Verb aspect

  1. Aspect in Russian refers to the view of the speaker toward the action he/she is describing. In fact, the Russian word for aspect (вид) means "view". In most instances, a Russian speaker has a choice of two verbs to describe the same action but from a different view, or focus.
  2. To understand the concept of aspect, first you need to understand how a Russian speaker sees an action. From the point of view of the speaker, an action can be viewеd as a total entity, or it can be viewed in parts: beginning, duration, completion. Consider the act of reading a book. It has:
    A|->B->B->B->B->B->B->|C
    (A) beginning - when you start reading
    (B) duration - the length of time you read
    (C) completion - when you have read the entire piece, including the last word.
  3. The speaker in Russian can focus on any aspect of the process of reading. Points A and C are instantaneous. You can't speak of these points in terms of "duration". To reach point C, you must first go through A and B. You can also stop reading the book at any point in B, that is, before you reach C. In English, this can be expressed with the sentence:
    I stopped reading the book. vs I finished reading the book.
  4. Points A and C can take place in the past or future, but not in the present. Once you have started (or will start) reading the book, the act of starting is (or will be) over with. Only actions that have duration can be in the present. Part B of the act of reading can take place in the past, present or future:
    I was reading the book.
    I am reading the book.
    I will be reading the book.
  5. When a Russian wants to focus on point C in the reading process, that is, the completion of the action, he will use the perfective aspect of a verb. When part B is emphasized, Russian uses the imperfective aspect. When the speaker is talking about the entire act as a totality (A, B and C), he will use the imperfective aspect.
  6. Most Russian verbs come in pairs. Both verbs will mean basically the same thing, but one will be used to describe the imperfective aspect of the action, and the other to describe the perfective aspect.
    Let us look at some examples.
    Вчера вечером я читала книгу.
    Yesterday evening I was reading a book.
  7. The speaker here describes part B of the act of reading. She says nothing about finishing reading the book. The listener should not assume that the book was not finished. The statement also indicates that the action has a sense of duration. It took place over a period of time. Now look at this example:
    Я прочитала книгу вчера вечером.
    I finished reading the book yesterday.
  8. The speaker here emphasizes point C in the act of reading: the actual completion of the reading process, when the last word is read. This point is instantaneous and cannot be expressed as taking place over a period of time. Keep in mind that both verbs describe one and the same action, but two different aspects. Here are some more examples:
    Летом они строили дом.
    In the summer they were building a house.
  9. The house may be completed, or it may not. The statement makes no reference to its completion.
    Look at this statement.
    Летом они построили дом.
    They built the house in the summer.
  10. This statement tells us that the completion took place sometime during the summer, at one particular point in time.
  11. Let us now look at some examples of verb aspect with questions. Always keep in mind that you, the speaker, decide which aspect you will use, depending on the information you want to convey, or the information you want to elicit.
  12. Let's assume you want to ask someone if they read the novel Doctor Zhivago. These are some of the possible questions you can ask in English:
    1. Did you start reading Doctor Zhivago? (A)
    2. Were you reading Doctor Zhivago yesterday? (B)
    3. Did you finish reading Doctor Zhivago? (C)
    4. Have you ever read Doctor Zhivago? (A,B,C,)
  13. Let's look at question 2 first. The speaker here is interested to get information about part B of the reading process. The speaker doesn't care if you have finished it or not. The information elicited is about the progress of the action. In Russian, then, the question uses the imperfective aspect of the verb: 2. Вы читали Доктора Живаго вчера?
  14. We can ask the same question in the present tense, and again we use the imperfective aspect. Remember, only part B of the action can be expressed with imperfective verbs: 2. Вы читаете Доктора Живаго?
  15. Let's look at question three:
    3. Did you finish reading Doctor Zhivago? (C)
  16. You would ask this question when you know that the person has been reading the novel, that is, you know that part B has been taking place. You would like to know if the action has been completed successfully, if part C has been reached. This is a question a teacher may ask in class, to find out if the assignment has been read:
    3. Вы прочитали Доктора Живаго?
  17. Remember, you can use the perfective aspect only when you are questioning if part C has taken place. The question,
    4. Have you ever read Doctor Zhivago? (A,B,C,)
    asks if the "total" act has taken place, therefore you would use the imperfective aspect.
  18. Remember, you can't use the perfective aspect because you are requestiong information on more than part C of the action. Also, if you were to use the perfective aspect, it would imply that you, the person asking the question, know that the listener has been reading the novel, and you only want to find out if the listener has finished reading it. That is not the sense conveyed in question 4.
  19. Now let's look at question one:
    1. Did you start reading Doctor Zhivago? (A)
  20. Clearly, the question here refers to the beginning of the act of reading (A). It should be obvious that you need to use a perfective verb here, because the question focuses on that instantaneous moment when you begin to read something. However, you can't use the perfective form of the verb "to read" (прочитать), because that verb focuses only on the result (C).
  21. Most imperfective-perfective pairs of verbs can be used to focus on parts B, C or ABC, but not on A specifically. To focus on part A of the action, Russian (like English) uses two verbs: "to begin, start" and the verb that describes part B of the action:
    Have you started B?
  22. The Russian verb for "to begin, start" is
    начинать (imp.) - начать (perf.)
  23. In our translation of the question we would use the perfective aspect of the verb "to begin". Can you tell why? Since the question focuses on that instantanous moment, A, we use the perfective aspect. For the verb "to read" we use the imperfective aspect, because the focus is on the process of reading, and not its completion.
  24. The question in Russsian then is:
    Вы начали читать Доктора Живаго?
  25. Russian verbs for "going" have a specific form to use when you focus on A, the beginning of the act.
  26. Now let's assume you want to ask someone the following question:
    What were you doing yesterday? or
    What did you do yesterday?
  27. Here you want to use the verb pair делать (imp.) - сделать (perf.).
  28. In Russian, the person asking the question can focus on any part of the activity. The person may want to know what kind of things the listener began to do:
    Что ты начала делать вчера?
  29. As in the previous example, here we would use the perfective aspect of the verb "to begin", and the imperfective aspect of the verb "to do", because the focus is on part A, the beginning of the activity.
  30. If the person wants to know what kind of activity, or activities, the listener was involved in yesterday, the focus would be on part B, and he would therefore use the imperfective aspect of the verb "to do":
    Чо ты делала вчера?
  31. Here the person asking the question is not interested to know what was accomplished, or completed, but only wants to know the nature of the activities: what took place. If the person asking the question wants to know what was accomplished, the focus would be on part C, and he would therefore use the perfective aspect of the verb "to do": Что вы сделали вчера?
  32. The person asking this question wants to know which activities were accomplished successfully; which activities reached point C. In fact, he may already know what kind of activities the listener was involved in.
  33. Let's look at a similar example. Let's suppose you were assigned Exercise A for homework, and you want to ask your friend the following question:
    Did you do Exercise A?
  34. You, the person asking the question can decide which aspect of "doing the exercise" you want to focus upon: A. Beginning to work on the exercise; B. Working on the exercise; C. Completing the exercise successfully.
  35. If you are interested to know whether your friend started working on the exercise, you would use the perfective aspect of the verb "to begin", and the imperfective aspect of the verb "to do":
    Ты начала делать упражнение А?
  36. If you want to know whether your friend worked on the exercise at all, you would use the imperfective aspect of the verb "to do":
    Ты делала упражнение A?
  37. If, on the other hand, you want to find out whether your friend has completed the exercise, you would use the perfective aspect of the verb "to do":
    Ты сделала упражнение A?
  38. What if you know that your friend has completed the exercise, and you want to find out how long he/she worked on it? You would use the imperfective of the verb "to do", because the focus is on the duration, B:
    Как долго ты делала упражнение?
  39. You can use the perfective aspect of a verb only when you are describing a single action. If the action is repeated (although it may be completed each time) or habitual, you must use the imperfective aspect. In Russian (and in English) there are usually clue words to indicate that an action is repetitive: always, every day, often, etc.
  40. When you describe two actions that take place simultanously, in Russian both verbs need to be imperfective:
    Когда он смотрел телевизор, он читал газету.
    While watching TV, he was reading a book.
  41. The word когда here can be translated as "when", or "while".
  42. When you describe two or more consecutive actions, all verbs need to be perfective:
    Когда он прочитал газету, он начал смотреть телевизор.
    When he read the newspaper, he started watching TV.
    Он прочитал газету, приготовил ужин, сделал упражнение и пошёл в кино.
    He read the paper, fixed supper, did the exercise and went to the movies.
  43. The word когда in the first sentence can be translated as "when", or "after".
  44. The rules for forming the past tense are the same for imperfective and perfective verbs.
  45. The future tense endings of perfective verbs are the same as the present tense endings of imperfective verbs. In other words, perfective verbs with present tense endings will have future meaning.
  46. In the future tense, perfective verbs imply that there is intention for the action to be completed successfully.