The Magical Aspects Of Russian Verb Construction

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.

Examples

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

-дум-
stem meaning thought
думать
imperfective verb to think
придумать
perfective verb to think up, invent
обдумать
perfective verb to think about, consider
придумывать
imperfective verb thinking up, inventing
обдумывать
imperfective verb thinking about, considering

Summary

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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  • Minor editorial comment/question: wouldn't the part that goes onto the end of the word be called a "suffix"?
    Thanks for this. Great post!

  • That depends.
    The endings that reflect noun cases are generally not referred to as suffixes. Neither are those that reflect verb conjucations. I think -ывать *might* be a suffix. But then again, it might not. I'm not sure. When I think of suffixes in Russian, I think of -атель, or -ание.

  • I would agree that these aren't suffixes..I would call them declensions instead.
    Well , nice post Randy about one of the most hard parts of Russian grammar.
    I am not sure , and pls tell me if I am wrong , but I think that there is no method so far to learn these pairs , unless you memorize them :))

  • Nice post, Randy. I've been reading your blog for a couple months and never commented before, but I think your blog is great and your explanations are very clear. I am currently learning Czech, and this is definitely applicable to me as I believe the two have similar grammar, even though I cant ready any of these words! It is my first Slavic language, and I've been learning for about 4 months now. Sometimes it really makes Spanish/Portuguese seem like a piece of cake looking back haha, but really I'm making great progress, and I found the declensions to be easier than expected. Currently working on verb aspect, so, thanks for the post!

  • Thanks so much for this! I am learning Russian right now and currently have a blog about it(although I haven't been very active lately), and I find your posts about Russian very helpful! Thanks again!

  • Yes, learning a Slavic language is much more of a challenge than a Latin language. But I think it's also more rewarding.
    As for reading what I've written, I think it would be worthwhile to spend an afternoon learning the Cyrillic alphabet. There are enough similarities between Slavic languages that you could find my Russian posts useful for Czech too.

  • My question, where can you find lists of root words?

  • Unfortunately, I don't know. I just learn the roots by examining common vocabulary. For instance: you see/hear сказать (to tell), заказать (to order), показать (to show) and you infer that the root каз must mean something along the lines of "indicate". Then you go over to www.wordreference.com/ruen/ and start trying different combinations. You find that there is no казать, but there is a казаться, which means "to seem, to appear". And you find оказать, which means "to render, show"... etc.These roots also lead to nouns, adjectives, etc. A заказ is a reservation. A сказка is a story or fable. Сказочный is "fabled", or "from a fairy taile". Etc.This is, essentially, how I learned Russian! I would spend time every day exploring the roots I had observed, and looking for similarities to other words.

  • Many thanks for this! I am a beginner of Russian, so my questions/comments may show some ignorance!:On top of the "system" you present, aren't there verb "pairs" that are outside of the system, and that need to be memorized? For example:обгонять/обогнать (to outdistance)
    одевать/одеть (to dress)
    опаздывать/опоздать (to be late)To Katie's point below, I believe she's pointing to specific sentence that calls "-ывать" a "prefix": "Adding the prefix -ывать onto the end of a perfective verb stem changes it all back to imperfective." While it might not technically be called a "suffix," my guess is it's certainly not a "prefix." Also, my guess is it is not a "declension," as declensions are applied to nouns, pronouns, adjectives and articles--but not verbs.Thanks again!

  • The words most commonly used is "affix", which implies that it's added to the root, but not necessarily a suffix.And with regard to any word that uses -ывать, -овать, etc., those are still not technically "pairs". They're just words being converted back to imperfective by the addition of an affix.опаздать [perfective] = опазд + (ыв) + ать [imperfective]одеть [perfective] = од + (ев) + ать [imperfective]It's "easier" for teachers to teach pairs, and easier for students to learn pairs, but it's really not correct. The words are not pairs, and you'll understand that all too well if you ask a Russian to tell you the pair for a word.
    (Hint: they'll look at you like you're crazy.)It's important to understand the ebb and flow of "perfective-ness" (if you'll excuse me making up a word). A word starts as an imperfective root, then becomes perfective by the addition of a prefix, but can go back to imperfective by the addition of the -ывать affix.It will seem at times that there are a lot of exceptions to this, but when you really start looking at it more curiously, you'll find that exceptions are actually quite rare. For example, it may seem that опоздать-опаздывать is a pair, and an exception, but if you think about it, опоздать (to be late) is really the prefixes о- and по- added to the root ждать (to wait), so it turns out that опоздать really means "to make someone wait", and it makes more sense that it's perfective once you view it this way.Likewise, your example обогнать is just a morph of гнать. Once you learn to think like this, Russian will become much easier to learn and understand.

  • Cheers--dz

  • Probably the most stupid thing i have ever heard, if you are going to teach russian by the internet then at least make it right your dumb loser.

  • Interesting how you haven't got the stones to use your real name — or any name — when you post this drivel.If you think you can do better, then please, by all means, share the link to YOUR blog so I can learn from you, oh wise one.

  • As a beginning learner of Russian, my most helpful tool so far has been "Roots of the Russian Language: an Elementary Guide to Wordbuilding" by George Z. Patrick.It's basically a dictionary/wordlist of the most common roots in the Russian language (not just for verbs, but for nouns and adjectives, too), as well as some common prefixes and suffixes, along with example words and sentences.I found this book to be incredibly helpful in memorizing new vocabulary, because you understand the words you're trying to learn much better, and they no longer seem like an endless succession of random syllables.When I read this article, my first thought would be how useful that book would be in forming (im)perfective verbs. I can't wait to get started. :-)Thanks so much, OP! This is a much clearer explanation of aspect than my grammar books have provided so far.

  • I'm evidently way behind on this website. I've found this information absolutely CRUCIAL in my learning of Russian. This lesson is very clear and concise- thank you so much for clarifying this. Word construction has completely baffled me until now!

  • That's a great post, thank you for this! You can form so many words by adding the suffixes and prefixes to the stem of a word in Russian. I bet this is one of the reasons why Russian is so difficult to learn.

  • "опоздать" is derived from "поздно" (adverb, meaning "late"). I am not sure you can decompose below "позд-но", because further splitting would move us into the realm of Indo-European lexical heritage. "опаздывать" fits perfectly well into the pattern you described with the distinction that "-о-" is replaced by "-а-" in the stem, but that's a quite common situation with alternating vowels in a stem. You'd never see an alternating vowel in a prefix. That's why "по" is not a prefix here, but simply a part of the stem "-позд-". But I liked your attempt at etymology analysis, it gives food for thought even for a native speaker.

  • Good terms can really be useful from having the complete details you have posted here. Discussing the complete terms of using the proper verb aspects will surely give many returns in learning, and how verb can properly used.

  • Still you will sometimes need to make a perfective version of a verb without adding more new meaning than the aspect. You then mostly add a prefix that essentially do not give any new meaning to the verb stem other than aspect. Also by adding that suffix to a prefixed verb, you create an imperfective member of a prefixed verb pair actually.

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