Russian Language Blog

The joy of grammatical mistakes, or a few of my lightbulb moments Posted by on Jan 25, 2022 in Grammar, language, Russian for beginners

Фото автора LED Supermarket: Pexels

Как уст румя́ных без улы́бки,

Без граммати́ческой оши́бки

Я ру́сской ре́чи не люблю́1Like rosy lips without a smile,/ without grammatical mistakes/ I do not love the Russian language.

These lines, from Alexander Pushkin’s famous novel in verse «Евге́ний Оне́гин» Eugene Onegin, pretty well explain what I would like to cover in today’s post.

Much of learning a new language has to do with restructuring your thinking to express ideas using a construction that is logically different from how you are used to. Grammatical or syntactic differences force us into a different frame of mind that may take a long time to adopt and be comfortable with. This may also come with understanding a grammatical aspect that simply does not exist in our native languages. Some forms unique to Russian include grammatical aspect, which is that awfully unclear distinction between perfective versus imperfective verbs. However, there can be lightbulb moments in which your brain finally gets it. And we all have these when learning languages.

Let me поже́ртвовать собо́й sacrifice myself and tell you about some embarrassing mistakes that ultimately led to lightbulb moments for me:

Imperfective verbs

Way back when, I remember a friend took me to an Irish pub in our small provincial city. I ordered a гамбургер hamburger, the first one I had had in well over a year. So I said to my friend:

Я давно́ не съел га́мбургер.2I haven’t eaten a hamburger in a long time.

I guess back then I thought that the perfective aspect, съел, just meant some action completed in the past. Russian has no present perfect, after all, so probably the perfective matches up with the present perfect. But my friend laughed at me. Which always meant I had made a dreaded grammatical mistake. Thank goodness he then corrected me:

–Я давно́ не ел га́мбургер…

Why the heck is it ел and not съел? This was the first time I suppose I realized that a lot of verbs in the past are imperfective. In this specific case, I was not concerned with whether or not I had finished the action—like if I were to say Я съел де́сять га́мбургеров за пять мину́т. I ate ten hamburgers in five minutes—I was simply saying I wasn’t involved even in the process of eating a hamburger for a very long time!

Later on I would remember that, of course, the key word here is давно́ a long time ago, for a long time, which usually takes the imperfective.

Perfective verbs

A friend was leaving a gathering in my apartment quite early, as he had some errands to run. I was sad and wanted to make him feel bad, so I said:

–Ты хо́чешь меня́ покида́ть.

Everyone laughed. I turned red from embarrassment. The laughter didn’t settle, but I realized the reason it was so funny. My friend started moving his hand up and down as if he was tossing something in the air.

I realized that in this specific structure, I thought using the imperfective version of the verb I wanted was appropriate (for some reason). But it turns out that покида́ть, while the imperfective form of покинуть to leave, to abandon, is also the perfective form of кида́ть and it means “to throw around (a while).” So I basically said in my accusatory tone, “You want to throw me around (like a baseball).”

Фото автора Vlad Chețan: Pexels

My lightbulb moment: When we have the verb хоте́ть to want, and we are using it with another verb, we usually use the perfective for a concrete action. Why? Because, as most Russian teachers repeat ad nauseum with their elementary explanation of Russian verb aspect: несворше́нный вид – проце́сс, соверше́нный вид – результа́т. Imperfective aspect is the process, perfective aspect is the result. And when we want to do something, we usually want the result, right?

Я хочу́ купи́ть, я хочу́ сде́лать, я хочу́ пое́хать, я хочу́ съесть га́мбургер.

Using the word как in time expressions

I was at the theater, exciting that I was reaching a milestone in my stay in Russia. I wanted to tell my friends:

–On Saturday I will have been living in Russia for one year!

So I started:

–В суббо́ту я бу́ду…3On Saturday I will…

Oops. I dug myself into this grammatically complex English construction and got stuck. How do you express the future perfect continuous (“will have been living”) in Russian? Thank goodness my friend, who knows English well, was there to rescue me. He knew what I was trying to say and provided the correct version:

–В суббо́ту бу́дет год, как я живу́ в Росси́и.

This is a complete reformulation of the English, but the Russian construction is much simpler: “On Saturday [it] will be a year as I live in Russia.”

My lightbulb moment: Sometimes we have to reformulate sentences. Something that can be so simple in Russian can be very complex in English, and vice-versa.

Фото автора Cup of Couple: Pexels

Making mistakes

This is not a lightbulb moment, but something I came to realize over the years of learning. Mistakes are precisely how I got to understand most of what I know now. As embarrassing as they were in the moment, my mistakes opened new doors to my understanding of the language. My advice is to get out there and make mistakes! And ask people to correct you (especially if they want to laugh at your mistakes).

Tell us about your most recent lightbulb moment when learning Russian in the comment section.

  • 1
    Like rosy lips without a smile,/ without grammatical mistakes/ I do not love the Russian language.
  • 2
    I haven’t eaten a hamburger in a long time.
  • 3
    On Saturday I will…
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  1. David Kerr:

    Speaking of making mistakes, maybe you should look again at the sentence “Something that can be so simple in Russian can be very complex in Russian, and vice-versa.”

    • ryan:

      @David Kerr You’re right, David! Thanks for catching that!

  2. Xavier:

    –Я давно́ не ел га́мбургер…
    Shouldn’t « hamburger » be in the genitive plural in this sentence ?
    Thank you for your opinion,

    • ryan:

      @Xavier Ксавиер, спасибо за Ваш комментарий! I believe this post would be of help in this. The sort of “general rule” is that in negated verbs, tangible objects take accusative and intangible objects take genitive. However, it is not a hard rule and certainly you can say it the way you did. I’m glad you pointed that out, as this is a difficult part of Russian grammar, even for native speakers.