Perfective And Imperfective: Verb Aspects Demystified

I've already talked about several language concepts which seem to give English-speakers trouble when learning a foreign language, but there are still more to discuss! Today, I would like to discuss the difference between perfective and imperfective verbs.

Perfect doesn't mean flawless...

If we hunt back to its Latin origins, we find that the word perfect meant "complete," and that's what a perfective verb describes: an action that is complete.

When you say, "I washed the car", you are referring to a single instance of washing, and you are saing that it started and finished in the past. It is complete. This is perfective.

Some more examples:

  • Last night, I watched television.
  • My sister visited Paris last summer.
  • Tell me who ate the ice cream.

Imperfective? Well, it ain't perfect.

If perfective means completed, you've probably already figured out that imperfective means "not completed." Imperfective verbs describe action that is, was, or will be ongoing at the time they reference.

Referring back to our example above, if you say, "I was washing the car," you are clarifying that at the time to which you are referring, you were engaged in the act of washing, and it was ongoing, ie incomplete.

Some more examples:

  • I was watching television when you called.
  • My sister was visiting Paris while we were on summer break.
  • John was eating the ice cream when I walked into the kitchen.

Summary

I first experienced the concept of perfective and imperfective when learning to form the past tense of Spanish verbs, and I remember how it confused me. Today, I think of how incredibly crucial and inescapable this concept is in Slavic languages, and I look back at the Spanish past tense like it's child's play.

This subject doesn't really get much attention in English because we tend to indicate imperfective verbs by use of the gerund (-ing), but in Latin languages it will affect the endings of some verb conjugations, and in Slavic languages it will actually dictate which verb you use! It is definitely an vital concept for language study, and it will be important next week when we look into the subjunctive mood. I'll bet you can't wait!


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  • Thank you so much for that clarification. I think I just had an "aha" moment for my Hindi grammar. I know I learned about perfect and imperfect in school, but it was so long ago!

  • Wonderful!

  • Great post Randy,These tenses are being called the 'simple past' (perfective) and 'past progressive' (imperfective) more and more commonly.This is something that I personally prefer because, as you mentioned, the term 'perfect' leads to a lot of confusion.Nick

  • I was just confused by the explanation I got from Wikipedia and other works by those semanticists, and I ran into this site and it really helps. Thank you so much!

  • Thanks for posting this! I'm studying Polish and it's great to see such a clear explanation.

  • Thank you so much, finally a clear and simple explanation. This has been causing me quite the headache whilst learning Russian.

  • I was going through several pages desperately to find something that would make sense... This is just awesome. THANK YOU!

  • In English, how does the grammatical perfect relate to aspect? Clearly, the perfect construction "John has eaten lunch" is not perfective because it conveys an action with relevance to the present. It does not have clearly defined temporal boundaries. Yet, I've seen many grammar books call this construction the "present perfective"! Is that simply a confusion of terms, or are they writing from a different grammatical perspective?

  • how many aspects in english??? im really confuse because the internet tells that the four aspects are simple, perfect, perfect progressive and progressive aspect. What about these two?

  • @dwheresmymama, you're right, that is confusing! Here's a start: I think it is a confusion of terms and the English tense should be referred to as present perfect, not present perfective. But you've made an excellent point: this association with the word "perfect(ive)" is why English speakers also get confused when learning the reverse. Perfective is whether the action was solidly completed (or failed, if negative) in the past, while the perfect aspect in English merely indicates that the action STARTED before the present (e.g. "I have lived here for nine years.") and can also be used in a more "perfective" type way with the adverb "already" - e.g. "I've already done my homework" (no time marker except the adverb) versus "I did my homework earlier [today/this week]."So, to shorten it: PERFECTIVE - aspect not in English, completed actions. PERFECT - English aspect, actions started (and sometimes finished) before the tense of the auxiliary verb, not used with normal time markers; only "already" and maybe a few other adverbs.Hope this helps!

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