example:

  • majica s kratkim rukavima (a shirt with short sleeves; a T-shirt)
  • majica s dugim rukavima (a shirt with long sleeves)
  • duks s kapuljačom (a sweatshirt with a hood; a hoodie)

Some Serbian cases are synonymous. It means we can use either to say the same thing. To describe pieces of clothing like this, we can also use Genitive. To see these examples, check out our blog post Serbian Cases Made Easy Pt. 2: Genitive and the Preposition OD.

  • pita s višnjama (a pie with cherries; cherry pie)
  • sendvič sa salamom sirom (a sandwich with pastrami and cheese)

We use Instrumental to describe additional flavors. But talking about a cake made entirely of chocolate, we need Genitive.

When Talking about Accessorises

A man showing a thumb up. He's wearing a suit and a watch. We can only see his torso, without head and legs.
How would you say, “A man with a tie and watch” in Serbian?

If you’d like to describe a person by pointing out their accessories, use Instrumental and the preposition s(a).

For example:

  • Pogledaj onu ženu s naočarima. (Look at the woman with glasses.)
  • Došao je čovek s kravatom. (A man with tie came.)
  • Moja sestra je ona devojka sa šarenim šalom. (My sister is the girl with colorful scarf).

When Not to Use the Preposition “SA”

We never use the prepositioned Instrumental when talking about instruments and tools. Remember that in English, we still need a preposition. Sometimes it’s the preposition with and sometimes by.

For example:

  • Jedem viljuškom nožem. (I eat with a fork and knife.)
  • Deca slikaju vodenim bojama. (The children paint with watercolors.)
  • Idem na posao autom. (I go to work by car.)

To learn more about Serbian cases, check out our online courses for learning Serbian!