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Russian Verb Aspects
Russian Grammar


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Russian Verbs - Aspect

The Russian language has only three basic tenses. Present, past and future. However due to such simplicity we need to introduce the concept of aspects. There are two aspects in Russian. The imperfective aspect and the perfective aspect. Aspects are only used in the past and future tense. When you are talking in the present tense, you can ignore aspects all together.

Aspects are used to indicate if an action was completed successfully or is ongoing. To do this in English we use extra verbs like “had” and “have”. For example, in the phrase “I ate.”, the action is completed. However, in a phrase like “I have been eating”, it is implied that action is not yet completed. Aspects are used to illustrate this difference, however their use in Russian is much more defined.

The aspects are:
Imperfective - Incomplete, ongoing, habitual, reversed or repeated actions
Perfective - Actions completed successfully.

The perfective aspect is not created by changing the ending. There are normally two words for each verb. One is the imperfective, the other is the perfective. Often these two words are closely related, but this is not always the case. (Often the perfective is simply prefixed with “По”). If you look at the conjugated verbs list on this site you can see some examples of how verbs are conjugated in both aspects. Here are some examples of verb pairs.

(Imperfective, Perfective)

Жить, Прожить - live

Любить, Полюбить - love

Делать, Сделать - do, make

Говорить, Сказать - talk, speak, say.

Работать, Поработать - work


Grammar Note: Aspects indicate whether an action was completed or not. Tenses indicate when an action happened (past, present, future).

If you are unsure which to use, then just use the imperfective. The perfective aspect is specifically for completed actions.

Here is a set of guidelines to help you choose which aspect to use.

Imperfective Aspect

Incomplete, ongoing, interrupted or repeated actions

1. In the present tense the action is still ongoing by definition so the imperfective aspect is always used in the present tense.

2. Unfinished and ongoing actions always use the imperfective aspect.

Я работал ... - I was working ...

Я шёл ... - I was going (by foot) ...


3. Actions that are repeated an unspecified number of times, or are habitually repeated are imperfective.

я работал каждый день - I worked everyday.


4. Expressions when you specify a length of time use the imperfective aspect. (All day, for 2 hours, etc.) (Verbs beginning with “про” may be an exception to this rule.)

Я работал два часа - I worked for 2 hours.


5. Verbs that express the state of something, rather than an action, use the imperfective aspect.

Я был дома - I was home.


6. If an action is reversed the imperfective is used. For example if a window is opened, then using the imperfect form of ‘open’ may imply that it has since been closed.

7. If you are saying that something didn’t happen you use the imperfective aspect.

8. If there is no result of the action, or it wasn’t successfully completed then use the imperfective aspect.

Perfective Aspect

Successfully completed actions.

1. The perfective aspect is used for single events where the event has been fully completed.

Я купил кофе - I bought a coffee

Я пошла домой - I went home.


Understanding “successfully” completed.

Using the perfective implies that the action was completed successfully, unless used in the negative (see note below). So for example saying that ‘He took an exam on Friday’, if ‘took’ is used in the perfective it implies that he passed the exam. Using the imperfective would imply that the result is unknown, or he didn’t pass.

It’s important to remember that by using the perfective you are implying that the action was indeed completed successfully. You are also implying that the action was not reversed or undone.

Aspects in the negative

Using the negative with perfective verbs indicates the person failed to do that action. Using the imperfective will normally simply mean that it didn’t happen.

Я не позвонила - I failed to phone (perfective) (but I was expected to)

Я не звонила - I didn’t phone. (imperfective)


Summary

In summary it’s easiest ro remember these simple definitions, and refer back to the main text when you are not sure...

Imperfective - Incomplete, ongoing, habitual, reversed or repeated actions
Perfective - Actions completed successfully.

Actually getting a feel for which aspect to use is something that can only come with practice. Reading and listening to Russian text is probably one of the best methods to do this. When you see an aspect used and you are not sure why, stop and think about the situation and see if it fits with the above rules. An English speaker will find it unnatural at first deciding which aspect to use. It’s really something you need to develop a feel for once you know the basic concept.

Conjugated Russian Verbs (Both Aspects)
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