Perfective v. Imperfective past

Discussion in 'Русский (Russian)' started by DerDrache, Jan 14, 2008.

  1. DerDrache Banned

    Montréal, QC
    For those of you familiar with German or Romance languages: Do the perfective and imperfective past forums in Russian correspond directly to the perfect and imperfect conjugations in French, German, Spanish, etc.?

    I mean, in French you would say "J'ai beaucoup dormi hier" to say "I slept a lot yesterday". I'm unclear if in Russian you'd say "Вчера я много поспал." or use "спал". I think that "спал" would sound kind of odd here, meaning "Yesterday I was sleeping a lot."

    Or other examples I'm not sure about:
    "Что ты делал вчера?" = "What were you doing yesterday?"
    "Что ты сделал вчера?" = "What did you do yesterday?" (ie. a list of the things you did)

    It seems that the latter would be the more natural/common question...right? I'm asking, by the way, because we haven't officially learned about perfective verbs in my beginner's Russian course, though I have been teaching myself in my spare time. An assignment will ask a question like "Что ты делал вчера?", and I can't help but think perfective would be a more natural choice for that question.
  2. Ptak Senior Member

    No. The common (and more natural) one is "Что ты делал вчера?" (or even "Что ты вчера делал?")
    "Что ты сделал вчера?" is a bit odd. And it's a VERY concrete question. For example, if I know that you called my boyfriend and told him that I love another guy, I can ask you: "Что ты сделал вчера??!!"

    Or if I'm your boss and I need a report from you (the list of the things you did), I can ask you "Что ты сделал вчера (из того, что я тебя просил/а сделать)?"
  3. Maroseika Moderator

    In most cases both verb froms are possible, but meaning the different:
    Вчера я хорошо спал - Process is more important
    Вчера я хорошо поспал - Result is more important.
  4. DerDrache Banned

    Montréal, QC
    Confusing. :p

    So, With делать I should stick to imperfective past for this type of question, but with other verbs I usually have a choice?

    Could you be more specific when you say "result" v. "process"? (Examples with some other verbs would be helpful, like "играть в теннис", "смотреть телевизор" versus their perfective forms)
  5. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    yea, but a lot of people in Russia don't bother about it. They say what has just slipped from their tongue. it can be all these: я вчера хорошо поспал/спал/выспался/отоспался/и т.д.
    of course это все подразумевает немного разные смыслы, но по сути одно и тоже и поэтому многие русские не вникают в подробности если им надо сказать что-то подобное - все что они говорят основывается на состоянии души (т.е. чувствую себя хорошо = "выспался", чувствую себя удовлетворенным сном = "отоспался" и т.д.)
  6. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    Look at the next post
  7. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    Конечно же!
    Сыграть в теннис - законченное действие (I have/had played it till the mentioned moment)
    Посмотреть телевизор - так же означает законченное действие, но при этом часто можно услышать: "Ты посмотрел сегодня новости по телевизору?" и, в тоже время, следующее: "Ты смотрел сегодня новости по телевизору?". Так же можно сказать о будущем: "Ты сегодня посмотришь телевизор?" (=будешь его смотерть? = roughly "Will you have seen the TV by 16 pm?")
    Смотреть телевизор - значит просто смотреть (в данный момент или вообще:I watch TV)

    А вообще говоря есть общий совет: чтобы лучше понять как именно мы строим слова и в каких фразах они уместны - читай книги на русском и чем больше тем лучше (русских так же обучают в детстве)
  8. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Since we're already dealing with this topic, there's one detail where I'm not sure if the use of aspects is the same in Russian and Croatian, so I would appreciate some insight from Russian speakers.

    What I don't understand is the following: if you use a perfective verb in past tense while specifying an interval of time (e.g. "yesterday"), does this necessarily mean that the action was both started and completed during this period of time, or can it also mean that it was only completed during this time, and started at some earlier time? For example, if you say:

    Вчера я окончательно написал первую главу диссертации.

    Would this necessarily imply that the whole process of writing the chapter happened during the day before, or could it also mean that I had been writing it for a while, and only finished it yesterday? The equivalent sentence in Croatian could be used in either case.
  9. DerDrache Banned

    Montréal, QC
    Thanks Alacer, but I should have been more clear. I meant examples with those verbs in the past tense.

    Like Я посмотрел телевизор v. Я смотрел телевизор. Also, I couldn't really understand your explanations in Russian, I'm a beginner. :(
  10. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    No and no! It was finished yesterday!
    Вчера я окончательно написал первую главу диссертации. - значит что я начал когда-то писать ее и вчера ОКОНЧАТЕЛЬНО это закончил. я Написал (наконец-то!). Т.е. приблизительно в англ: I finished writing desertation yesterday.
  11. Ptak Senior Member

    The sentence sounds weird. It should be:
    Вчера я закончил писать первую главу диссертации.
    Вчера я дописал первую главу диссертации.
    Вчера я наконец закончил первую главу диссертации.
  12. Ptak Senior Member

    Я посмотрел телевизор - ~I have 'a little' watched TV.
    Я смотрел телевизор - ~I was watching TV.
  13. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian

    Ok, i see
    Sorry but i can't translate my post into english cause i have no time now (it's 1 am in Moscow)
    So, on the whole these examples you've given I can discribe as follows:
    1.Я посмотрел телевизор - that means you've finished watching TV (and it doesn't mean you've JUST could either mean you finished doing it in the past. And, of course, when you started it doesn't say too)
    2. Я смотрел телевизор = I watched TV (I don't say when and how long)
  14. palomnik Senior Member

    You're geting into a murky subject, Drache, and while you already have two prominent Russian foreros answering your questions, Maybe I can add something as another outsider to the language.

    The difference between imperfective and perfective isn't just whether the action is completed or not. It is important to understand the sense of the action involved, and whether we're trying to emphasize the process or the result in a given context.

    Sleeping by its nature is something that is usually envisaged as a process. What this means is that спать is usually encountered in the imperfective. The "standard" perfective of the verb is поспать, but the prefix по- can also imply doing a little bit of something - я хочу спать: "I want to sleep", maybe even "I'm sleepy" vs. я хочу поспать: "I want to get a little sleep." Я много поспал almost sounds like a contradiction in terms. In connection with this it's worth pointing out that there can be other Perfective forms of спать that carry other connotations, e.g., выспаться - to get enough sleep; verbs can have more than one perfective form.

    With делать we can go either way; again the question is whether we're talking about a process or a result. To use сделать implies we're talking about something specific that was done; Что ты сделал sounds more like "what have you done?" than "what did you do?"

    To answer your specific question, I have never found the use of the imperfect and passé composé to be of much guidance in translating Russian verbs.

    We haven't even discussed the question of the perfective in infinitives and imperatives, which has other interesting aspects. Another time, perhaps.
  15. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    Mmm... Not always 'a little'.
  16. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Here's a long previous thread precisely about what you're asking, DearDrache.

    It has examples and links. The short answer seems to be "Not really, though there are definite similarities".
  17. Ptak Senior Member

    Он пару часиков посмотрел телевизор.

    'A little' is relative. ;)
  18. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    Again, Not always. If you're talking about the past (Что ты сделал вчера?) it means we are talking about yesterday (smth like to have done but in the past). But if we don't mention the time, it can be equal to "What have you done?".

    The point is that in English you have only 1 perfect : I have done. You can't say in the past I had done smth yesterday without referring to another action (which took place after yours, for instance). But in Russian we can use perfect tenses without such reference and it means (in most cases) "the result of the action"
  19. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    yea, but if you say Он посмотрел телевизор It suggests you don't tell us about 'a little' or smth... However, if I said this I'd want not to highlight the period of time and it means that there's a fact: I watched TV.
  20. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    but it is not so with other verbs. Lots of them mean 'a little', but some - not always 'just a little'
  21. DerDrache Banned

    Montréal, QC
    In English, the "imperfect" (at least, as I've encountered it in Romance languages) corresponds to "I was watching TV", as in it was a continuous action in the past. I could say "I was watching TV when [something happened]". To say, "I have watched TV" (perfect tense), it would just be like you're listing things you've done (earlier on that same day). And there's also the simple past, which is just "I watched TV" (earlier that day, yesterday, a week ago, etc.)

    So, I'm basically asking how Russian's perfect and imperfect past tenses correspond to those English translations. Or simply put:

    "Что ты делал вчера?"
    "Я смотрел телевизор" или "Я посмотрел телевизор"

    I really appreciate all of your help though, I'm just trying to get clarification. I don't know if I understand the implications of those two responses.
  22. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    It was my obviously unsuccessful word-for-word translation from Croatian. :eek: I've just realized that this is not a good example, since in Russian the verb дописать directly provides the meaning "to finish writing" (it's a very nasty false friend -- the same verb in Croatian means approximately "to append", i.e. to add further content to something that's already been written, not "to finish writing" as in Russian).

    I'll try formulating my question with another verb, say прочитать. Suppose I say:

    Вчера я прочитал твою диссертацию.

    Does this imply that I both started and finished reading during the previous day, or can it be used even if I only finished reading yesterday, regardless of when I had started it?
  23. Alacer Senior Member

    Russia, Russian
    Hm, for native russian speakers it means both 'I finished reading yesterday (not mention when it started)' and 'I started and finished it yesterday'. Russian langauge is very flexible.

    "Дописать" means not only 1."finish writing", it aslo means 2."to write to some limit", 3.write in addition, 4. paint (smth) in addition (for pictures for painters). So, don't be so sure you're right when you're trying to translate. When i'm studying english, i'm trying to delve into each word i've yet to learn
  24. papillon Senior Member

    Barcelona, Spain
    Russian (Ukraine)
    To me the main meaning is to start and finish. If someone tells me
    Вчера я прочитал "Войну и Мир"
    I would assume that this person can read at the speed 10 times higher than mine in order to finish such a monster in one day.
  25. cyanista

    cyanista законодательница мод


    To start some time before and finish yesterday would be:

    Вчера я дочитал "Войну и Мир".
  26. Ptak Senior Member

    I agree.
  27. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    I think a comparison between Slavic aspects and Romance tenses does help, although they don't correspond 100% of the times:

    Spanish: Escribí una carta.
    Russian: Я написал письмо.

    Spanish: Escribía cartas.
    Russian: Я писал письмa.

    Spanish: Estaba escribiendo una carta cuando ella me interrumpió.
    Russian: Я писал письмo, когда она меня прервала.
  28. Michael_Boy Member

    Maybe I didnt understand the question completely but If I want to know how my friend's yesterday went, I would say the first sentence.
  29. Nanon

    Nanon Senior Member

    Entre Paris et Lisbonne
    français (France)
    Der Drache, welcome to the endless, bottomless comparative study of Aspects. With a big A. Enjoy!
    It would be very simple if we could have a direct correspondence between perfective / imperfective and perfect / imperfect. However, even Romance languages do not have a direct correspondence between their uses of perfect / imperfect, simple and compound tenses, etc.
    Some correspondences between different languages may help to understand nuances in the use of the aspects, but other uses may be confusing.
    Another confusing factor is the additional meaning that the prefixes used to form the perfective may have (see above examples with по-, до-... )

    Suppose you have this dialogue (the guy is a monster, I agree).
    - Что ты делал вчера?
    - Вчера я прочитал "Войну и Мир", пару часиков посмотрел телевизор и дописал первую главу диссертации. Я писал письмa, когда меня прервали. :D:D:D

    Would a French version be of help here?
    - Qu'est-ce que tu as fait (passé composé) hier ?
    - Hier, j'ai lu (passé composé) tout "Guerre et Paix", j'ai regardé (passé composé) la télé une heure ou deux et j'ai fini (passé composé) d'écrire le premier chapitre de ma thèse. J'étais (imparfait - наконец!) en train (OK, the Spanish gerund would be shorter, I know) d'écrire des lettres quand on m'a interrompu (passé composé).
  30. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    However, one major difference here is when you're talking about actions with a specified duration. In Spanish, if you're talking about an action that happened once with a specified duration, you'd normally use the preterit (much like in English). On the other hand, in Slavic languages, as soon as you feel the action as "stretching" through a certain period of time, you must use the imperfective aspect. For example:

    English: Yesterday I wrote for two hours.
    Spanish: Ayer escribí (por) dos horas.
    Russian: Вчера я писал два часа.

    In this regard, there are subtle differences between individual Slavic languages (the topic of the thread is specifically Russian, but your comment addressed the Slavic aspects in general). For example, in Croatian, the perfective aspect is used much more widely than in Russian for the sort of repeated actions for which Spanish uses the imperfect if they happened in the past. There was some discussion of these issues in this recent thread; they are very tricky even for Slavic native speakers learning other Slavic languages.

    I think this is a very accurate parallel. Background actions are one of the few very general cases where it's unambiguously clear that imperfect/imperfective aspect should be used.
  31. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Excellent point. :thumbsup:
  32. Icetrance Senior Member

    US English
    Good post!

    It is never a good idea to refer to the French imperfect and passé composé (Romance languages in general) when you're confused between the perfective and imperfective aspects in Russian (French doesn't have this distinction in the future tense).

    Completed actions don't always require the perfective aspect in Russian. That's a big myth. Often times, it's the speaker's emphasis on process or result which will decide what aspect is used. Also, there are many verbs which require the perfective aspect to carry over a certain meaning. Context is everything, of course.

    Future perfective and imperfective are not nearly as tricky as the past perfective and imperfectve. In fact, a few verbs don't even have an imperfect form in the future tense.
  33. Estuardo New Member

    I realise there is no automatic link between Romance languages imperfective and Russian usage but I see one use of the Russian coincides,past description; description of the weather for example.
    So why do I read in my book ' шел снег (дождь ) постоянно' ? I would have expected 'ходил' .

    Or are both imperfective but it's to do with the uni/multidirectional thing ?
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2012
  34. Maroseika Moderator

    Motion verbs is really a special thing in Russian (идти - ходить, лететь - летать, плыть - плавать, бежать - бегать). So, yes - both are imperfective but mean a single or repeated action.
    However in this case it's not because it is in the Past; I think it's just because "идет дождь" is a stable expression, therefore - шел дождь (not ходит or ходил).
  35. covar Senior Member

    Here "шел" means "был" rather than "ходил".
    Шел 1917 год. = Был 1917 год.
    Шел урок русского языка. = Был урок русского языка.
    Этим летом часто шли дожди. = Этим летом часто были дожди. (
    Этим летом часто бывали дожди.)
  36. tacirus Member

    Я посмотрел телевизор - With no additional information this rather means that he took a look for reparing a TV-set or something alike.

    Я смотрел телевизор - he was watching or watched TV.

    Russian language has this tricky habit of using a number of prefixes to mark a perfect tense. Also they may and do add or change meaning or nuances of the verb usage. So
    just read, read and learn.
  37. tacirus Member


    give us the verbs you are interested in for the first place to have examples of usage in this respect.
  38. Maroseika Moderator

    I think the question was why can't we say Тем летом часто ходили дожди, even meaning repeating action.
  39. Estuardo New Member

    Ok thanks. Set expression seems to fit. These multi/uni directional verbs are a headache not as bad as the stress problems however,which are giving me nightmares.Most interesting language I've studied though.
  40. tacirus Member

    The "шёл" has no repetetive shade of sense. Just a motion in the past without specifying the end or result of the action.

    The "ходил" has it. However, it`s never used with "дождь" or "снег".
  41. Icetrance Senior Member

    US English
    This is a very interesting thread.

    Often times, native English speakers will often look to their past studies in French or Spanish as a guide in determining whether or not to use the "perfective" or "imperfective" in Russian. Although there is "perfect" correspondence at times, there are situations where Russian may prefer the imperfective, whereas in French and Spanish, the perfective is preferred (and possibly the other way around, too). So it is not always best to think in Romance language terms when making this verb aspect distinction in Russian.

    Russian prefers imperfective aspect in with sensory verbs (see, hear, etc.) and any verb that's about "talking".

    future perfective in Russian = completed action in the future (I will have made a cake)
    future imperfective in Russian = incompleted action, either repeated or "in general terms" (I will be singing/I will be talking to)

    Same applies to the past aspects in Russian, too (a few cases where the perfective means "for a while" with certain verbs)

    A big point of confusion about Russian aspect is this:

    Negatives sentences (not) usually require the imperfective aspect in Russian since something is not going to be "completed", or "rendered successful". The perfective is only used in negative sentences when there is an expected outcome that does not come to fruition (think of it in terms of "did not end up" or "will not have ended up" ).

    Perhaps I can come up with some examples later on.
  42. Awwal12

    Awwal12 Senior Member

    Moscow, the RF
    Well, it doesn't seem really true to me. :confused: Он не делал домашнюю работу surely has another meaning that он не cделал домашнюю работу, doesn't it? :)
    It is noteworthy, however, that in NEGATIVE IMPERATIVE sentences the aspects really have totally different use, making distinction between intentional and unintentional actions instead.
    Не убивай (imperf.) его - Don't kill him (intentionally; implying you may want it)
    Не убей (perf.) его - Don't kill him (accidentally; implying you don't want to do it intentionally yourself)
    Of course, there are some exceptions, but they're basically just several stable constructions and not some productive models (не тронь; не убий and other of the Ten Commandments - loaned right from Church Slavonic; etc.).

    As for the normal use, the best way to explain the Russian perfective aspect is probably represent it as some sharp mark on the timeline, whereas the imperfective aspect covers all the rest cases (repeated actions, actions in progress, etc.).
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2012
  43. Awwal12

    Awwal12 Senior Member

    Moscow, the RF
    P.S.: People often tend to explain verbs of the perfective aspect as some finished actions and verbs of the imperfective aspect as some unfinished ones (considering any repated actions as some sort of unfinished action sequences as well). That doesn't seem really right to me, though. For instance, one can say "Лёша много раз прогуливал занятия в школе, но все же закончил одиннадцать классов". The sequence here is obviously finished for the natural reasons; Alexey couldn't shirt school anymore even if he wants. Still, the imperfective aspect is used; moreover, the perfective aspect just cannot be used with adverbs and adverbal constructions like "неоднократно", "много раз" etc at all! So again, to me the most logical explanation would be that the perfective aspect means an action imagined like a single point on the timeline, while the imperfective aspects represents an action covering some imaginable area of the timeline (regardless of it being continuous or not).
  44. e2-e4 X Senior Member

    For example: "За всё время своего существования Вселенная выросла до невообразимых размеров" :)

    Also: "Пока мы там жили, побили много посуды"; "Задержанный перестрелял кучу народа в своё время"; etc.

    Clearly, what we want to imagine or see is more important for the category of aspect than what in fact is.
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2012
  45. Icetrance Senior Member

    US English

    Of course there is a difference. I said that negative sentences are often in the imperfective unless you want to change the meaning to some "unfulfilled expectation" (didn't end up doing whatever as expected).

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