Russian Language Blog

“I am the very model of a conjugation paradigm…” Posted by on Nov 20, 2012 in language, Russian for beginners

As every student of Russian knows, learning verb conjugations can be a bit daunting. Grammarians claim that Russian has only a горсточка неправильных глаголов (“a handful of irregular verbs”) — but for a foreigner, there are countless verbs that might as well be irregular because of their conjugational oddities, even if a linguist would insist these verbs aren’t REALLY irregular.

Of course, while there are no magic shortcuts in language learning, many of the “regular-but-in-a-weird-way” verbs can be grouped into various recurring patterns. So once you’ve memorized certain key verbs, you’ll have an easier time with perhaps a dozen other verbs belonging to the same pattern. We’ve discussed some of these in other posts — for example, verbs that behave like шить (“to sew”) and those that behave like плевать (“to spit”). But let’s consider a few other “model conjugations.”

First, though, let’s remember that virtually all Russian verbs fit into one of two broad categories: “-е- type” or “-и- type.” In fact, the few “truly irregular” verbs, such as бежать (“to run,” unidirectionally) and хотеть (“to want”) have something in common: they’re impossible to classify as either “-е- type” or “-и- type.”

Anyway, verbs of the -е- type have present or future-perfect conjugations like this:

sing. pl.
1st -y or -ем or -ём
2nd -ешь or -ёшь -ете or -ёте
3rd -ет or -ёт -ут or -ют

And the -и- type verbs conjugate like this:

sing. pl.
1st -y or -им
2nd -ишь -ите
3rd -ит -ят or -ат

Beginners will naturally ask: “How do I know if a new verb is -е- type or -и- type?” And the answer is: In most cases, you can’t tell just by looking at the infinitive! There are some exceptions to this: For instance, verbs with an infinitive that ends in -чь or -ти (instead of the usual -ть ending) will practically always belong to the -е- group. But if the infinitive ends in -ть, there’s no easy rule for knowing whether it’s a -е- verb or an -и- verb. Which means that knowing the infinitive just isn’t enough.

EVERY TIME you learn a new Russian verb, you should make a habit of memorizing (at minimum) three forms: the infinitive, the first-singular (я form), and the second-singular (ты form). For most verbs, if you have these three forms committed to memory, you’ll be able to “logically deduce” the verb’s other forms.

Mind you, so far we’ve only considered the verbal endings. The thing that can make verb conjugations so frustrating is that the “stem” may undergo various spelling changes (usually involving the final consonant). But this is where the concept of “key verbs” or “model conjugations” comes in handy. So now, let’s meet a few of them.

мыть (“to wash”)
Past мыл, мыла, мыло, мыли
sing. pl.
1st мою моем
2nd моешь моете
3rd моет моют

Things to notice: It’s -е- type, and in the present (but not the past), the -ы- of the infinitive changes to a stressed -о-.

Other frequently used verbs with this pattern: рыть (“to dig”), and крыть (“to cover”) — along with the many prefixed perfectives that derive from крыть, such as скрыть, “to conceal.” Next up:

искать (“to look for”)
Past искал, искала, искало, искали
sing. pl.
1st ищу ищем
2nd ищешь ищете
3rd ищет ищут

Example: Чего вы ищете? (“What are you looking for?”)

Things to notice: It’s -е- type, and the final consonant(s) of the infinitive stem undergo a “consonant mutation” throughout the entire present/future conjugation — but NOT in the past.

The verb плескать (“to splash”) has the exact same pattern: я плещу, ты плещешь…, etc. And there are quite a few verbs with a similar pattern, except that the “consonant mutation” in the non-past forms is something other than -ск- becoming -щ-. For example:

писать (“to write”) — я пишу, ты пишешь…, but past он писал
махать (“to make a waving motion”) — я машу, ты машешь…, but past он махал
плакать (“to weep”) — я плачу, ты плачешь…, but past он плакал
резать (“to cut”) — я режу, ты режешь…, but past он резал

In the above verbs, the same consonant mutation persists throughout the non-past conjugation. But in contrast, you’ve got verbs like…

жечь (“to burn something”, transitively)
Past жёг, жгла, жгло, жгли
sing. pl.
1st жгу жжём
2nd жжёшь жжёте
3rd жжёт жгут

Things to notice: This -е- verb shows two different consonant mutations: The -ч- becomes -г- in the 1st-singular, the 3rd-plural, and throughout the past tense. But in the 2nd-sing., 3rd-sing., 1st-pl., and 2nd-pl., there’s a different mutation: -ч- to . Also, the past masculine singular does not end in the usual . (BTW, this particular verb happens to have a “fleeting” -ё- in the non-masculine past forms, but not all -чь infinitives do.)

Other verbs with very similar patterns include беречь (“to keep safe, to guard”) — thus:

я берегу
ты бережёшь
они берегут

past: он берёг, она берегла

And also:

помочь (“to help”) — я помогу, ты поможешь… они помогут; past он помог, она помогла
стричь (“to cut hair”) — я стригу, ты стрижёшь… они стригут; past он стриг, она стригла

And other verbs have nearly the same pattern, but with a stem ending in -к-, not -г-:

течь (“to flow”) — я теку, ты течёшь… они текут; past он тёк, она текла
печь (“to bake”) — я пеку, ты печёшь… они пекут; past он пёк, она пекла

So far, we’ve looked only at verbs that belong to the -е- group. And in fact, we’re not even close to covering the huge variability of -е- verbs! We could also list “-нуть perfectives that behave like исчезнуть (“to disappear”)”, which are different from “-нуть perfectives that behave like прыгнуть (“to jump”). Then there are “verbs that behave like тереть (“to rub”),” and “verbs that behave like нести (“to carry,” unidirectionally) and “verbs that behave like поднять (“to lift”), and so on and so on… all of them in the -е- category.

But let’s wrap up the post with a model conjugation from the -и- group — which is, in general, less varying than the -е- group:

терпеть (“to endure, to put up with”)
Past терпел, терпела, etc.
sing. pl.
1st терплю терпим
2nd терпишь терпите
3rd терпит терпят

Things to notice: This -и- verb has a consonant-mutation (from -п- to -пл-) but ONLY in the 1st-person singular. Having a mutation in the 1st-sg. only is a characteristic of many -и- verbs, but not of -е- verbs, where consonant-mutation (if any) tends to occur throughout the whole conjugation, as we saw above. Also, for this verb, the 1st-singular is end-stressed, but then the stress shifts to the stem.

Other verbs with a 1st-sg. consonant mutation AND a stress-shift:

сидеть (“to be sitting”) — я сижу, ты сидишь… они сидят
кормить (“to feed, to nourish”) — я кормлю, ты кормишь… они кормят

Verbs with a 1st-sg. mutation, but no stress-shift:

зависеть (“to depend”) — я завишу, ты зависишь… они зависят
посетить (“to visit”) — я посещу, ты посетишь… они посетят

As I said, there are no “magic shortcuts,” and no one enjoys rote-memorization. Но, если ты вызубришь эти глагольные спряжения (“However, if you will have crammed [into your head] these verb conjugations”), there are countless other verbs that will be much easier to learn!

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  1. Marcus:

    The boy in the cartoon is learning the Russian spelling, not declension (the question is whether to write е or и in замочек and ключик, If the vowel is fleeting, we write e, otherwise – и.
    Verbal stems undergo various changings (in fact, the Present Tense is just formed from another stem), not spelling changings.
    жгла, жгло, жгли – The ё is fleeting here.

  2. Rob:

    жгла, жгло, жгли – The ё is fleeting here.

    AAAAAARRGGH. [bangs head against wall and regrets not choosing Esperanto…]

    But thanks, Marcus!