Russian Language Blog

Fear not, it’s only Participles! Or: Ryan’s Guest Post Posted by on Sep 21, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners

It is truly an honor for me – your ‘wonderful hostess’ (I do love compliments like that!) – to introduce this month’s guest blogger: Ryan Perkins! Ryan is a student starting his third year of college level Russian at University of Oregon. He got into Russian in high school when his choir was practicing the hymn «Хвалите Господа с Небес» [“Praise the Lord from the Heavens”] for a state choir championship at the same time as he was learning about the Russian revolution and USSR under Stalin in history courses. He has yet to travel to Russia, having lived out all but a few weeks of his life in the state of Oregon. When Ryan’s not studying Russian, he likes to hang out with friends, or sleep – although he’s been known to forgo sleep for the joy of Russian homework… Being as he is that devoted, it is no big surprise that he’s the one to debut the fascinating topic «о причастьях в русском языке» [about participles in Russian language] here on the blog!

Our wonderful hostess «Джозефина» [Josefina] has graced us with numerous and wonderful posts about Russian grammar, including a wonderful sequence «о шести падежей русского языка» [about the six cases of the Russian language], a post «о русской грамматике по-русски» [about Russian grammar, in Russian], and most recently, a post «о ненастоящих друзьях» [about false friends]. I hope to continue today in her fine tradition of grammatical exposition, and I turn my sights on something many Russian language learners I know are unnecessarily frightened of: «причастия» [participles]!

So, what exactly are participles? They answer the question «какой?» [what kind?/which one?], and decline just like adjectives, but they are not just any kind of adjectives. Participles are adjectives formed from verbs, and there are two major differences between a participle and a “normal” verb (besides how you form them). The first difference: a participle can have a “subject” not in the nominative case. Indeed, the subject of a participle can be in any case. The trick is that the participle, as an adjective, has to match its subject in gender, number, and case. The second difference: A participle cannot be the only verb in the sentence.

We’ll be starting our tour through participles with one of those two participles Russian shares with English, the present active participle.

So what are these used for? Well, for one, you can describe actions by things that might not be the subject of your sentence. Participles allow us (among a host of other things) in Russian language to take the clumsy two-sentence statement “I saw people at the beach. They were swimming and talking,” and make it into something like “I saw people at the beach swimming and talking.” This is just one of the many uses of participles in Russian, but we’ll use it to explain the general idea.

First, we have to first find an imperfective verb. Just like perfective verbs don’t have present meanings when conjugated normally, they can’t have present participles. So, let’s take the verbs плавать and говорить to start with, and use our English sentences from above. The best way to make a present active participle is to start with the 3rd person plural form of a verb, the ending with «-ут»/«-ют» for 2nd conjugation verbs, or «-ат»/«-ят» for 1st conjugation verbs.

Using a verb of each type, we can make a statement like «Я вижу людей на пляже. Они плавают и говорят» [I see people on the beach. They are swimming and talking]. Now, we take off the final «–т», leaving us with the stems «плаваю-» и «говоря. Next, add «–щ» and to those, and attach the ending you need for the participle to agree in case, number, and gender with its subject. In this case, the subject of the participle is «людей» so we need accusative plural endings: «Я видел людей плавающих и говорящих на пляже» [I saw people swimming and talking at the beach].

And even though the name of the participle has the word “present” in it, it’s crucial to understand that it is not necessarily describing a present action. Here they describe action contemporary with the verb «видел» [saw]. The people were swimming and talking when you saw them, and while they might still be swimming and talking at the present moment, you’re just saying what they were doing when you saw them. Since participles don’t have a tense independent of the sentence’s main verb, you need a verb to have a participle.

Let’s look at «примеры из русской литературы» [examples from Russian literature]

«Из «Мастера и Маргариты» Булгакова» [From Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”]:

«…а молодой спутник егопоэт Иван Николаевич Понырев, пишущий под псевдонимом Бездомный» [And his young companion was the poet Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, writing under the pseudonym Homeless].

Participle: «пишущий», from «писать», the third person plural form of which is «пишут».

Here we have the participle «пишущий», in the nominative masculine singular, to agree with the poet, whom it describes. Note also that participles can have more than just a subject associated with them. Ivan Nikolaevich is not just writing, but he is writing «под псевдонимом». Adverbs like this work just like they would if the phrase were «Иван Николаевич пишет под псевдонимом» [Ivan Nikolaevich writes under a pseudonym].

«Тут  приключилась  вторая  странность, касающаяся одного Берлиоза» [Here was the second oddity, which touched only Berlioz].

Participles: «касающаяся», from «касаться», the third person plural form of which is «касаются».

Here we see a reflexive participle. It’s nominative feminine singular, agreeing with «странность». Russian participles are often better translated into English with a relative clause using which or that. Again, the participle can more than just an adjective; here it takes a direct object.

«Он остановил свой взор на верхних этажах, ослепительно отражающих в стёклах  изломанное и навсегда уходящее от Михаила Александровича солнце. . .» [He let his gaze rest on the upper floors, where the glass was dazzlingly reflecting the broken sun forever setting on Mikhail Aleksandrovich…].

Participles: «отражающих», from «отражать», the third person plural form of which is «отражают», and «уходящее», from «уходить», the third person plural form of which is «уходят».

This sentence has two participles, with two subjects. The first, «отражающих», is in prepositional neuter plural, agreeing with «стёклах». The second, «уходящее», agrees with «солнце». This second participle does something bizarre to native English speakers. It comes before the noun it modifies, which is perfectly normal, but it also has an extra phrase stuck in there: “the setting-on-Mikhail-Aleksandrovich sun.”

A sentence «Из «Дамы с собачкой» А. П. Чехова» [from “The Lady with the (Little) Dog” by Anton Chekhov]:

«На пристани было много гуляющих. . .» [There were many people strolling on the pier…]

Participle: «гуляющих», from «гулять», the third person plural form of which is «гуляют».

Here we see the participle without a noun. “An adjective without it’s noun?! Preposterous!” you might say. But Russian does it all the time, «Он – русский» [He’s Russian] being a very common example.

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  1. Shady_arc:

    о причастьях –> it’s usually “о причастиях”
    о шести падежей русского языка –> agreement requires Prepositional: “о шести падежах русского языка” ( or “про шесть падежей русского языка”, in Accusative). Use of numbers with nouns is complicated. However, if only you need some oblique case that has a form different from Nominative, the rules are much simplier. Singular of that case for numbers ending in word “один” and plural form of that case for all other numbers. This is true for Prepositional.

    “Я видел людей, плавающих и говорящих на пляже” is quite a clumsy sentence itself. ^_^ The thing is “at the beach” is included in participle clause, so the sentence sounds as if you were not at the beach. You only saw people that act so-and-so when they go to the beach. I would rather use “Я видел людей на пляже, они плавали и разговаривали” (which is normal for Russian language) or “Я видел, как люди плавали и разговаривали на пляже” (this sentence is about the “picture” you saw at the beach, which is “people are swimming and talking”). Or maybe “Я увидел, что люди на пляже плавают и разговаривают” (‘I saw that the people at the beach were swimming and talking’)… It really depends on what exactly the observation is.

    And don’t use it in speech often, as participles are mostly characteristic of literary language. )) Actually, children are taught not only how to write and punctuate participles, but also how to use them. The reason is, 11 year old child’s laguage isn’t complicated enough to use them, so there is no real need for schoolchildren up to that moment to know how to write them. They had little exposure to that concept in their everyday conversation. Still, as you have already seen, participles are used in written language much, so it is important to introduce this grammar at some stage.

  2. Ryan:


    Thank you for the feedback. Somehow, my Russian classes have managed to focus almost exclusively on spoken Russian and still don’t teach us how to place adverbials properly…

    Also, while I’m sure Russian 11-year-olds don’t use participles in everyday speech that much, I’ve gotten the impression from my instructors that much of Russian primary school is memorizing poetry by Pushkin and the like; surely they’ve gotten a fair amount of exposure to participles from that, and have some intuition of their own on how to use them?

  3. Shady_arc:

    Yeah, right, though Pushkin is not a good example. I just opened the book in the middle and found only three participles on two pages :). Children do learn poems by heart but this is not enough. As far as I know, people still make the same mistake in English as many adults make in Russian, namely the one that occurs when adverbial participle does not correspond to a subject of a sentence (“Having opened the door, my eyes could see nothing in the darkness of the room”).

    Russian 30-year-olds don’t use participles in their speech much too. Unless the speech was prepared ^_^. There is even a book on translation “Слово живое и мёртвое” by Нора Галь where thoughless use of participles in traslations from European languages is critisized. However, most educated 30-year-olds have no problems writing something in long sentences with subordinate clauses, parantheses and participle phrases, so that everyone could see how educated they are.

    At school (grades 6-7) the use of participles mostly does not go beyond exercises that focus on the correct spelling of participle endings or punctuating participles and participle phrases. Both types were based on quatations from classic literature when I was in grade 7 :).

    Our last Russian lessons were in grade 8 (~14 years old). Then it was assumed that children know grammar and spelling, and can write correctly whatever they are required to. And use books in case they have forgotten someting, as there was no subject dedicated solely to writing sentences in Russian. After this point the use of complicated construstions is basically limited only by your own ability to express complicated thoughts on paper. The more you write, the better it gets and the easier it becomes.

  4. Ryan:

    Three participles on two pages might not be an immense number, but children really are pretty skilled at ferreting out regularities within a language on a really small amount of data. Oh, gosh, there I go on a linguistics rant again!

    At any rate, I doubt participles are terribly common in many languages, and I’d also submit that if people make a “mistake” in their native language, it’s not a mistake, it’s the language. Russian doesn’t have an absolutive construction like Latin (aperto ostio, oculi nihil in umbra aedificii, or something like that), and like every Slavic language, lost the closest thing to it in Common Slavic, and so people make do with what they have.

    I’ve heard from my phonology professor (a 25 year old Russian with two Ph.D.s), that Russian’s case system makes it much more easier to keep track of long coordinated sentences, and when people copy-edit his English writing they always complain about his own sentences being too drawn out. One could probably write something very similar to Twain’s The Awful German Language about Russian 😉

    I think my next two years of Russian will be mostly composition; I look forward to it.