Polish Language Blog

Verb Aspect – one more time Posted by 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.

Good luck!

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  1. Emma:

    Dzień dobry Anna

    I’m just learning polish and your blog is an amazing help (having problems typing this as i swapped to the polish keyboard to type “dzień” and am now trying to type english on a polish keyboard!).

    I have decided to go right back to the beginning and am reading all of your posts from the start – I might actually understand what i’m learning by the time i’ve finished! (if nothing else, I now understand why I get called Em-ma!)

    Emma x

  2. Tony:

    I’m still learning this, but what is the rule about using perfective/imperfective verbs with będę. I recall you can’t do one of them, but I am unsure which?

  3. Pawel:

    Hey Emma!

    I don’t know if you are aware of this but there are two keybord layout used for typing Polish language.

    One is “Polish” and the other “Polish pro”
    The regular “Polish” layout is like on a Polish type-writer, with Polish letters as seperate keys (where “;” and ” ‘ ” usually are) which is said to be more ergonomic.
    However, the far more popular layout (99% of Poles use it) is the “Pro” layout. Which is exactly the same as English keyboard. And you enter Polish letters like this: for “ą” you make “alt+a”, for ó you press “alt+o”, for ż “alt+z” etc. The only exception is ź for which you press “alt+x”. For capital letters you add shift key.

    And what I mean by this, is if you used the “pro” layout you wouldn’t have any problems switching between writing in Polish and in English.

    The “pro” layout is standard, you can switch to it on Windows and MacOS.

  4. Alecia Dixon:


    I read your entry “Where is Stanislawow”

    I guess I’m desperate and because you seem so knowledgable and I am thoroughly confused I’m begging for a nudge in the right direction. My great grandfather, John Merlowicz, was born 19 Dec. 1871 in Stanislaw, Austria (according to naturalization record). His daughter, Eudoxia Merlowicz was born in the year 1900 in Pauszowka, Czortkow, Galicia (according to her passport). This surname according to google is almost non-existent except for what I’ve published, and a few foreign leads I can’t decipher. I believe their religion was Orothodox and I know that has play into location. I’m wondering if you could tell me, according to birth locations of father and daughter, and years born, where I might look in present day for records. Thank you sooooo much for any direction you can give me.


  5. basia:

    Hi Alecia:

    Stanislawow is now part of the Ukraine. I believe the name was changed in 1962. The new name is Iwano-Frankowsk.

    How’s your Polish? Here’s an interesting link:

    My dad’s family lived there just before the outbreak of the war.

  6. Chris:

    I have an unusual language problem. My children’s nanny makes a few mistakes in Polish and I don’t know how to address the issue with her as I am just learning Polish myself. For example, instead of wezmę she says weznę and instead of dotknąć she says dotchnąć. My older daughter is 3 and is already repeating these mistakes. I’ve tried correcting my daughter in front of our nanny but so far it has not worked. She is a lovely person and we all really like her so I don’t want to hurt her feelings in any way. What should I do? Thanks.

  7. Pawel:

    Chris, treat this is an accent. As people speak English in various ways, they speak Polish in various ways too. Not everyone is clear as tv presenter and correct as university professor:)

  8. Chris:

    I agree with you that people speak English in different ways but this is not a matter of something like coupon pronounced like q-pon or koo-pon in which both are considered correct. It is not even like winter said quickly and coming out like winner. These two examples are mistakes which I do not want my children to get stuck in their heads esp considering that my Polish husband is active in the linguistic field. Would you want your English-speaking nanny to teach your child “worsher” instead of “washer” which can be heard in parts of NE United States? I remember kids at school saying that the 1st Pres of the US was George Worshington. Ouch, it hurts my ears just to write it.

  9. Pawel:

    There are those phonotactic processes and fast-speach processes, which tend to simplify pronunciation in most languages.

    I think it’s not a good idea to correct your nanny, as – if she is straight from Poland – she might teach your offspring the Polish vocab people actually use in their daily lives. As opposed to dead book-speak. I would advise you to simply get Polish television. It is possible to receive several Polish channels in the US: TVN International (best one, http://www.tvn.pl/static/howtoconnect#369417538), TVP Polonia, Kino Polska and TVN24… Your daughter would be able to hear proper language, and ordinary people talking in various situations. This is better than having one source of Polish language (the nanny).

    Worshing does sound a bit more interesting and mysterious than washing:)

  10. Chris:

    Thanks Pawel for your input. I agree that it isn’t a good idea to correct our nanny but I still view these mistakes as well, mistakes. Anyhow, my girls won’t have any problem picking up Polish elsewhere because we live in Poland. I was hoping someone had a more clever idea than I had of just correcting my kids in front of the nanny.
    Off topic, tv is a great way to learn. I still remember some of the 1st dialogues I was able to understand on tv. Are you ready? Try to guess what shows they are from.

    Myślałem że mnie kochasz.
    Owszem, kochałam cię.

    Umyj ręce bo obiad stygnie.

    Dziadek, dziadek, co się stało.

    I could go on and on 🙂

  11. Pawel:

    Why did I think you were in the US? If you’re in Poland just change the nanny;)

  12. Chris:

    Too difficult. We’re too attached to her and I think she to us, well at least to the kids.

  13. Anna Ikeda:

    Hi Chris,
    I’m with Pawel on this one, talk to the nanny and explain exactly what you said on here. If that doesn’t work, tell her that unfortunately, if she doesn’t improve her Polish pronunciation, you will be forced to look for a replacement that can speak proper Polish. It seems to be the only way.
    And I agree with you – these are not mere regionalisms, but mistakes, and are even listed as such in fat books on “Proper Polszczyzna”.
    Good luck!

  14. Pawel:

    Anna, actually correcting the nanny is the one thing I think Chris shouldn’t do:) Fire her – yes, but not correct her Polish. Let’s don’t be language fascists – I’m not really into prescriptive grammar.

  15. Anna Ikeda:

    Pawel, under normal circumstances I would agree with you. But this is a unique situation of sorts. And notice – I didn’t say Chris should correct the nanny’s Polish, I said she should address the issue directly with the nanny. It’s the nanny’s job to correct her Polish, and if she’s unwilling or unable to do so, then yes, fire her.
    I’m not a language fascist either, in fact – I’m so far from it I’m just barely hanging on on the other end of the spectrum. But if I pay someone to speak to my children day in and day out, I’d like the person to be able to speak correctly in her own native language. Know what I’m sayin’?

  16. Chris:

    I think firing is a bit harsh even for me and I’ve often heard that I am surowa. I think I’ll just keep correcting our kids ruthlessly in front of the nanny and hope that it works. Thanks for your opinions.

  17. Pawel:

    Chris, if you are not a girl you should say ‘surowy’:) I just hope you are gonna correct her… correctly;)

  18. Chris:

    Seeing that I have given birth to 2 lovely children, I will stick with “surowa” 🙂

  19. Pawel:

    oh the ambiguity of the name Chris! 🙂 Zwracam honor!