Russian Language Blog

Eat me! Drink me! Off with his head! Posted by on Apr 26, 2013 in language, Russian for beginners


As we all know, shortly after the inquisitive Alice falls вниз по кроличьей норе, she discovers a little glass table with a tiny golden key on top of it, along with an enticing bottle of something that turns out to be
shrinking potion:

К бутылке была привязана бумажка, а на бумажке крупными красивыми буквами было написано ”ВЫПЕЙ МЕНЯ!”
— «Прежде всего надо убедиться, что на этой бутылке нигде нет пометки ”Яд!”» — сказала Алиса.

* * * * * *
A small paper tag was tied to the bottle, and on the paper in large beautiful letters was written “DRINK ME!”
— “First of all I should make sure that there isn’t any «Poison!» label anywhere on this bottle,” said Alice.

(The Russian “Alice” excerpts in this post are from the 1966 translation by Nina M. Demurova ; back-Englished by Rob.)

Of course, you can’t say “Drink me!” (or “Eat me!” or “Off with his head!”) in Russian without knowing how to form imperative commands. After many years of Russian study, I’m pretty good at the formation part, but I still get confused sometimes about the correct usage of imperatives. So, with a little help from Alice and friends, let’s finish off the week with a look at the…

Повелительное наклонение глаголов
Imperative mood of verbs

Even if you’re fairly new to Russian, you may already have figured out (to your sorrow!) that Russian verbs are often characterized by weird spelling changes as well as shifting syllable stress. So, in order to determine what the correct imperative is, there are two key verb forms that you absolutely must know: the third-person plural («они») and the first-person singular («я») of the imperfective present or the perfective future.

With pretty much 99% of verbs (we’ll get to the exceptions later), knowing these two forms allows you to figure out the imperative every single time. Keeping that general point in mind, let’s go step-by-step through:

Formation of singular imperatives

We’re only going to look at the singular imperative, because once you’ve figured out what it is, creating the plural form is no sweat: you just slap on a -те and you’re done.

First, take the 3rd plural form and “отрубить” (chop off) the last two letters — here, it’s not “off with its head,” but “off with its tail!” Depending on the verb’s conjugation, these last two letters will be either -ут/-ют or -ат/-ят. (With reflexive verbs, of course, it’d be the last FOUR letters, such as -утся or -ятся).

What you’re left with is called the “stem,” which can end either with a vowel, or with a single consonant, or with more than one consonant…

If this stem (i.e., the “chopped” form) ends in a vowel:

Just add , and you’ve got the singular imperative! (In these cases, you don’t even need to worry about what the 1st-singular form is.) Like so:

прочитать (“to read”) они прочита|ют прочита прочитай! “Read!”

открыть (“to open”) они откро|ют откро открой! “Open!”

плевать (“to spit”) они плю|ют плю плюй! “Spit!”

пробовать (“to try [food]“) они пробу|ют пробу- пробуй! “Have a taste!”

бояться (“to fear”) они бо|ятся бо-(ся) не бойся! “Don’t be afraid!”

стоять (“to be standing”) они сто|ят сто- стой! “Halt! Freeze!”

If the stem ends in MORE THAN ONE consonant:

Again, it’s simple. Just add an to the stem, no matter where the stress is:

наполнить (“to fill”) они наполн|ят наполн- наполни! “Fill!”

почистить (“to clean”) они почист|ят почист- почисти! “Clean!”

If the stem ends in ONE consonant…

So far, we haven’t bothered looking at the 1st-singular form, but here’s where it comes into play, because it’ll tell you whether the imperative is stressed on the ending or on the stem.

(a) …and the 1st-sing. is end-stressed (on the -у/-ю):

In this case you add a stressed и to the stem to get the imperative:

поговорить (“to talk a bit”) они поговор|ят поговор- (я поговорю) поговори! “Talk!”

писать (“to write”) они пиш|ут пиш- (я пишу) пиши! “Write!”

любить (“to love”) они люб|ят люб- (я люблю) люби! “Love!”

приносить (“to bring [on foot]“) они принос|ят принос- (я приношу) приноси! “Bring!”

(b) …and the 1st-sing. is stem-stressed:

If the stress isn’t on the -у/-ю in the «я» form, the imperative will be the stem plus a soft sign ():

встать (“to stand up”) они встан|ут встан- (я встану) встань! “Stand up!”

отрезать (“to cut off”) они отреж|ут отреж- (я отрежу) отрежь! “Slice it off!”

оставить (“to leave alone”) они остав|ят остав- (я оставлю) оставь! “Leave it alone!”

ВНИМАНИЕ! (“Attention!”) — notice the imperative of любить is neither «любли (i.e., spelled like я люблю) nor «любь (i.e., stressed like они любят) — it’s «люби, with the spelling of the 3rd-plural but the stress of the 1st-singular. And similarly, one says «приноси rather than «приноши or «принось, and «оставь!», not «оставли!» or «оставль!»

Finally, if the verb is reflexive:

Add -ся to singular imperatives after or , but -сь after , and after the plural ending -те. Thus:

пытаться (“to attempt”) они пыта|ются пыта пытайся! пытайтесь! “Try! Attempt!”

подняться (“to go up”) они подним|утся подним- (я поднимусь) поднимись! поднимитесь! “Come up!”

And then there are the exceptions:

Fortunately for us foreigners, in the case of imperatives the number of exceptions to the above rules is fairly small!

Пить (“to drink”), and other verbs with one-syllable infinitives ending in -ить, such as лить (“to pour”), бить (“to beat”) and шить (“to sew”), form their imperatives by removing the -ить from the infinitive and adding -ей. This includes their prefixed derivatives, which are usually perfective — thus, from выпить, we get выпей меня!, “Drink me!” Similarly:

приш|ить (“to sew on”) пришей!

уб|ить (“to kill”) убей!

The imperfective давать (“to give”), its prefixed derivatives, and various other imperfectives ending in -авать (e.g., вставать, “to stand up”) lose the -ва- in their present conjugation: они дают, “they give.” However, the -ва- is still there in the imperative — so the rule about looking to the 3rd plural for the imperative’s spelling doesn’t work! Instead, just chop off the -ть from the infinitive, and add :

отдава|ть (“to give back”) отдавай!

And then there are a few totally exceptional verbs whose imperatives you just have to memorize. These include the perfective дать (“to give”) and its prefixed forms, along with есть, “to eat”, and a couple others.

предать (“to betray”) предай!

есть (“to eat”) ешь!

ехать (“to go by vehicle”) поезжай!

And that pretty much covers the subject of how to form imperatives. Now we’ll “go ask Alice” about the usage of…

Imperfective vs. perfective imperatives

This is one of those nuanced areas where native speakers just know which verb aspect to use in a given situation. Even so, there are some rules of thumb for the foreign learner:

• With positive (non-negated) imperatives, the imperfective gives the feeling of an invitation or gentle plea, while the perfective can sound a bit more like an instruction or command. In other words, a Russian hostess speaking to a guest would use the imperfective садиться (“sit down”), whose imperative is «садись!» (“Have a seat!”). But speaking to her 8-year-old child she’d use the perfective сесть, whose imperative is «сядь!» (“SIT!”). Thus, after a hearty chug-a-lug from the ВЫПЕЙ МЕНЯ! bottle causes her to уменьшиться (“become smaller”), Alice soon discovers a…

…пирожок, на котором коринками было красиво написано: «СЪЕШЬ МЕНЯ
…small pastry, on which was beautifully spelled out with currants: “EAT ME!”

And, several changes in size later:

«Вернись!» — закричала Гусеница вслед Алисе — «Мне нужно сказать тебе что-то очень важное!»
«Читай Папа Вильям” — предложила Гусеница.

“Сome back!” — the Caterpillar yelled after Alice — “I have something very important to tell you!”
“Maybe you should try reciting Father William,” — suggested the Caterpillar.

So, the perfective «вернись!» is more like a command, while the imperfective «читай!» is mild encouragement.

• With negated imperatives, the imperfective can sound more like a general prohibition (“Never do so-and-so”), while the perfective can have the effect of an immediate warning (“Look out — mind that you don’t do so-and-so”). So, in a famous line from «Алиса в зазеркалье», we have this well-known advice from the Red Queen, with two imperfective imperatives — one positive, one negated:

«Когда говоришь, открывай рот немного шире, и не забывай прибавлять “Ваше Величество”!»
“When you speak, open your mouth a little wider, and don’t forget to add ‘Your Majesty’!”

And, finally: if you can’t remember how to form an imperative, you can always fall back on using the infinitive with “imperative force” — typically, you’d use the imperfective infinitive in negated commands, but the perfective for positive commands. Just keep in mind that using the infinitive as a command may sound cookbook-ish, bureaucratic, or rudely abrupt. Thus, the all-purpose catchphrase of the Червонная Королева (“Queen of Hearts”) isn’t «пожалуйста, ОТРУБАЙ ему голову!» (“Please chop off his head”) or even «сию секунду ОТРУБИ ей голову!» (“Chop off her head this instant!”). It’s…

«ОТРУБИТЬ им головы!» (“Off with their heads!”)

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  1. Rob:

    P.S. If you’re an intermediate-to-advanced student of Russian and you also happen to be a Lewis Carroll fan, the 1966 translation of both Alice books by Нина М. Демурова (Nina M. Demurova) is GREATLY recommended for side-by-side reading with the original. (To be more precise, it’s “Demurova et al.” — several other translators collaborated on the difficult task of rendering all the poems into Russian without losing the sense or the meter.)

    Not only is it a top-quality translation that strikes a good balance between faithfulness to the original and natural-sounding Russian, but it also incorporates a large portion of Martin Gardner’s glosses and commentaries from The Annotated Alice.

    И молвил Морж: «Пришла пора
    Подумать о делах:
    О башмаках и сургуче,
    Капутсе, королях,
    И почему, как суп в котле,
    Кипит вода в морях.»

    And spake the Walrus: “The time has come
    To think about matters:
    About old shoes and sealing-wax,
    And cabbage, and kings,
    And why, like soup in a cauldron,
    The water boils in the seas.”

  2. Keith:

    Hello, Rob!

    I’ve been following your blog for just a short amount of time and wanted to thank you for all the work you put into it! As a student of Russian for 4 years now, things are quickly coming together and I feel it’ll only become easier from here – goal is to work as a translator. Anyway, I wanted to say your blog has helped answer some of my questions (and the feedback from native speakers helps that much more); for example, why people use the infinitive as an imperative.

    Keep up the great work! And thank you for the link to Alice in Wonderland in Russian, I will begin reading it today!

  3. CBS:

    Hello Rob!

    May i add two other imperatives,which do not follow the rules:
    – стоять – сто́й
    – бояться – бо́йся

    Excuse me for a delayed remark to the cleaning – post:
    тереть is one of the few words in Russian,that are the same as in latin( as видеть). Even the e between t and r is lost in some forms : tero trivi tritum.



  4. Rob:

    Christian: Actually, стоять and бояться do follow the general rule about adding if the stem ends in a vowel. But I think I see the point of confusion — all the examples I gave have 3rd-plural forms ending in -ют. So I’ve added стоять and бояться to the list of examples, just to be clear that -ят verbs are included under the rule about stems ending in vowels.

    P.S. Thanks for the point about the connection between Russian тереть and Latin terere (both meaning “to rub”). It’s easy to think of Russian and Latin nouns that have a common proto-IE link (e.g., брат and frater), but verb examples seem to be rare.

  5. Rob:

    Keith — Thanks very much for your comments! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog, and I hope you’ll stop by often. (Incidentally, Yelena has been on a much-needed vacation during April, but I expect that she’ll be posting again next week.)

    Two comments about Alice in Russian — Alice’s dialogue tends to be highly colloquial and natural, but some of the other characters may use more lofty turns of phrase (some of them are intended to be absurdly pompous, after all).

    Also, once in a while the names of characters are very different in the Russian translation. The first example that comes to mind is the Mad Hatter, who becomes Болванщик instead of the more literal Безумный Шляпник. (A болван is a head-shaped wooden form for shaping hats and wigs, and is also a colloquial synonym for тупица, “moron”. So evidently, Ms. Demurova thought that “Болванщик” just sounded better to Russian ears.)

  6. Fizmat:

    Wow, every time a post like this goes up I’m impressed with how difficult it is to put into words some aspects of language that native speakers don’t even have to think about.

    One note: разговаривать means to chat, to talk. But разговорить means to get somebody talking. Compare: расшатать, раскрутить, разогреть.

    I think this mistake arises because in rare cases the same prefix doesn’t add the same meaning to the perfective and imperfective forms of the verb. This is such a case. The “matching” perfective form for разговаривать is probably поговорить.

    разговорить кого-либо – to get somebody talking
    разговаривать кого-либо – to be getting somebody talking (never heard of it used this way, but the grammar allows it)
    разговаривать – to chat (imperfective), to be chatting
    разговаривать с кем-либо – to chat with somebody
    поговорить – to chat (perfective), to talk, to have talked
    поговорить с кем-либо – to chat with somebody
    поговаривать (mostly used in 3rd person plural безличное наклонение “поговаривают” – “they say”)

    Nether “разговаривай!” nor “поговори!” well in imperative. Does “Chat!” really work in English? I think “let’s chat” and its direct translation “давай поговорим” sound much better. Then again, not everyone is a king and can afford to use one-word imperative sentences. In a more natural context they both work fine.
    “Не разговаривай во время еды” – “don’t chat while eating”.
    “Поговори с Аней, она может знать” – “talk to Anya, she might know (that)”.

    On the general subject of perfective and imperfective imperative. Yes, it’s hard to articulate. The invitation/command distinction is there, but it’s very slight. Using plural has a much stronger effect. Садись, садитесь and сядьте can all work as an invitation (“Cядьте” _can_ have a little urgency to it, as in “пожалуйста, сядьте, представление ещё не окончено”, “please sit down, the play is not over yet”). But only “Cядь!” can be an order, which is why to rudely _order_ a group of people to sit one has to use infinitive “Сидеть!”.

    The perfective/imperfective aspect has more impact on perfectiveness itself then imperativeness, so to speak. The use of perfective and imperfective is mostly governed by the same nebulous rules that are at work without the imperative. You can’t say “Когда говоришь, открой рот немного шире” not because it’s not polite, but because you will open your mouth (открывать рот) multiple times, not once, while talking. The same goes for “прибавлять” instead of “прибавить”. It’s not imperative, but the same reasoning works, which illustrates my point. «Пожалуйста, ОТРУБАЙ ему голову!» doesn’t sound good not because of the imperative. The request is to behead once and be done, not multiple times nor for a while. On the other hand “Пожалуйста, отрубай головы всем, кто входит без приглашения” works fine. “Пожалуйста, отруби ему голову” is also good, as is “Сию секунду отруби ему голову”. It’s just that “Off with his head” translates into “отрубить ему голову” perfectly and works very well for royal orders.

    Some commands for dogs are also in infinitive.
    Сидеть! – Sit!
    Лежать! – Down!
    Some are imperative:
    Умри! – Die!
    Дай лапу! – Shake hands!
    But most commands are verb-free:
    К ноге! – Heel!
    Ко мне! – Come!
    Место! – Place!
    And some aren’t used much outside of dog training:
    Фу! – Drop it! (lit. Ew! or Boo!)
    Фас! – Attack!
    And the curious “Аппорт!” (“Fetch!”), which is only a verb if you remember its French origin.

  7. mike:

    And to think learners complain about English spelling!

  8. Rob:

    Fitzmat — thanks for the corrections! I had always assumed that разговорить had the same intransitive meaning as разговаривать. I’ve changed it to поговорить.

    P.S. I also corrected the 3rd-plural of отрезать (perf.) — it’s a “е”-type verb, not “и”-type, so it should be они отрежут (I had written отрежат).

    P.P.S. I’m still trying to decide what to do about the proper stress for the past tense of поднять and подняться in the previous post!

  9. Rob:

    By the way, do you know what language “Фас!” comes from? From Googling, I find that in German, Fuss! (pronounced фус)means “Heel!”, while “Attack!” is something like Pakken!

    Also, apparently, the English “Sic em!” is actually a corrupted spelling of “Seek them!”, and originally had the meaning of “Go find!,” not “Attack”. (But from what I understand, professional English-speaking trainers of police/military dogs generally do NOT use “Sic!” or “Sic ’em” as the “attack” command — apparently there’s a tradition of using Czech or German terms instead. Of course, this is probably more for consistency when human trainers are training other humans how to train the dogs — the dogs themselves don’t care which language you use!)

  10. CBS:

    Hello Rob,

    You guessed right,
    “Фас!” is german “fass!”,which means ” take it!”,
    i.e. take the arm with teeth.

  11. hitzu:

    Rob, there’s no “proper” stress for the past tense of поднять.поднять You can freely use both variants in any case.
    For me по’днял sounds a little bit oldish and scenic while подня’л is more common and homely. Anyway, the difference is pretty insignificant.