Verb Aspect – one more time Posted by Anna on Jul 28, 2009 in Grammar
Agnieszka left a comment asking for help with explaining the difference between pomóc and pomagać (to help), and prosić and poprosić (to ask). And when a reader asks – I dig out my fat Swan’s “Polish Grammar” book and get cranking.
We’ve talked about this verb aspect thingie before. Because that’s what it’s called – aspect. And it has to do with how an action is conceived and executed – whether it’s completed, or habitual, or on-going, and what not.
In English it’s done through the many tenses: continuous, perfect, and so on. And in Polish the same thing is expressed through our many verb forms. Luckily, we’ll be talking only about two of those forms, because most Polish verbs have two aspects.
One is perfective, and it refers to an action which is completed – done and over with. But not just any old done and over with, but the kind that actually produces a change in the general state of things. The other aspect is imperfective and that one deals with all sorts of other types of actions: on-going, habitual and even actions that are completed, but which did not produce any change in the general state of things.
Confusing? Let’s try it again, this time using Agnieszka’s examples.
- pomóc and pomagać – to help
Pomóc is a perfective verb. Why? It doesn’t have a present tense form.
You can only say:
- ja pomogę (future tense), or
- ja pomogłem (past tense masculine) or
- ja pomogłam (past tense feminine)
If you want to say that you are helping someone right now, you have to use “pomagać” and say:
- ja pomagam – present tense (all genders)
The easiest way to spot the difference between these two is when looking at their past tense forms:
- pomóc – pomogłem, pomogłam (perfective)
- pomagać – pomagałem, pomagałam (imperfective)
The first one (pomogłem, pomogłam) clearly shows that the action is finished and that we successfully managed to help. Our help brought results.
The second one, on the other hand, only tells us that we were helping and helping and helping and that’s it. We have absolutely no clue if our help actually worked. Or not.
So, what’s the deal with prosić and poprosić? Here it gets a bit funkier, because the perfective form of the verb is created by adding a prefix: “po-“ in this case.
And so “prosić” becomes “poprosić” – to ask
But don’t worry, all the other stuff applies just the same.
“Poprosić” is a perfective verb, and as such has no present tense. You can only say:
- ja poproszę (future tense) or
- ja poprosiłem (past tense masculine) or
- ja poprosiłam (past tense feminine)
And now, let’s compare this with “prosić”:
- ja proszę (present tense, all genders)
– yep, it has present tense, so it must be an imperfective verb!
And in the past tense:
- ja prosiłem (past tense masculine) or
- ja prosiłam (past tense feminine)
When “ja poprosiłam” I got some sort of reaction from the person I was asking. My action of asking them is done.
But when “ja prosiłam” I was doing it over and over and got no results. And frankly, we can’t really tell if I’m completely done with all that asking, or not.
Polish verb aspect is not an easy thing to learn, but one of our readers suggested this thing: learn both verbs as totally separate words, don’t pair them up. I’ve tried that and it works. It seems like a lot more work in the beginning, but once when you get the hang of it, it’s actually a very effective way to get all this aspect mess nicely sorted out.