Russian Language Blog

An irregular verb that keeps on giving… Posted by on Aug 27, 2012 in language, Russian for beginners

According to a lot of grammarians, the Russian language has only FOUR basic verbs with “irregular conjugations.” Students of Russian may be skeptical of this. And it’s frankly hard to believe that a verb as wacky as (for example) лечь, “to lie down,” is by any stretch of the imagination regular! After all — just to refresh your memory — this is how the perfective verb лечь actually conjugates:

Past лёг, легла, легло, легли
  sing. pl.
1st лягу ляжем
2nd ляжешь ляжете
3rd ляжет лягут
Imperative ляг(те)!

How the heck can that mess NOT be “irregular”?

In a strict academic sense, being “weird” and “a general pain in the butt for foreign students” is not what qualifies a Russian verb as irregular. Rather, the handful of Totally Irregular verbs have conjugations that are utterly one-of-a-kind, and not at all resembling the conjugational paradigms of any other basic, unprefixed verbs. In contrast, лечь follows roughly the same pattern as verbs like печь (“to bake”) and мочь (“to be able”) — which don’t conjugate exactly like лечь, but they’re fairly close.

So in this post, we’re going to focus on one of those four “Really and Truly Irregular Verbs”, namely…

дать, the verb that keeps on giving!

As you may know, дать is a perfective infinitive with the meaning “to give.” And here’s how it conjugates:

Past дал, дала, дало, дали
  sing. pl.
1st дам дадим
2nd дашь дадите
3rd даст дадут
Imperative дай(те)!

The past tense is actually quite normal-looking, but the future-perfect is totally bizarre in several ways. Instead of the normal -у/-ю ending that you’d expect in the 1st-person singular, there’s an , and the 3rd-singular has -аст instead of -ет or -ит. And given that the 3rd-plural они form is дадут, one would logically expect the 1st-plural form мы дадём and the imperative forms дади! and дадите!. Instead, it’s мы дадим and дай(те)!

In short — wildly irregular, and not resembling any other verbs. Or, rather, the only verbs with the same conjugational pattern as дать are its own prefixed derivatives… of which there happen to be quite a bunch, and most of them are utterly essential, which is why it’s worth your time to learn дать by heart. Rote-memorization gets a bad rap (’cause it’s freakin’ tedious!), but when you’re starting out in a foreign language, there’s really no substitute for it. Personally, I find that chanting is a helpful technique — just make believe that you’re the head cheerleader at a Defense Language Institute football game:

Дам, дашь, даст — kick ’em in the aaahh-ss!
Дадим, дадите, дадут — make ’em lick your boot! Go-o-o-o-o Army!!!

(And honestly I don’t know whether DLI actually has a football team; that’s why it’s called “make believe.”)

But by whatever means necessary, make sure you know the perfective дать backwards and forwards! And its imperfective mate, давать, is also essential, but slightly easier to learn (and not irregular!):

Past давал, -а, -о, -и
  sing. pl.
1st даю даём
2nd даёшь даёте
3rd даёт дают
Imperative давай(те)!

Again, the past tense is well-behaved, but the present is slightly weird in that the -ва- disappears, although it magically reappears in the imperative. This “vanishing -ва-” stunt is also performed by a few other imperfective verbs that aren’t related to давать. (For instance, вставать, “to stand up”, and признаваться, “to admit, confess to” — their 1st-singular forms are, respectively, я встаю and я признаюсь.)

Now that we’ve discussed the basic pair давать/дать, let’s get acquainted with some of their prefixed derivatives. As I said, there are a bunch of these, but we’ll start with four in particular — because, well, you’re gonna be seeing them again in the very near future. Like, say, in my next post… [foreshadowing!]

The pair сдавать/сдать can have the basic meaning “to hand in, to turn in,” and in the poem we’ll be talking about on Wednesday, it’s even more specific: “to check in (luggage),” as at an airport, or “to check in (a coat),” as at a restaurant’s cloakroom. But this verb pair has several other highly important uses. The imperfective сдавать экзамен means “to take a test (at school),” while the perfective сдать экзамен means “to pass a test”. And when followed by a direct object that refers to living-space, such as квартиру (“apartment”, acc.) or комнату (“room”, acc.), сдавать/сдать means “to rent out.” Finally, the related noun сдача means “change” in the sense of “money that you get back from a cashier.”

Another derivative with a range of meanings is выдавать/выдать (and remember that perfectives prefixed with вы- are always stressed on the вы-!) The most concrete sense is “to hand out; to issue” — as in giving someone a receipt or a traffic-ticket. However, when followed by a direct object that refers to a person (including oneself), it means “to reveal the identity of; to betray as” — for example, Иностранный акцент выдал шпиона, “The foreign accent gave the spy away.” And with кого-нибудь/себя за кого-нибудь, the verb takes on the meaning “to pass (someone or oneself) for someone else”. Thus, you could summarize the plot of Mrs. Doubtfire with «Разведённый американский мужчина выдаёт себя за пожилую англичанку» (“A divorced American man passes himself off as an elderly Englishwoman.”)

Отдавать/отдать has a slightly narrower range of senses. It can mean “to return (something that was borrowed/stolen)” or “to pay back (a debt)” or simply “to hand over (something to another person).” When suffixed with -ся, on the other hand, it can colloquially express the idea of “giving oneself over sexually”: Я никогда не отдамся тебе, урод!, “I will never ‘put out’ for you, you freaky loser!”

And the last “give” verb that you’re going to see in my next post is the reflexive раздаваться/раздаться, which is used with subjects that describe noises and signifies “to be audible, to resound, to ring out.” However, when used without the -ся, раздавать/раздать means “to hand out, to issue” — similar to выдавать/выдать, except that the prefix раз- implies “distribution to multiple persons.”

P.S. Just to test yourself:

(1) Do you know the basic translations for these other prefixed forms of давать/дать? Hint: one of them of is a trick question!

  • издавать/издать
  • надавливать/надавить
  • передавать/передать
  • предавать/предать
  • продавать/продать
  • удаваться/удаться (noun: удача)

(2) If you’re a property owner who wants to “rent out” an apartment or spare bedroom, the verb pair to use is сдавать/сдать. But do you know the corresponding verb pair if you mean “to rent” from the point-of-view of a tenant?

(3) Finally, as mentioned at the top of the post, the perfective дать is one of the four basic “Totally Irregular” verbs in Russian. Can you name the other three?

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  1. David Roberts:

    Here’s my attempt at the “other 3”
    Есть (to eat)
    Идти (totally irregular past anyway)
    I don’t suppose this counts but there is also быть with its obsolete (or is it only obsolescent?) present tense with only есть in common use.

    Надавливать/надавить must be the odd ones out, their parent verb is давить (to press, squeeze) from which we get давление = pressure

    Very impressed with your reference to Andy Capp a couple of posts back!

  2. Rob McGee:

    David — you got two of them (есть and хотеть) but oddly enough, идти isn’t regarded as one of the “totally irregular” verbs… presumably because its conjugational pattern is roughly similar to other VOMs like нести and везти.

    The fourth irregular I had in mind was the determinate VOM бежать (“to run”), which conjugates:

    я бегу
    ты бежишь
    он,-а,-о бежит
    мы бежим
    вы бежите
    они бегут

    Note that, in common with дать and хотеть, it has some forms that are typical of -е- type verbs, and other forms that are typical of the -и- type. (If the 3rd pl. were бежат or possibly бегат, it might qualify as a “regular” -и- conjugation verb, but бегут is totally out-of-place.)

    P.S. “Andy Capp” used to run in a lot of US newspapers when I was a kid!

  3. Irene Kwasha:

    Thank you so much I have copied these to send to my daughter in Western Australia, and I feel that all your comments and phrases will help her (and me) re-learn what we set out to do many years ago, when she was only a teenager.

  4. CJ:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m a total beginner in Russian and can’t even follow quite everything you said yet, but I have been scouring the internet trying to find a simple list of which Russian verbs are regular and which are not–so I can start practicing the iterations with the right ones. I have a book with full conjugations for 501 verbs, but never a list of which ones follow or don’t follow what pattern. If you had to list another (most common) 10-20 that don’t perfectly follow the pattern, which would they be? Thank you!