ما is used to negate a verb, mainly in the past tense. But there’s more to it than that.
ما is a genuine jack-of-all-trades. By throwing this tiny word into a sentence, you can change the meaning dramatically. In my opinion the letter ل and the ما are the key to understanding Arabic properly. It is essential to understand the various meanings of ما.
Here is a list of some possibilities:
Normally ما is used to negate a past tense verb (الْماضِي). Theoretically, however, it is also possible to negate a جُمْلة اِسْمِيّة with ما – see chapter 131.
You could even negate the present tense (الْمُضارِع) with ما. This is very rare and occasionally used with the expression: ما يَزالُ (still)
The students did not show up yesterday.
ما حَضَرَ الطُّلّابُ أَمْسِ.
What is your name?
What are you thinking about?
Definite conjunctive pronoun
I do understand what you say.
إِنَّني أَفْهَمُ ما تَقُولُهُ.
Read what I wrote.
إِقْرَأْ ما كَتَبْتُهُ.
Notice the سُكُون at the end of the verb (مَجْزُوم) – it is a شَرْط
Whatever good that you do comes back to you.
ما تَفْعَلْ مِنْ خَيْرٍ تَجِدْ جاءَهُ.
This is used to strengthen the conditional meaning
ما لِتَأْكِيدِ مَعْنَى الشَّرْط
If you had worked hard, you would have succeeded.
(Notice that it is not a negation!)
إِذا ما عَمِلْتَ بِجِدٍّ نَجَحْتَ.
Used to introduce a clause equivalent to a مَصْدَر.
It is used like the particle أَنْ and has the same meaning and implications. (See chapter 80)
The student came after the lesson had started.
حَضَرَ الطُّلّابُ بَعْدَ ما بَدَأَ الدَّرْسُ.
Used to introduce a clause equivalent to a مَصْدَر in the adverb of time.
ما الْمَصْدَرِيّة الظَّرْفِيّة
I will think of you as long as I live.
سَأَظَلُّ أَتَذَكَّرُكَ ما حَيِيْتُ.
This ما denotes generality and vagueness
Notice: In this application ما has to be at the end of the sentence.
The man who sat next to me in the plane was reading (a kind of) a book.
كانَ الرَّجُلُ الَّذِي جانِبِي فِي الطَّائرَةِ يَقْرَأُ كِتابٍ ما.
some day; sometime in the future
I lost something.
أَضَعْتُ شَيْئًا ما.
The hindering ما
In life hope doesn’t go away.
إِنَّما الْحَياةُ أَمَلٌ لايَنْتَهي.
ما – as expressive of surprise
What a nice spring!
ما أَجْمَلَ الرَّبِيعَ!
What fortunate I got here!
ما أَسْعَدَنِي بِوُجُودي هُنا!