Russian Verbs – Perfective and Imperfective Aspects

Posted on 29. Mar, 2011 by in language, Russian for beginners

I firmly believe that the Russian blog has the most awesome readers ever! One of the many reasons you are the best is because of all the fantastic comments – thoughtful, well-researched, in-depth, and immensely helpful you leave on this blog. 

33 (!) comments on my previous post about short forms of Russian adjectives are a perfect example. If you haven’t followed them, make sure to check them out, especially if you’re trying to make sense of Russian grammar. Thank you, Joerg and Maria!

But as the Russian saying goes «это только приcказка, а сказка впереди» [this is just a story-teller’s introduction, the real tale is yet to be told].

For a native Russian speaker using correct verbal aspects is simple. But trying to explain the complicated rules of choosing between perfective and imperfective verbs is a whole different matter. And that’s why I was thrilled when, reading through the comments, I found Maria. She is a native speaker of Russian and a trained linguist. She also has the rare talent of «разложить по полочкам» [to unscramble] complicated grammatical topics. Most importantly, she is eager to share her knowledge with the rest of us!

What follows is Maria’s post on «глагольные виды» [verbal aspects]. If you like Maria’s post, please-please leave a comment here or on our fanpage.

Past, present, future – Russian language has just three tenses. Is such simplicity possible? Not so fast! In Russian, the absence of more verbal tenses, as in English or say, Italian, is partially compensated by aspectual forms. Verbal aspect is one of the most difficult topics in Russian grammar, especially for non-native speakers. And that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about in today’s post.

In dictionaries, verbs are usually in the imperfective form. Perfective verbs are formed in several ways:

  • Using prefixes «на-, с-, про-, вы-, по-»etc: «лечить – вылечить» [to cure], «печь – испечь» [to bake], «строить – построить» [to build], «писать – написать» [to write], «читать – прочитать» [to read].
  • Using suffix «-ну-» : «прыгать – прыгнуть» [to jump], «кричать – крикнуть» [to scream]
  • Using both prefixes and suffixes – «менять – сменить» [to change]
  • By switching between suffixes, frequently accompanied by shifting letters in the roots – «а(ть), -я(ть), -и(ть), -е(-ть)»«пускать – пустить» [to let in], «умирать – умереть» [to die]
  • By moving stress to a different syllable within a word: «рассыпать – рассыпать» [to scatter], «разрезать – разрезать» [to cut]
  • From a different base: «говорить – сказать» [to speak], «искать – найти» [to search – to find], «брать – взять» [to take]

Some Russian verbs do not have clear aspect indicators listed above. For these the aspect is determined contextually. Examples include «жениться» [to marry], «велеть» [to order], «казнить» [to put to death], «воздействовать» [to influence], «использовать» [to use].

Perfective verbs are used to describe

An action that leads to a specific result:

  • «Пришла зима. Выпал глубокий снег и покрыл дороги, поля, деревни.» [Winter came. Heavy snow fell and covered roads, fields and villages.] – The result is emphasized.
  • «Он взял гитару и запел» [He picked up a guitar and began to sing.] – He began to sing; the result is that he is singing now.
  • «К вечеру я выучу это стихотворение» [I will have learned this poem by tonight.] – The result is that by tonight I’ll know this poem by heart.

An action that is instantaneous and completed right away:

  • «Он лишь кивнул в ответ.» [He just nodded in response.] – He nodded once.
  • «Мальчик выскочил из вагона и побежал по перрону.» [A boy jumped out of the rail car and ran along the platform.] – The boy ran out very quickly.

Imperfective verbs, on the other hand, are used to describe:

A process without specifying the end result:

  • «Приближалась зима. Дул холодный северный ветер, шёл мокрый снег.» [Winter was approaching. Cold northern wind blew; wet snow was falling down.] – Here the process is emphasized, not the end result.
  • «Я работаю, перезвоните позже.» [I am working, please call back later.] – We don’t know when the action was started and when it will be finished.

Continuity, repetition and frequency of an action:

  • «Он ничего не говорил, лишь кивал.» [He wasn’t saying anything, just kept nodding.] – He kept nodding for some time.
  • «Я буду ходить на лекции по русской литературе.» [I will attend Russian literature lectures.] – I’m going to attend these lectures regularly.

Note that imperfective verbs have past, present and future tenses while perfective forms lack present tense:

«читал – читаю – буду читать» [read/was reading – read/reading – will read/will be reading]

«прочитал – прочитаю» [read/have read – will read/will have read]

The future tense will differ depending on the verb’s aspect. Imperfective verbs have compound form (will + infinitive or will be V+ing) – «буду делать». Perfective verbs’ future tense is just one word – «сделаю». Note that in English both forms are translated as “shall/will + infinitive” – “will do”.

And that is all there is to verbal aspects… for today. Tomorrow Maria will talk about some exceptions from these rules, so don’t miss it!

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17 Responses to “Russian Verbs – Perfective and Imperfective Aspects”

  1. Jan Vanhellemont 29 March 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I’m in my sixth year of Russian and still struggling with this perfective/imperfective thing. Not with the grammar though, because that’s really not very different from other languages. The things is that for every single Dutch/French/English verb, one has to learn two Russian verbs. :-(

  2. Roberta 29 March 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Would it be accurate to equate imperfective aspect with the English verb forms like “he was doing” and “he will be doing”? (I’m sure there’s a term for that verb form in English, but I don’t know what it is.) They seem parallel — indicating ongoing activity.

  3. David Roberts 29 March 2011 at 10:24 pm #

    Could you comment on the aspects in the first few lines of “Katyusha”:

    Расцветали яблони и груши,
    Поплыли туманы над рекой.
    Выходила на берег Катюша,
    На высокий берег на крутой.

    Выходила, песню заводила
    Про степного, сизого орла,
    Про того, которого любила,
    Про того, чьи письма берегла.

    The verbs that have always puzzled me in this song are:

    Поплыли – perfective, but why? “Mists were floating on the river” seems to make most sense but would use the imperfective wouldn’t it?

    Выходила – since the mists have floated perfectively this must be a single occasion, but Выходила being imperfective seems to suggest either a repetitive action or something that Katyusha was doing on this occasion but hadn’t completed – e.g. she was coming out onto the river bank rather than she had come out.

    Did the songwriter deliberately ignore the need to use the right aspect, in the interests of making the lines scan, or am I missing some subtlety of meaning?

  4. Ryan 30 March 2011 at 2:15 am #

    David,

    We have выходила because the imperfective past is used for one really important thing that’s not mentioned here: “statement of fact”. This is one of those few and cherished linguistic terms that’s exactly what it sounds like. Hope that helps.

  5. Robin 30 March 2011 at 9:22 am #

    The verb pair искать – найти is hardly an example for perfective and imperfective verbs of different bases, they are simply two entirely different verbs (to search, to find respectively, as you wrote; one may be the result of the other, but that’s not the same as perfective / imperfective.). The perfective form of искать is поискать, whereas the imperfective form of найти is находить. That still fits the idea of different bases, and also highlights an interesting fact about verbs derived from verbs of motion: usually the prefixed derived verb made from the non-directional verb of motion is the imperfective partner, whereas the perfective one uses the directional verb plus prefix.

  6. Joerg 30 March 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Спасибо Вам, Мария! По-моему получилось отличное введение в тематику!
    Единственное, что я не понял, это, почему Вы приводите “найти” в качестве совершенного вида от глагола “искать”…

  7. David 30 March 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    Ryan,
    Thanks for explanation of выходила. Сейчас все ясно – I think! Having discovered the concept of “statement of fact” I realise that just when I thought I was comfortable with aspects…there3’s a lot more to it!

  8. Maria 30 March 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    Roberta, yes, you can equate these forms, but remember that imperfective verbs are also used in other situations:
    Я писала письма = I was writing / I used to write

    David, I think it was done to keep the rhythm. “Mists were floating” would sound better (in prose).

    Joerg, почему нет?
    я искал ответ – я нашёл ответ

  9. Maria 30 March 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    P.S. поплыли = began to flow

  10. Maria 30 March 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    *Sorry, to float.

  11. Robin 31 March 2011 at 5:58 am #

    Maria: For reasons I don’t know my comments to this post and the previous one on short adjectives seem to have been deleted, but Jörg is pointing out what I did yesterday. While it is conceptually true that “to find” is the end of an action “to search” they are two completely different things.

    Most dictionaries seem not to list a perfective form of искать probably because searching without finding is not thought to be complete. But which verb do you use when you tell of searching something yesterday but failing to find it, ending your seach without success?

    Furthermore, all dictionaries I know list находить as the imperfective partner of найти and vice versa. If you used to find money in the street frequently, you wouldn’t use искать telling about it, as you were not searching for it, but you would probably use
    something like я часто находила …, wouldn’t you?

    Sorry for not writing this in Russian, but I feel my Russian isn’t good enough to explain something like this without making too many errors to make it seem clear.

    As for the other deleted comment, I wonder whether maybe it was because I linked back to the site where I have a similar blog on grammatical topics, though for German learners of Russian. I’m not including the link here, but I’d really like to know the reason why my comments were not accepted yesterday.

  12. Robin 31 March 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Oh, I just noticed that my previous comment is still in the moderation queue here, while newer ones can already be seen. That’s why I thought the comment had been deleted…

  13. yelena 31 March 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    Hi Robin, sorry about the delay with comment approval. For some reason I don’t always get e-mail notifications of pending comments. Since I don’t log into the admin area every day, it’s always a surprise for me to see how many comments are awaiting moderation :) But rest assured that we do not delete comments :)

  14. Maria 1 April 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Робин, спасибо за пояснение! По комментарию Йорга я не поняла, почему возник такой вопрос.

    И хотя я говорила не об образовании видовых пар, а об образовании глаголов совершенного вида в принципе, замечу, что «найти» – действительно форма совершенного вида и глагола «искать», и глагола «находить» – в зависимости от контекста. Глаголы не обязательно имеют лишь одну видовую пару.

    «Поискать» – глагол совершенного вида, но он не является парой для глагола «искать», потому что префикс по- привносит новый смысловой оттенок – «искать некоторое время, недолго», в то время как результата мы по-прежнему не видим.
    Обратите внимание, что видовую пару составляют глаголы, различающиеся только видовым значением.
    Вот ещё несколько примеров:
    танцевать – станцевать (а не потанцевать)
    читать – прочитать (а не почитать)
    пить – выпить (а не попить)
    Префиксы с-, про-, вы- не добавляют других оттенков значения.

    У глагола «искать» есть и другая пара – «отыскать», но в повседневной речи она употребляется намного реже.

    Если требуется перевод на английский – скажите.

    P.S. Интересный сайт и блог – большое спасибо за ссылку!

  15. David 1 April 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    Maria, in your comment above you put “почему возник такой вопрос”. The word возник is, if i remember right, one of those unusual past tense forms, that doesn’t change for fem/neut/plural, of some verbs with impfpf form in ать/нуть. Пригать/пригнуть, with a past form приг is another example. In this case for the past tense you had the choice of возникал, возникнул or возник. Can you tell us why возник was the right choice for this occasion? Is it because you wanted to convey the general feeling of something suddenly appearing unexpectedly out of the blue, or am I on the wrong track? i’ve not come across much about this past tense form in teh grammar books.

  16. Maria 1 April 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    Дэвид, конечно, я объясню.

    Выбираем из трёх форм: возникал, возникнул, возник.
    1) Сначала нужно определить, глагол какого вида использовать: возникать (несовершенный вид) или возникнуть (совершенный вид). У нас действие законченное и однократное, поэтому выбираем совершенный.
    2) У глагола «возникнуть» две формы прошедшего времени: возник и возникнул. Последняя несколько устарела, но выбор за Вами.

    По родам изменяется краткий вариант: возник – возникла – возникло. Множественное число также образуется от краткой формы: возникли.

    Форма прошедшего времени глагола “прыгнуть” – прыгнул. И только так.


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