All you ever wanted to know about RUSSIAN VERBS . . .

The Fundamentals of Verbal Aspect

The Russian verbal system differs from that of other European languages in one important way: it is built primarily on the distinction of aspect (whether the action has been or will be completed) rather than tense (whether the action occurred in the past, present, or will occur in the future). Aspect is a verbal category that distinguishes between actions which are successfully completed once and those which are not. Actions successfully completed once are called perfective, from the Latin word perfectus which means 'completed'. Those not successfully completed once may be either (a) in progress (hence not completed) or (b) repeated (hence carried out more than once). These actions are called 'imperfective' (guess what Latin imperfectus means).

Some words cannot express the perfective-imperfective distinction, e.g. говори- in the sense of "talk" (it can be perfective in the sense of "speak" or "say"), работай- "work", думай- "think", сиде- "sit", стоя- "stand", and лежа- "lie" all refer to extended processes which cannot be thought of easily as being successfully completed once. Hence they have only imperfective forms.

Most other verb stems, however, come in perfective-imperfective pairs. Here are a few examples:

Select Imperfective-Perfective Verbal Pairs
Imperfective : Perfective Gloss Imperfective : Perfective Gloss
писа- : написа- write покупай- : купи- buy
читай- : прочитай- read клад- : положи put, lay
смотре- : посмотре- look, watch вст(ав)ай- : встан- get up
стави- : постави- put, stand станови-ся : стан- get, become
делай- : сделай- do, make изучай- : изучи- study
пак(ова) : запак(ова) pack (up) поправляй- : поправи- fix, correct

As you can see, sometimes the pairs are distinguished by prefixes and sometimes the prefixes are semantically related to the meaning of the verb. Other times, however, variations in the stem determine the aspect of a verb. You just have to get used to them. (Just remember, over 250,000,000 people do speak this language and they can't ALL be geniuses.)

The following flow-chart will help you with the decision as to whether to use a perfective or imperfective verb form when speaking Russian. Ask yourself these questions about the nature of the actions you wish to express regardless of the tense you wish to express, e. g. do you wish to imply that the action has been or will be successfully completed?

Verbal Aspect Flow Chart
Russian Aspect Flow Chart

Now you have decided, say, that you wish to express an action which has already been successfully completed--you need the perfective verb in the past tense, e. g. Я написал письмо "I wrote the letter". Я писал письмо means "I was writing the letter" or "I wrote on the letter several times". Notice that for most verbs, the imperfective stem has both imperfective meanings.

But what if you wish to talk about an action which will be successfully completed sometimes in the future? Notice that 'successfully completed' implies an action or activity which cannot be taking place in the present, for if something is currently going on, it cannot be successfully completed. Russian capitalizes on this logical implication and uses the same forms that indicate the present tense on the imperfective verb to indicate the future perfective. For example:

Phi               Semantics of Present-Future               Phi
Imperfective Gloss Perfective Gloss
я пишу I am writing/write я напишу I will write
ты пишешь you are writing/write ты напишешь you will write
он(а) пишет s/he is writing/writes он(а) напишет s/he will write
мы пишем we are writing/write мы напишем we will write
вы пишете yall are writing/write вы напишете yall will write
они пишут they are writing/write они напишут they will write

To form the future of the imperfective, in other words, to say "I will be writing" or "I will write (more than once)", the infinitive of the imperfective verb is added to the appropriate form of быть (буд-) "be":

Future Imperfective
Future Imperfective Gloss
я буду писать I will write/be writing
ты будешь писать you will write/be writing
он(а) будет писать s/he will write/be writing
мы будем писать we will write/be writing
вы будете писать yall will write/be writing
они будут писать they will write/be writing

Remember, the imperfective future means either (a) "will be doing something" (progressive) or (b) "will do something more than once" (iterative).

Phi The Concept 'Successfully Completed' Phi

To quality as perfective or 'completed', an action must be successfully carried out. The Russian word for take and pass an examination is the same: сд(ав)ай-/сдад-, e. g. Ваня сдавал экзамен Vanya took the exam and Ваня сдал экзамен Vanya passed the exam. The meaning of the two stems is, in fact, the same, roughly, "undergo"; however; сдавал implies that the undergoing is not successfully completed even though it was completed.

Another example. Varya sees a little boy who has fallen into the Moika Canal in St. Petersburg. She throws herself into the water but by the time she reaches the spot where she saw him, he has disappeared and perishes. In Russian you don't have to say Varya tried to save the boy; all you have to do is use the imperfective aspect. Варя спасала мальчика means "Varya saved the boy, finished that action, but not successfully". Implication: she didn't rescue him. Варя спасла мальчика, using the perfective variant of the verb, means that she successfully completed the action of rescuing.

Phi The Concept 'Repeated Action' Phi

The Russian language maintains a very strict concept of 'repeated action': it means 2 or more times in the strictest sense of the word(s). Thus Она уходила в кино and Она ушла в кино both mean "she went away to the movies"; however, the former implies that she returned, too, since it is the imperfective and therefore means that the action was completed at least twice. This form would be used in case someone went to the movies and returned but you can't find her for some reason.

Notice that by implication the person referred to moved in two directions but the crucial test is that the action, even if reversed one time, was carried out two times. Indeed, if a person goes in more than one direction before completing an action, the imperfective is also used: Маша ходила по городу "Masha walked around the city". Because she presumably went in more than one direction, imperfective iterative ходить is required, even though she successfully completed the action.

Let's say mom asks the kids not to turn on the TV. A few minutes later she hears it playing but by the time she gets in the room again it is off. Someone has turned the TV on and off again. Mom would ask Кто включал телевизор? using the imperfective and not Кто включил телевизор? using the perfective. (Either way, of course, the answer will be, «Никто!» "Nobody!") The crucial test for the question is your desire to indicate that you know the action of switching to have taken place twice. Here are a few more examples.

Кто открыл окно? Who opened the window (and left it open)?
Кто открывал окно? Who opened the window (and shut it again)?
Саша пришёл. Sasha came (and remained)
Саша приходил. Sasha came (and left again)

Now all you have to do is master the verbs of motion and verbs of position and you know the Russian verbal system from top to bottom. You should do excellently on the following achievement recognition opportunity. Click here for aspect pairs for about 750 verbs.

Phi Verbal Aspect Intelligent Exercises Phi

In the following exercises, chose the correct aspectual stem, then type in the correct form of the verb for the context. Use the English translation as a guide for deciding whether the action referred to is a single, successfully completed action (perfective), an action progress (progressive imperfective), or a repeated action (iterative imperfective). The imperfective stem is always to the left of the vertical bar.

These exercises are 'intelligent' in that they are capable of responding in multiple ways. If you are right, you will be told правильно "correct" or отлично "excellent". If you make the common mistakes expected of learners, the exercises will provide you with a hint as to what that mistake is. You may then try again. If you can't figure out the form at all, it will ask you if you give up and tell you how. It will then provide you with the correct answer.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

Learner's Keyboard Standard  keyboard Standard KeyboardLearner's keyboard
Learner's letter-for-letter and standard Russian keyboard layouts are available here if you need them. They will disappear when you scroll down this page. Refresh them by clicking the browser icon that comes up with them. Close the window in the usual way by clicking the "X" in the upper righthand corner. Be sure your popup blocker is turned off.
Phi Verbal Aspect Phi

For best results, read the instructions above carefully. Push

(на)писа- Завтра я ему письмо.
Tomorrow I will write him a letter.

(на)писа- Завтра я весь день.
Tomorrow I will be writing all day.
(про)читай- Теперь она газету.
She is reading the paper now.
(про)читай- Андрей уже газету.
Andrei has already read the paper.
(c)делай- Я сейчас это .
I will do that right away.
(с)делай- Мы это каждый день .
We do that every day.
(по)смотре- Они раньше три фильма в неделю.
They used to watch 3 films a week.
(с)пой- (петь) Она всего одну песню .
She is only going to sing one song.
покупай-|купи- Мы всегда много в Москве.
We always buy a lot in Moscow.
ы)пьй- Володя много .
Volodya drinks a lot.

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© 1996 Robert Beard