Lesson 11: Introduction to verb aspect in Russian

Welcome to the eleventh lesson in our beginner's course. This lesson will cover verb aspect, one of the most difficult parts of learning Russian.

The property of a verb’s aspect does not exist in English, or most languages for that matter. This lesson will focus on introducing you to the meaning and uses of verb aspect. Don't worry if you don't quite understand everything, though. We'll be going over verb aspect more in future lessons.

What is verb aspect?

One of the most difficult parts of learning Russian is understanding the concept of Russian verb aspect. The property of a verb’s aspect does not exist in English, or most languages for that matter.

In Russian, there are two verb aspects: imperfective and perfective. Most verbs exist in aspectual pairs – they have an imperfective form and a perfective form. However, this is not the case for every verb.

Broadly speaking, the imperfective aspect is used for incomplete actions, while the perfective aspect is used for completed actions.

While Russian verbs only have three tenses – present, past, and future – the use of verbal aspect adds nuance (and complication) to the meaning of Russian verbs.

Usually, Russian courses introduce beginner students to verb aspect only after they have covered the past and future tenses. However, I think there are two problems with that approach: it means you have to learn the same thing all over again; and most likely, what you learnt in the first place was incorrect.

So, in this lesson, we’ll review the basic of Russian verb aspect so that you can better understand future verb lessons correctly.

Imperfective vs. perfective aspect

The imperfective aspect describes incomplete, ongoing, interrupted or repeated actions.

The perfective aspect describes completed actions.

How to use the two aspects across the different tenses

Here are example sentences of how to use the imperfective and perfective aspects across the present, past, and future tenses.

Present tense

Imperfective aspect

You can only use the imperfective aspect in the present tense. There is no perfective aspect in the present tense.

  • Я читаю книгу. = I am reading a book.
  • Они живут в Берлине. = They live in Berlin.
  • Каждый день она пьёт кофе и читает газету. = Every day she drinks coffee and reads the newspaper.
  • Мне нравится погода, когда светит солнце и идет дождь. = I like the weather when the sun is shining and it is raining.
  • Он играет на пианино уже час. = He's been playing the piano for an hour.

Past tense

You can use both the imperfective and perfective aspects in the past tense.

Imperfective aspect

  • Вчера он читал книгу. = He read a book yesterday.
  • Я открывала окно. = I opened the window (as in, opened and then closed it).
  • Он строил дом целый месяц. = He built a house for the entire month.
  • Во время каникул мы с друзьями гуляли по городу каждый день. = During the holidays, my friends and I walked around the city every day.
  • Когда я слушала музыку, сестра смотрела телевизор. = While I listened to music, my sister watched TV.

Perfective aspect

  • Вчера он прочитал книгу от начала до конца. = Yesterday he read a book from beginning to end.
  • Я открыла окно. = I opened the window.
  • Он построил дом за месяц. = He built the house for a month.
  • Когда мы приехали на вокзал, поезд уже ушел. = When we arrived at the train station, the train had already departed.

Future tense

You can use both the imperfective and perfective aspects in the future tense.

Imperfective aspect

  • Завтра утром я буду играть в шахматы со стариками в парке. = Tomorrow morning I will play chess with the old men in the park.
  • Сегодня вечером я буду делать домашнее задание в библиотеке. = This evening I will do my homework in the library.

Perfective aspect

  • Скоро они узнают хорошие новости. = They will soon find out the good news.
  • Я напишу вам электронное письмо. = I will write you an email.

Common aspectual verb pairs

  • брать / взять = to take
  • говорить / сказать = to say
  • давать / дать = to give
  • делать / сделать = to do
  • думать / подумать = to think
  • платить / заплатить = to pay
  • покупать / купить = to buy
  • помнить / запомнить = to remember
  • помогать / помочь = to help
  • понимать / понять = to understand
  • слышать / услышать = to hear
  • смотреть / посмотреть = to watch
  • учить / выучить = to learn
  • хотеть / захотеть = to want
  • читать / прочитать = to read

Common words used with certain verb aspects

Imperfective aspect

  • всегда = always
  • время от времени = from time to time
  • ещё раз = again
  • иногда = sometimes
  • каждый день = every day
  • много раз = many times
  • не раз = more than once
  • никогда = never
  • обычно = usually
  • пока = while
  • постоянно = constantly
  • редко = rarely
  • часто = often

Perfective aspect

  • вдруг = suddenly
  • неконец = finally
  • неожиданно = unexpectedly
  • пока не = until
  • совсем = quite, completely
  • сразу = immediately
  • уже = already
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