Russian Language Blog

“So the lady says to the talking margarine…” (Participles and dumb TV ads) Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in Culture, language, Russian life

The title of the post is drawn from a list of “Stupid TV Commercial Cliches” that I found on a Russian humor site. I got a kick out of it because “idiotic advertising” has been a staple of English-language humor for generations, but in Russian, poking fun at consumerism is mostly a post-Soviet development.

Apart from its humor value, the list also caught my eye because it includes several examples of verbs in their participial form, so it seemed like an ideal excuse to talk about the formation and use of Russian participles.

But first, for those who want to practice your sight-reading skills, here’s that list in the original Russian — I’ve added some yellow pop-up hints for a few words to give you some help:

Благодаря рекламе мы узнали что:

  1. Каждая девушка в ярком платье носит с собой в сумочке двухлитровый “Vanish.”
  2. Люди, живущие в огромных, хорошо обставленных квартирах, питаются лапшой “Роллтон”.
  3. Пора создавать купюру номиналом девяноста девяти рублей.
  4. У хорошей хозяйки всегда грязный кафель в ванной, ржавые краны, кухонные плиты и унитазы.
  5. Бобры, обкурившиеся альпийской травой, катаются на медведях.
  6. В морозильнике может поселиться огромный говорящий пельмень.
  7. Наша главная проблема — перхоть.
  8. Если два маленьких ребёнка намеренно пачкают ненавистную белую рубашку, то придёт не отец с пачкой п****лей, а тётя с стиральным порошком.
  9. Мозг периодически ходит в гости к Желудку.
  10. Люди могут разговаривать с маргарином.

I’d never seen any of the commercials referred to, but I could immediately imagine how most of them went, because the cliches are identical to what I grew up with on American TV. So let’s first quickly go through their translations before we discuss participles:

“Thanks to advertising, we know that…”

1. Every young woman in a bright-colored dress carries a two-liter [container] of “Vanish” [laundry detergent] in her purse.
2. People living in huge, well-furnished apartments subsist on “Rollton” noodles.

I couldn’t find the exact ad described in #2, but as you can see in this other “Rollton” spot below, the brand is associated with “Cup Of Ramen”-style instant noodles — which is to say, hardly a gourmet item for affluent yuppies:

Continuing with the list:

3. It’s time to create a banknote in the denomination of 99 rubles.
4. A good housewife always has dirty tiles in her bathroom, and rust-stained faucets, stovetops, and toilet-bowls.
5. Beavers who’ve gotten stoned on Alpine herbs ride around on bears.

I would guess that #5 is based on this ad for зубная паста , which does indeed feature beavers and herbs (but no bears!):


6. An enormous talking pelmen’ [Siberian meat-dumpling] may take up residence in your freezer.

Presumably, the ad was something similar to this one (YouTube has a number of wacky Russian ads for frozen pelmeni, but this was the first example I found in which they actually talked):


7. Our most urgent problem is… dandruff.
8. If two little children deliberately rub dirt all over a hated white shirt, then along comes their aunt with laundry detergent — not their father with a “can of whup-ass.”

For #8, I managed to find the original commercial on YouTube, albeit not with the original audio!! Rather, this is an example of a гоблинский перевод (“goblin translation”) — a slang term for a humorous озвучка (“audio over-dubbing”) of video footage. (In the goblinized version, the little kids deliver a rapid flurry of obscenities and cocaine jokes; obviously NSFW if you have Russian co-workers, though most non-natives will have trouble understanding the bad words):


9. Mr. Brain periodically goes over to Mr. Stomach’s house.
10. People can have conversations with margarine.

Okay, fun’s over… now for some grammar!

As I said, that list features several different Russian причастия (“participles”) — in fact, three of the four categories of participle are seen.

We’ve got the present active participles живущие (“which are living”) and говорящий (“which is talking”) in #2 and #6. #2 also has the the past passive participle обставленных (“which have been furnished”). And #5 uses the past active participle обкурившиеся (“which have smoked [drugs]”). The fourth type, the present passive participle, isn’t represented, but we’ll get to it in a minute.

First, however, to deal with the obvious question “What is a Russian participle and how do they work?”, there are four main points:

  1. They are formed from verbs, but…
  2. …they decline and function like adjectives, showing gender, number, and case in agreement with the nouns that they modify.
  3. They are “logically equivalent” to relative clauses that begin with который and express “which/that/who”.
  4. They are more common in the written language than in colloquial speech.

Regarding that last item, just because participial clauses are “logically equal” to который clauses doesn’t mean that it’s always good style to substitute one for the other. Quite often, it is better to use который in speech because a participle would sound too bookish. But there are occasions when the opposite is true: a participle sometimes sounds very natural in speech, while a который construction would be clunky. Furthermore, the participles of certain verbs have taken on a completely independent life of their own as free-standing adjectives — and these “adjective-ized” participles are, as you might guess, especially likely to be heard in everyday speech.

So, let’s take each of the four kinds in turn.

Present Active Participles

These express “which are doing so-and-so,” and can only be derived from imperfective verbs. Provided that you know the verb’s basic conjugation, they’re a cinch to form: Take the 3rd-person plural present, remove the final , and stick on the suffix -щий. Boom, you’re done!

читать (“to read”) → они читаютчитаю-читающий (“which/who is reading”)
говорить (“to speak”) → они говорятговоря-говорящий (“which/who is speaking”)
жить (“to live”) → они живутживу-живущий (“which/who is living”)

If, by chance, the verb you’re starting with has the -ся ending, you put on the end of the participle and it STAYS as -ся in all declensional forms — in other words, it doesn’t become -сь after a vowel. So the present active participle of учиться (“to learn”) is учащийся in the masculine nominative singular, and учащаяся (not “учащаясь”) in the nominative feminine.

Говорящий is an example of a participle that’s frequent in the spoken language because it’s become an independent adjective (meaning “capable of human speech”), while учащийся has come into a use as noun that means “a learner”.

Present Passive Participles

These are arguably even easier to form. You can create them only from verbs that are both imperfective and transitive (which means that no -ся verb can have a present passive participle, since they’re intransitive by definition). Simply take the 1st-person plural present and add the adjective ending -ый:

читать (to read) → мы читаемчитаемый (“which is being read”)
закрывать (to close) → мы закрываемзакрываемый (“which is being closed”)

For the most part, these are uncommon in conversation, but again, “adjective-ized” forms are an exception. In particular, there are quite a few present passive participles with the negative prefix не- that have the adjectival meaning “un-[X]-able.” For instance:

произносить (“to pronounce”) → мы произносимнепроизносимый (“unpronounceable”)

Past Active Participles

These can be theoretically formed from most verbs, whether perfective or imperfective, and whether transitive or intransitive. To make them, start by looking at the masculine singular past form.

If this form ends in , you remove the and add -вший (or -вшийся if it’s a reflexive verb):

покупать (“to buy,” imperfective) → он покупалпокупавший (“which/who had been buying”)
купить (“to buy,” perfective) → он купилкупивший (“which/who had bought”)

If the masculine past ends in something other than (or -лся), in most cases you simply add -ший (or -шийся) without removing anything:

умереть (“to die,” perfective) → он умерумерший (“which/who had died”)
постричься (“to get a haircut,” perfective) → он постригсяпостригшийся (“who had gotten a haircut”)

For certain verbs — notably some of the Verbs Of Motion — neither of the above rules will apply. For example, the masc. past of идти is шёл, but the past active participle isn’t “шёший”; it’s шедший. (Cf. сумасшедший, “crazy”, which originated as a participial phrase meaning “who has gone out out of [his] mind”). Similarly, the masc. past of вести is вёл, but the past active participle is ведший, not “вёший.”

Past Passive Participles

These these can’t be formed from imperfective verbs, nor from intransitives (including -ся verbs). And they’re the participles that you’re likely to hear in speech more often than any of the others; among other uses, they are very commonly heard in the “short form” after the verb быть to express a simple passive meaning. For instance, in the sentence Книга была написана (“The book was written”), написана is the short feminine form of написанный, the past passive participle meaning “which had been written.”

And as fate would have it, the rules for creating past passive participles are rather more complicated than the other three types. In fact, for this post, we’ll consider only the most common patterns, and save the exceptions-to-the-exceptions for another time. (Also, we’ll ignore the issue of stress-shifts, and only look at the spellings.)

To form them, you generally begin by looking at the infinitive.

If the infinitive ends in -ать or -ять, then in most cases you remove the -ть and add -нный.

написать (“to write”) → написанный (“which has been written”)
прочитать (“to read”) → прочитанный (“which has been read”)

If the infinitive ends in -сти or -ти or -чь, then remove the -шь from the 2nd-person singular future, and add -нный.

принести (“to bring”) → ты принесёшьпринесённый (“which has been brought”)
выпечь (“to bake”) → ты выпечешьвыпеченный (“which has been baked”)

For -е- conjugation verbs with infinitives ending in -ить or -ыть or -еть, remove ONLY the , and add -ый.

разбить (“to break”) → разбитый (“which/who has been broken”)
помыть (“to wash”) → помытый (“which/who has been washed”)
одеть (“to dress [someone]”) → одетый (“which/who has been dressed”)

For -и- conjugation verbs with infinitives ending in -ить, remove the -ю/-у from the 1st-person singular future, and add -енный (or -ённый).

купить (“to buy”) → я куплюкупленный (“which has been bought”)
обставить (“to furnish”) → я обставлюобставленный (“which has been furnished”)
освятить (“to bless, consecrate”) —> я освящуосвященный (“which has been consecrated”)

And that doesn’t even completely cover past passive participles (nor the general rules for how participial phrases can be used in writing), but I think that’s enough for now. Hope you had a little fun with it!

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  1. kavita thapliyal:

    очень полезная……….

  2. Jeannie:

    Да, очень полезно. Спасибо, Роб.

  3. Bob:

    Cool stuff, Rob!

    This talk of commercials reminded me of a couple things I encountered during my vacation in Ukraine this past August:

    While channel surfing in the hotel in Alushta one night, I found . . . an informercial channel.

    I’m not kidding! I watched for about 20 minutes. Every crazy thing you see on TV here – Slap Chop, Snugee, HD Sunglasses – was being advertised on this channel.

    What’s interesting to note was that the commercials were the exact same commercials you see here in the states. And (according to Mrs. Bob’s translation and my recollections) almost the exact same ad copy.

    No toll-free numbers to order, though. You went to their web site, and I think there was also an option to pay via SMS.

    The other thing was a Russian-dubbed version of 1990’s “Total Recall”. Converting US Movies to Russian (and vice versa) would be a good topic for another post, but suffice to say that if you can’t speak like Aaaaaaaaaaaahnold (in any language), you probably shouldn’t dub at all 🙂

  4. Christian:

    Hello Rob,

    i allways enjoy Your posting about grammar.
    As far as belonging to the verbs with past perfect on -тый,dont forget the verbs ending with -нуть.
    Do You know these pages :
    about participles?

  5. Rob:

    Christian — thanks for the link; it has a great discussion of participles!

    In my post, I was trying to avoid using the word “stem” (because defining what a verb’s “stem” is could be the subject of another post entirely), and instead tried to formulate rules based on certain conjugational forms (such as the 1st-person singular).

    You’re right that I should have included -нуть verbs in the past passive participle section. Another category that I (deliberately) avoided was verbs like снять and занять (for which the Past P.P. would be снятый and занятый, NOT “снянный” or “занянный”.) I couldn’t think of a “simple” rule for these without getting too deeply into the question of stems.

  6. Rob:

    The other thing was a Russian-dubbed version of 1990′s “Total Recall”.

    Let me guess: Aaaaaaaanuld, Sharon Stone, the cute brunette girlfriend, the evil corporate dictator, the telepathic-mutant-conjoined-twin, AND the triple-breasted whore were ALL dubbed by the exact same (male) voiceover actor — who basically shouts in Russian over the original English dialogue?

  7. Bob:

    The cute brunette girlfriend

    The one that’s sleazy AND demure? Yep, that’s the one! 🙂

    Russian dubbing generally leaves a lot to be desired. Just like Rob said, it’s usually a male doing all of the characters, screaming over the slightly attenuated original audio. I do recall a couple movies (“American Beauty” comes to mind) where they at least had one male and one female voicing the appropriate gender roles.

    I could also rant awhile about the discreperancies between the dubbed language you hear and the translation you see in a movie’s subtitles. I’m not sure they use the same translator for each function!

    And finally. . .

    The lady says to the talking margarine


    What does the margarine say?

  8. Rob:

    sleazy AND demure?

    Ha, thanks — I was trying to remember the exact description that the receptionist used while filling out Arnold’s form. (I hope they kept that line in the remake…)

    P.S. I thought that “…butter!” was spoken by the margarine. (After the woman says something like “Parkay margarine — it tastes as good as…”)

  9. JIG:

    Thanks a lot for this article, Bob! I was so lost in all those participle-related exceptions that I nearly gave up. This was a helpful overview that has put in the correct position to attack the exceptions!