Friday, October 23, 2009

So you're curious about the difference between Russian perfective and imperfective verbs, are you?

The following is my work of mad genius on a topic I have contemplated for way, way too long: Perfective and Imperfective verbs in Russian.

I was confused for years about when to use perfective v. imperfective, despite the fact that I of course do it correctly in English all day long...I just don't know I'm doing it. (Or I didn't know I was doing it, until learning Russian. That's one of the great things about picking up a second or third language; insights into the languages you already speak.)

So, as you probably already know, or will learn soon, each Russian verb comes as a perfective-imperfective pair. (Verbs of motion in Russian sort of have this too, but are much more complicated, so best to forget about them for this discussion.) Every time you learn a verb, you need to memorize both forms.

People tend to get bogged down here in a few ways. There are some kinda-rules about forming the perfectives. Also sometimes perfectives are made just by adding a prefix to the imperfective form, so you might think, Ah, There is a Method to This Madness. Trust me, it's not that helpful in the beginning. It is best to let knowledge about those rules & prefixes to accumulate as it may without trying to make too much sense of it. Ditto, the meaning of the prefixes. This will only confuse you when you're trying to choose a verb tense. As you get more sophisticated, you'll enjoy knowing the meaning, but you don't need it to use the verbs correctly. Also, just don't worry about the rare cases when your teacher tells you that there's no perfective, or no imperfective, or that it isn't really used or whatever. People tend to fixate on stuff like that, like "ahhh, it's even more confusing". Forget about it.

Here is how to do it:

When you are using a verb in the present tense, always use the imperfective. There is no present-perfect, so this is easy.

When you need to say something in the past or the future, your default verb is the perfective. This is your simple, "I did X or Y", "I'm gonna do X or Y" form. I've told this to Russian teachers and they all scream and say, no, it's not really more common or simple, etc., but for me thinking of it this way has been a godsend in terms of picking the right verb. Yesterday, I scheduled a meeting. (perfective) Yesterday, I gave X a gift (perfective). Tomorrow, I'm going to wash my face and read the newspaper (perfective). And so on.

The only time you want to use the past imperfective, or the future imperfective, is when you're saying something imperfective. That's anything that in English you would use a verb tense like, "I had been reading" "I will have been reading" "I was reading my book when X happened"...i.e. to indicate a continuing action. I'm sure your Russian teacher will tell you at length, better than I can, what "imperfective" means.... An uncompleted action, any action that you are speaking about in general, that you are specifying that you do every day or as a matter of habit, or for a specific duration of time.

I often got confused about this because, say, I was going to say, "Tomorrow I'll get up and wash my face." I would think, "well, that's something I do every day, thus it's habitual, etc., maybe I should use imperfective." No. You use the perfective, unless you are *specifying* that the action is either a) usual, or b) in the process of going on.

Yow. Ok. Well I hope that might help. In my experience with learning Russian, I'd spend years struggling to really grasp a point of grammar, and then once I did, I'd find a really easy way of organizing it mentally so I wouldn't forget it. Then I'd wish the teacher had just told me that easy way in the beginning. But I'm not sure, actually, that anyone gets to skip the lengthy-confusion period. !

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