Learning Russian doesn't just mean learning different tenses, but also mastering Russian verb aspect. English divides the present into two distinct forms. Just consider the difference between “I walk” and “I’m walking.”
In Russian though, tenses aren’t classified with labels like imperfect and near future. Like other Slavic languages, Russian uses something called ‘verbal aspect.’
Understanding verbal aspect in Russian is pretty important, so this by the end of this article you’ll understand:
- The basics of Russian verb aspect
- How the imperfective aspect works
- The role of the perfective aspect
- How aspect works for the past and future tense
- How to find and form different aspects
- Hints to understand Russian verb aspect better
So let's jump in!
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What Is Verb Aspect In Russian?
Let’s start this by looking at verb aspect in English. Consider the pairs below.
|I wrote||I was writing|
|I have written||I used to write|
When you learn English grammar, all of these forms are called ‘the past tense’ but it’s easy to see how these four sentences have quite different meanings.
So really the past tense is more of a category than a tense. And you can think of the Russian past tense this way too.
But the major difference is that Russian verbs have aspect (вид). This expresses the ‘completeness’ of an action – whether it’s finished or ongoing. So looking at the English examples through this lens, you can see a similar distinction.
|I wrote||I was writing|
|I have written||I used to write|
The difference between Russian and English is that English uses the word “write” (and its different forms) no matter what. However, to say “I wrote” in Russian would use one aspect of a verb, while “I was writing” uses a different one.
|I wrote||I was writing|
The Two Russian Verb Aspects
Thankfully, Russian has fewer verb forms than English, so you can actually translate all English past tense forms using just two verb forms. These two aspects are called the imperfective (несовершенный вид) and the perfective (совершенный вид).
- писал (Imperfective)
- …was writing
- …used to write
- написал (Perfective)
- …did write
- …have written
- …had written
Aspect is an element in all Russian verbs. So that means that every verb you learn will either be perfective or imperfective.
Now that you’ve got a general idea, let’s look at some examples to see how verb aspect works in Russian.
Two verbs that showcase the distinction between the imperfective and perfective are пить/выпить and читать/прочитать. You could translate these as “to drink” and “to drink” respectively, but that doesn’t fully express their meaning.
The Imperfective Aspect
The imperfective is an action that’s in progress, habitual, or ongoing.
- Я пью кофе (I drink coffee/ I’m drinking coffee)
- Каждый день пил кофе (Everyday I drank coffee)
- Я буду пить кофе (I will drink coffee)
It can also refer to actions that are incomplete or the completeness is unimportant.
- я пил кофе (I was drinking coffee/I used to drink coffee)
(whether the coffee was finished is unimportant)
You also use the imperfective when time is a greater focus. Additionally, if you can use a word like часто (often), обычно (usually), or регулярно (regularly) then you’re talking about the imperfective aspect.
- Я регулярно читаю (I regularly read)
- Я часто читаю (I read often)
- Сейчас читаю (I’m reading now)
The Perfective Aspect
While the Russian imperfective aspect is used for something ongoing, the perfective is used to express a completed, finished, or instantaneous action.
- Я выпью кофе (I’ll drink the coffee – I’ll drink to completion)
- я выпил кофе (I drank the coffee – the coffee is gone)
- Она прочитала книгу (She read the book – to completion)
It’s worth noting that no perfective present tense can exist. So this means that as a whole, Russian verbs will have a total of five tenses.
|Imperfective||я читал/а||читаю||я буду читать|
Comparing The Russian Aspects
By now, you can see some of the distinctions between the two verb aspects.
- Анна читала книгу (Anna was reading the book- she hasn’t finished)
- Анна прочитала книгу (Anna read the book – the action has been completed)
- Я не читал статью (I haven’t read the article)
- Я не прочитал статью (I haven’t finished reading the article)
In fact, the two aspects may be used to contrast actions.
- Я долго решал задачу, и наконец решил её (I was working out the problem for a while, and finally I worked it out (solved it))
How To Form Perfective Verbs
Generally speaking, you’ll encounter the несовершенный вид (imperfective form) of a verb first. As the two aspects come as a pair, there are several ways to identify them. This includes 1) using prefix 2) adding syllables and 3) having entirely different roots.
Prefixes And Verb Aspects
The majority of Russian verb pairs differ from each other with a prefix. In this case, the prefix is attached to an imperfective verb which makes it perfective. Some of the most common prefixes are below with the imperfective form given first.
|с-||петь / спеть||to sing|
|пере-||ночевать/переночевать||to spend the night|
|при-||готовить / приготовить||to prepare|
- Я написал письмо (I wrote a letter – it’s ready to send)
- Он приготовил ужин (he cooked dinner – it’s ready to eat)
By far, most common prefix that marks a verb in the вершенный вид is по-
- смотреть / посмотреть (to watch)
- Нравиться / понравиться (to be liked)
- Завтракать / позавтракать (to have breakfast)
- Любить / полюбить (to love, to like)
- Ты уже позавтракала (You already had breakfast)
- Новый фильм мне понравился (I liked the new movie)
And it’s worth noting that по- is regularly used to put verbs of motion into the perfective.
- Шел дождь (it was raining)
- Пошел дождь (it rained)
- Мой друг ехал домой (my friend was driving home)
- Мой друг поехал домой (my friend drove home)
The Beginning Prefix
There’s another prefix in Russian that makes a verb perfective, but also changes the meaning. The addition of за- means “to start” or “to begin doing something”.
- Болеть / заболеть (to be sick / to fall ill)
- Говорить / заговорить (to talk / to start to talk)
- Цвести / зацвести (to flower / to bloom)
- я заболел (I fell ill)
- он заговорил (He started to talk)
Additionally, many verbs in Russian can take on multiple prefixes to mean different things. But often these meanings are quite logical based on the prefix as you can see below.
- (imperfective) Ваня говорила (Vanya was talking)
- (perfective/complete) Ваня поговорила (Vanya talked a bit)
- (perfective/complete) Ваня заговорила (Vanya started to talk)
Russian Verb Aspect And Added Syllables
While most Russian verbs change aspects through prefixes, some do so by adding or removing a syllable in the verb.
With these verbs, the perfective form is shorter as the imperfective is the one to take the extra syllable.
Generally speaking these pairs come from verbs with a perfective form that is made through adding a prefix to a basic imperfective verb. So in this case the imperfective писать (to write) takes the prefix под- to take on the meaning “to sign”.
- Подписал договор (he signed the agreement)
- Подписывал договор (he was signing the agreement)
In addition, a number of other verbs differ in their aspects according to a vowel.
|Кончать||кончить||to finish, to end|
Unusual And Incomplete Verb Pairs
A small number of Russian verbs form their verbal aspects with entirely different words. And you’ve probably already run into some like говорить / сказать. Fortunately, there aren’t many of these verbs overall.
- Говорить сказать (to speak, say, to tell)
- Брать взять (to take)
- Класть положить (to place, to put)
- Я говорил по-тайски (I was speaking Thai’ (imperfective))
- Что сказала она? (What did she say?)
Plus, some verbs only have one aspect. The examples below are only in несовершенный вид because describing them as completed actions makes no sense. That's because you can’t store an object or signify something to completion.
- быть (to be, to exist)
- Значить (to mean, to signify)
- Иметь (to have (used with intangible things)
- Хранить (to keep, to store)
- Стоить (to cost)
Most likely you already know a verb like this. Быть (to be) can only be imperfective because something can only be or exist continuously.
Finally, for some verbs the imperfective and perfective forms are the same. Quite a lot of these have infinitives that end with -овать.
- Модернизировать (to modernize)
- Атаковать (to attack)
Master Russian Verb Aspect
As intimidating as verb aspect may look at first, it means that you only have five tenses to think about. And as long as you think about whether an action is complete or ongoing, you’ll be using aspect after just a bit practice.
At this point, you should have a better understanding of aspect including
- The difference between the imperfective and perfective
- The aspect of each Russian verb tense
- How to identify and make different verb aspects.
Of course, practice makes perfect and what better way to practice than through stories. So apply the rules of StoryLearning® and read books in Russian or Russian short stories. As you read, you'll see Russian verb aspect in action and that will help you to learn and use it naturally.
Happy practicing and until next time – Удача из удач! (Best of luck!)