What Makes Russian So Hard: Perfective and Imperfective Verbs

In the previous two articles, I talked about Russian cases and how words agree in a sentence according to their gender, number, and case. With the cases, the hard part is memorizing all those endings. The concept of grammatical cases is relatively easy. Perfective and imperfective verbs do not create too much extra work for your memory, but comprehending the concept itself can be quite challenging.

I once met a lady whose mother-tongue was Arabic and who spent almost all of her adult life in Russia working for a Russian newspaper as a journalist. She was also married to a Russian man. Her Russian was perfect, and the only thing that made me suspect that she was not a native Russian speaker was that half of the time she used the wrong verbal aspect, i.e. picked perfective verb instead of imperfective and vice versa. She mastered everything but the verbal aspect.

For a long time, I wondered if it is even possible for a non-native speaker to master perfective and imperfective verbs, and most of the time, my answer would be negative. But one day, I received a letter from a gentleman in Japan, Mr. Yukihide Hashimoto. In his letter, he told me that he wrote a book about the Russian verbal aspect and humbly asked me for my opinion. The title of the book was “Effective Learning of the Russian Verbal Aspect Based on Novel Methods.” This book was an eye-opener for me and provided hard proof that Russian verbal aspect CAN be learned and mastered. The book made me realize that the verbal aspect is much easier than many people, including me and my fellow Russian teachers, tend to believe. Before I dive deeper into the subject and tell you all the secrets, let me list the reasons why so many Russian learners struggle with perfective and imperfective verbs.

A Nightmare by Design

The terms are confusing. The name совершенный (perfective) misleadingly makes us believe that the verbal aspect is similar to perfect tenses in English or other European languages. The opposition of perfective-imperfective (совершенный – несовершенный вид глагола) gives a hint that the aspects could be about whether the action has been completed or is still ongoing. That is only partially true and does not fully explain the difference between the two aspects. Confused Russian learners get more and more frustrated when they see imperfective verbs for actions that were completed long ago and perfective verbs for lasting actions.

Example of imperfective for completed action:  Я их подвозил однажды. – I gave them a ride once. Подвозить is an imperfective verb.

Example of perfective for lasting action: Вы таблеточки попейте, походите на массаж – You should take these pills and try massage (=for some time). Попить, походить are perfective verbs.

Explanations are poor and misleading. Native speakers are taught in school that imperfective verbs are for actions that are not completed (to do, to be doing) and perfective are for completed actions (have done). As I showed above, that explanation often does not work. Most native speakers don’t care though because they just know how to use verbs. Foreign speakers who dare to learn Russian are offered a number of other poor explanations: single action vs. repetitive action, the action that resulted in something vs. action that didn’t, sequential actions vs. parallel actions, and so on. Each of those explanations may work in some cases, but anyone can find plenty of examples contradicting them. Why are Russian textbooks so bad at explaining the verbal aspect?

Mostly because native speakers do not understand why they choose perfective or imperfective verbs. Verbal aspect is as natural for Russians as definite and indefinite articles for English speakers. The aspectual opposition is internalized by native speakers along with the rest of the language during the first couple years of their lives. Because Russian native speakers do not quite understand the actual meaning of the grammatical aspect, they can’t explain it properly. After all, Russian is their mother-tongue, so they don’t have to understand its grammar to speak it fluently.

Does that mean that foreign speakers are doomed to always screw up perfective and imperfective verbs? Of course not. In order to master verbal aspect, a learner should change the approach a bit and start thinking about the world the way Russians think about it.

Learning to Think Russian

Metaphors are a big help here. I am going to borrow a metaphor from a good friend of mine who, being an English speaker, advanced in mastering Russian aspect to nearly native level.

Imagine a river. The water is clean, the currents are strong. The river flows on and on. You are in the middle of the river. Its water surrounds you. You don’t know where the river starts or where it ends. You don’t even see the banks because the river is wide. You drift along. This would represent the imperfective aspect. The action, just like the flow of the river, carries you, and you know nothing about the beginning or the end of it. You are in the very middle, and you are surrounded by the action. Now, imagine that there is a beach on the river, and you are enjoying a sunny day. You see the sunlight slicing the streams of water. The imaginary slices of water are perfective verbs, and they have limits and borders. Or, imagine that you decided to take a swim, and you enter the river and cool yourself with its crystal water. Then you go back to the warm sand. That would be the perfective aspect. It is all about limits.

As you might have noticed, verbal aspect refers not to the physical reality itself but to the way you want to represent it. Your mental focus will help you to decide whether you should pick perfective or imperfective (again, I should thank my exceptionally talented friend for pointing that out for me). If, in your mental image, the action surrounds the agent (subject), then it is imperfective. If the action is just a slice in the timeline, then it is perfective.

In the book that I mentioned in the beginning, the author uses another metaphor: the action box. In brief, if an action is like a cloud and its borders are vague and foggy, then it is imperfective. If you can imagine that you can package the action in a box and its borders are clear on the timeline, then it is perfective. Hashimoto’s book has a lot of very helpful examples and explores many different implementations of the action box principles, so I highly recommend it.

Communicative Semantics

Along with the idea of inner boundaries, verbal aspect in Russian carries communicative connotations, and this is exactly what makes most traditional textbooks useless. Maria Bezyaeva, a late professor of Moscow State University, wrote in her book “Семантика коммуникативного уровня звучащего языка” that, in the communicative level, imperfective verbs express the idea of what one must, has to, or needs to do, while perfective verbs signify an opportunity or capability to do something.

  • Ты ходил к врачу? Have you been to the doctor? (imperfective here implies that you had to go to the doctor, and you had no choice).
  • Ты сходил к врачу?  Have you been to the doctor? (the perfective verb shows that you had an opportunity to see a doctor, but it was entirely up to you whether you take it or not).

The communicative semantics make a lot of sense to me as both a native speaker and a linguist. Its explanatory power is impressive, and I can easily see how that could be applied to Russian foreign language courses.

Tips and Tricks

I hope to come up with a complete online course on Russian verbal aspect one day, but for now, you can observe perfective and imperfective verbs in Russian texts (short stories with dialogs are the best, as well as cartoons and movies, but any authentic material will do). Ask yourself if the choice of the verbal aspect was driven by:

  1. the inner borders in the action vs. being in the middle of the stream of the action, or
  2. the need vs. the opportunity, the necessity vs. the choice.

When your observations reach critical mass, you’ll realize that you understand Russian verbal aspect much better and have even developed the “I just know this is right” feeling.

If you have a language exchange partner, ask for corrections and specifically check the verbs and their aspects. However, do not expect that the native speaker will be able to clearly explain why imperfective is better than perfective in this or that case. As I mentioned, natives are often horrible at explaining their own language. 

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash