Corner crew

Last week, I took a moment to discuss verb aspects, in hopes of clearing up those scary words perfective and imperfective. Today I want to share the amazing formula with which Russian verbs become perfective or imperfective.

Very aspects are largely an afterthought in Latin languages, and almost always a complete mystery in English, but they are so important in Russian that they literally affect every choice of every verb you ever use. This is one of the many details of Russian that tends to scare people off, but once you understand it, it will become one of the things that you love about the language.

Every Russian verb is either perfective or imperfective. Only a rare handful are both. When you talk about doing anything, your choice of verb requires you to know whether it is being done in an ongoing way (imperfective) or in a temporary, or complete (perfective) way.

Verb pairs

Because it is so completely different to think in this way, a concept of verb pairs gets used a lot. Many books, web sites, teachers, etc., will describe verb as aspect pairs: one the perfective, and one the imperfective.

Indeed, out of logical necessity, there are always at least two. (Except in those rare cases of a single verb that is both.) You need to have a way to describe the action in an ongoing way as well as a completed way, so it's convenient to learn both at once.

For example, people typically learn видеть and увидеть together. The same with говорить and сказать. And снимать-снять, пить-выпить, and so on.

Yes, I can see how this is actually a good way to ease the learner's mind into a new way of thinking. The problem is, it's wrong.

Word stems

Only a small number of Russian verbs exist in pairs. Most of the time, that's just not how they work. Learning to think of them as pairs is wrong, and it is setting yourself up for difficulty later on. In reality, the formula is really only a tiny bit more complicated, and it would be much better if people learned it correctly from the start.

Most Russian words consist of a stem, a prefix, a suffix, and various endings. A stem can usually become a verb or a noun, depending on what ending is applied. When the stem is used as a verb, it is imperfective, and it describes an action at its most basic level.

For instance, the stem -каз- describes "indicating" or "pointing", but at a more basic leven than can be described with any English word I can think of. This isn't even a useful word on its own, so it's never seen. But the stem exists.

In many cases, you could now just add the -ать ending to make this into an imperfective verb describing an action based on the meaning of that stem. However in this case, казать is not a word you'll actually see used.

The magic is in the prefix

Adding any of the various Russian prefixes allows the meaning to be tailored. For instance, от- means "away from", and when you add it to казать you get отказать, which means "to refuse". You can think of it as "point away". Similarly, у- means "out", and no surprise, указать means "to point out". What's more interesting is that adding any prefix to a stem makes that stem perfective.

You'll often find that most times when you would use an imperfective, the basic stem works. But there are still plenty of times when you'll want an imperfective version of a prefixed verb. Fortunately, there's one easy way to get it.

Adding the prefix -ывать onto the end of a perfective verb stem changes it all back to imperfective. So when someone pointed out a location on a map, for instance, you would use указать, but if they are pointing out the location right now, you would use указывать.


That description may or may not have been clear, so here are a few examples of verb construction at work:

stem meaning thought

imperfective verb to think

perfective verb to think up, invent

perfective verb to think about, consider

imperfective verb thinking up, inventing

imperfective verb thinking about, considering


As I said, it's just a bit more difficult than memorizing verb pairs. But I promise it's only a little bit more difficult! And unlike verb pairs, which require you to do endless memorization without any understanding, this gives you an actual understanding of the workings of verb construction. Understanding how it works gives you the ability to break down and understand words you don't know, and form new words on-the-fly if you need to, and helps to build that web of knowledge that props up your mind when memory fails!



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