Aspect in Russian verbs

The Russian verb system is dominated by aspect. You must learn aspect to understand Russian verbs. Unfortunately, many English speakers have trouble understanding the concept of aspect because our language doesn’t have it.

Most Russian verbs have two aspects: imperfective and perfective. There is an imperfective form and a perfective form. Perfective verbs are usually marked by one of the following methods:

(i) prefixation: чита́ть “to read, imperfective” v.s. прочита́ть “to read, perfective
(ii) an internal modification: дава́ть “to give, imp.” v.s. дать “to give, perf.”
(iii) a totally different root: говори́ть “to say, imp.” v.s. сказа́ть “to say, perf.”
(iv) or a simple stress shift: насыпа́ть “to pour, imp.” v.s. насы́пать “to pour, perf.”

As you progress in your Russian studies, you will notice that prefixation and internal modifications are the most common ways to create imperfective-perfective pairs. However, there is no standardized method of “guessing” a perfective form from an imperfective one, so you’re going to have to memorize imperfective-perfective forms when you learn a new verb.

Aspect basically tells us whether the action is completed or not. The imperfective aspect is used when the action is in progress or happens often (habitual). The perfective aspect emphasizes one successful completion of the action (past or future). So in simple terms: imperfective means not completed and perfective means completed…and whenever the completed result isn’t important, the imperfective aspect is used (thus leaving the idea of completed or not completed up in the air).

Since perfective verbs emphasize the completion of an action, they cannot be in the present tense. Instead, present tense conjugations are used to form the future tense of perfective verbs. (Note that this contrasts with imperfective verbs, which use быть + infinitive to form the future tense).

Let’s see an example of conjugation with the verb чита́ть/прочита́ть “to read.” The first verb: чита́ть is imperfective and the second: прочита́ть is perfective.

Imperfective aspect Perfective aspect
чита́ю чита́ем
чита́ешь чита́ете
чита́ет чита́ют
чита́л прочита́л
чита́ла прочита́ла
чита́ло прочита́ло
чита́ли прочита́ли
бу́ду чита́ть бу́дем чита́ть прочита́ю прочита́ем
бу́дешь чита́ть бу́дете чита́ть прочита́ешь прочита́ете
бу́дет чита́ть бу́дут чита́ть прочита́ет прочита́ют
чита́й прочита́й
чита́йте прочита́йте

Now let’s see some examples of this verb.

(i) Вчера́ он чита́л кни́гу. “Yesterday he read a book.” (Imperfective)
(ii) Вчера́ он прочита́л кни́гу от нача́ла до конца́. “Yesterday he read the book from beginning to end.” (Perfective)

In the first example, we are using the imperfective aspect. Why? Because we are focusing on the fact that yesterday he read a book. It isn’t important whether he finished reading it or not. We are simply say that ‘he read a book yesterday.’

In the second example, we are using the perfective aspect. Why? Because we are focusing on the fact that yesterday he read a book from beginning to end. This means that we are stressing the result: he completely read the book. Since he finished the book from beginning to end, the action is done.

Let’s see some examples with other verbs.

(i) Он открыва́л окно́. “He opened the window.” (Imperfective)
(ii) Он откры́л окно́. “He opened the window.” (Perfective)

These examples both seem to translate the same thing, right? Nope, they are both different! Remember how I mentioned that perfective verbs describe one successful completion of an action? This means that the action in the second example is still relevant to the present time, thus the window is still open. The first example is imperfective, thus the action must have been annulled or canceled (thus the window is now closed).

This may seem a little sketchy right now, but let’s see another example.

(i) Она́ приходи́ла. “She came.” (Imperfective)
(ii) Она́ пришла́. “She came.” (Perfective)

Now think about the paragraph you read earlier. “[…] perfective verbs describe one successful completion of an action […, which is] still relevant to the present time.”

(i) Она́ приходи́ла. “She came.” (and isn’t here anymore)
(ii) Она́ пришла́. “She came.” (and is still here)

So in the first example, she came but she isn’t here any more. In the second example, we use the perfective aspect because her action (coming) was one successful action. That means that she is still here, and hasn’t left.

If you still have many questions in your mind, simply think of that earlier paragraph: one successful action. If there was or will be a successful action, then the verb is perfective. There are also some adverbial expressions that encourage (but don’t require) the use of either imperfective or perfective aspects. Let’s see some of these:

Imperfective Perfective
всегда́ “always” вдруг “suddenly”
вре́мя от вре́мени “from time to time” неконе́ц “finally”
ещё раз “again” неожи́данно “unexpectedly”
иногда́ “sometimes” пока́ не “until”
ка́ждый день “every day” совсе́м “quite, completely”
мно́го раз “many times” сра́зу “immediately”
не раз “more than once” уже́ “already”
никогда́ “never”
обы́чно “usually”
пока́ “while”
постоя́нно “constantly”
ре́дко “rarely”
ча́сто “often”

So next time you have a question of imperfective or perfective – refer to this:

Imperfective or perfective?

Present tense

Perfective verbs cannot be in the present tense, so the action is imperfective.

Я чита́ю.
“I am reading.”

Я отдыха́ю по воскресе́ньям.
“I relax on Sundays.”

Past tense

Imperfective past tense verbs are used for:

incomplete or prolonged actions

Я рабо́тал всю неде́лю.
“I worked all week.”

repeated actions

Я не раз объясня́л это.
“I have explained this more than once.”

annulled or cancelled actions

Я открыва́л окно́. (Я откры́л и закры́л)
“I opened the window. (I opened and closed)”

no stress on completion of action (so it could have been completed, but it isn’t relevant)

Вчера́ он чита́л кни́гу.
“Yesterday he read a book.”

an attempt at the successful completion of an action

Perfective past tense verbs are used to mark:

single completed actions

Он вы́пил стака́н пи́ва.
“He drank a glass of beer.”

Я откры́л окно. (а не закры́л)
“I opened the window. (and didn’t close it)”

Вчера он прочита́л книгу от нача́ла до конца́.
“Yesterday he read the book from beginning to end.”

Future tense

Imperfective future tense verbs are used for:

incomplete actions

Когда ты придёшь, мы бу́дем у́жинать.
“When you arrive we will be having dinner.”

repeated actions

Я бу́ду писа́ть тебе пи́сьма каждый день.
“I will write you letters every day.”

actions that are about to begin

Сейчас мы бу́дем вы́ходить.
“We are going to go out now.”

Perfective future tense verbs are used for:

single completed actions

Я напишу́ тебе письмо́.
“I will write you a letter.”

I hope you have learned something from this post. If you have any questions, feel free to comment! I hope to do more posts about aspect in the near future. 🙂

10 thoughts on “Aspect in Russian verbs

  1. i have really understood the perfective aspect really well now….Before, there was an ambiguity in the present tense of the perfective aspect………now i know there are only used as future tenses………..balshoe spacibo

    1. You are very welcome, Ton! Thank you for reading it! This article will soon get a face-lift and I plan on making even better! If you have any recommendations feel free to let me know!

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