Aspect and Aktionsart in Russian

There has been some discussion about Russian verbal aspect on another thread. I would say this subject is both of great practical importance and is also very interesting from a strictly theoretical point of view, so that it deserves its own thread.

In particular, Ftornay and I were discussing the idea that use of perfective or imperfective may vary according to the Aktionsart of verbs (that is, according to the nature or type of action described by the verb in question.)

Some verbs have an Aktionsart which implies an imperfective process (for example: “to think”, “to build”, “to read”, “to work”, “to watch”, etc.)

But some verbs have an Aktionsart which implies a perfective result (for example: “to kill”, “to break”, “to explode”, “to expire”, etc.)

We noticed that Russian verbs in the first category above often seem to be specially marked for the perfective by the addition of a prefix. For example, from читать (“to read”, imperfective) we have прочитать, which has a sense of “to read through.” We also have почитать, which has a sense of “to read for a while”.

We also noticed that, for Russian verbs in the second category of Aktionsart, the situation often seems to be reversed. Thus they often seem to be marked (by a stem change) for the imperfective. For example from убить (“to kill”, perfective) we have убивать, which refers to a habitual or repeated series of actions. (We might also notice in passing a very vague similarity here to the way some other Indo-European languages - such as Latin - form the imperfective.)


Is there a difference between these kinds of Aktionsart in the way aspects are used? Are you more likely to use the perfective aspect in the case of a verb such as “to kill”, or “to break”, etc?

If I understand correctly, in the case of a verbs such as “to watch” or “to read”, the imperfective aspect may be used in a sentence such as “I watched a film last night” or “I once read that book” (situations where we foreign learners logically expect the perfective aspect.)

Okay, but could you also use the imperfective of “to kill” in this way? Or would the imperfective of these types of verb (“to kill”, “to break”, etc.) be reserved for a habitual series of actions?

I’d be very interested to hear some input on this.

Jay, first of all the most usual native speakers don’t thing at all about the imperfective and perfective verbs.
I suppose that the half of them just forgot all these Grammar aspects they had studied at school.
They just use these verbs intuitively like I believe do the English native speakers in English.
Moreover, sometimes they use them wrongly from my opinion as a teacher - but it’s not so important!.. If you understand them, and they understand you - it’s OK.
What about your question of ‘to kill’ and ‘to break’.
Yes, we have both aspects - убивать- убить, ломать - сломать
In the Present we ALWAYS USE THE IMPERFECTIVE VERBS just because we don’t have the present of the perfective verbs.
In the Past and the Future we use Perfective verbs if it happened once and the Imperfective verbs if the action is repeated:
Он убил свою жену - Солдатам приходится убивать солдат противника каждый день - Он сказал, что он убьет её - Он сказал, что всегда будет убивать фашистов.
Some little exeptions must be interesting only for the theoretican philologists and not for 99% of the learners and users of the language.

Thanks for this reply, Evgueny, Of course you’re right that this is not the most important thing for learners to focus attention on :slight_smile:

But still, it can be very confusing for us! We are told (for example) to use the perfective aspect for single actions. Okay - that seems clear. But then we are also told to use the imperfective if we say “I watched a film yesterday”, etc. Really that is an apparent contradiction of the first principle! So I guess I’m just trying to grope around and see whether there is, after all, some logic underpinning all of this!? :open_mouth:

I think it is definitely the case that most native speakers just use the aspects (and all other parts of language) intuitively and without thinking. (That is probably true for all languages.)

Just to be clear I have another question:

я смотрел этот фильм…this is imperfective, right?


я убил этого фашиста…would this be right with perfective? (Or do you use убивать same as for watching a film…?)

Я смотрел этот фильм= Я посмотрел этот фильм - both are right because we can imagine this action as a process/
But we can use “смотреть” also as repeatet action: Я часто смотрел такие фильмы.
If we imagine “убивать” like a process, you can use also - Они долго убивали его (бандиты, которые получали наслаждение от этого процесса)
But usually we don’t use “убивать” for one action - Они убили его.
Like in English it depends on your imaginastion and your seeing of the things - like ‘feel’, ‘see’, ‘think’ etc.- usually we don’t use in tyhe Progressive Tences, but we can if we imagine them like a process.

“…But usually we don’t use “убивать” for one action - Они убили его…”

Aha…so that is exactly as I thought! :slight_smile:

(Actually, I think I am slowly starting to understand aspect - very slowly! :-D)

I agree with Jay but I’d like to add a nuance. The idea is not only, or especially about likelihood. It’s about markedness:

The idea is this. In Spanish in some instances you can use the imperfect aspect as “default” or “unmarked”, using it just indicates an action, without necessarily emphasizing “perfectness” and completion; using the imperfect, in contrast, implies an emphasis on incompletion/duration . In other cases, it’s the other way around: imperfect’s unmarked.

Based on the comparison, and taking into account some perceived differences between Russian and Latin languages, Jay and I have assumed that the situation in Russian is something like this:

  • Russian (to a certain extent, in contrast with Latin languages) seems to prefer the imperfect aspect as the unmarked, default form in general.
  • However, some actions seem to be “perfect” in nature. We suppose that the perfect aspect we’d be considered “unmarked” for those kinds of actions.

We’re aware that speakers don’t think in those terms, as Evgeny points out. What we’d like to ask from native speakers is confirmation/rejection/comment about our interpretation of some examples. For starters, I’d be thankful if native Russian speakers or people at similar level would comment about these examples:

a) Let’s suppose that a Russian speaker (speaker A) at the start of a conversation and without previous context, mentions a movie. A second speaker (B) replies that he has watched the movie. Let’s compare the two possible aspects [Sorry, I don’t have a Russian keyboard layout just here]
“Ya smotrel etot fil’m” vs “Ya posmotrel etot fil’m”
We think that:
The first (imperfect) version sounds “neutral” and the most likely utterance to be heard (in this case, without clear previous context) and would be accepted as just pointing out the fact that the second speaker has watched the movie, without being perceived as requiring further explanation or particularly stressing incompletion/duration.
In contrast, the second (perfect) version sounds a bit more contrived and seems to indicate that the speaker wants to emphasize the importance/difficulty/noteworthiness of the fact that he had managed to actually finish the movie. That might prompt some further questioning/curiosity by the first speaker about why the second one emphasizes the completion of the movie … If speaker B were non-native, speaker A may even question his/her choice of aspect.


  • To what extent is this interpretation correct?
  • How correct would it be if we changed the example to other actions, such as reading a book, doing homework, thinking about something or washing dishes?

b) Contrast the previous case with a situation in which it is said that someone killed someone else. Again this utterance happens without much previous context. Maybe it’s a headline in a newspaper.
Contrast the imperfect and perfect versions:
“X ubival Y” vs “X ubil Y”
Where X and Y are persons

We think that in this case, version b (perfect) would be considered more “neutral” or “likely” and it is this one which would be accepted as a simple description of the event, whereas it is version 1 (imperfect) that seems more “special” and requiring further explanation. It is the imperfect that seems to stress incompleteness/duration, maybe it appears “incomplete” as if it meant something like "X is trying, is in the process of killing Y, or that it took more time than usual to do the killing, …


  • Again, how off the mark is this interpretation?
  • To what extent would it be right if we changed “A killing B” to “A breaking something” or to "Something exploding?

Thank you very much for your input.

Fortney, Russian is a quite difficult laguage. Why would you like to make it even more difficult?!..
For me Я смотрел этот фильм - Я посмотрел этот фильм - the same for 100%!
I don’t see here no estimatiomn and no marker!
If I would like to estimate the film, I just say the second sentemnce: И он мне понравился. Но он мне не понравился. - I don’t see here any topic to discuss.

Well, Evgeny, Josu said that Rusian speakers often consider that saying “Я посмотрел фильм” is odd. Would you say those speakers are completely wrong? Don’t they have a point whatsoever? Why, then, do you feel like that?
That’s what I was trying to explain.

Incidentall, I didn’t mean speaker B was saying whether he liked the movie. My question is “Would the use of perfect in this situation sound a bit more unnatural than imperfect, something that would require further elaboration?”

I can see what Evgeny means - one wouldn’t want to make Russian seem even more complex than it is! :slight_smile: I don’t believe that aspect is something that leaners (generally speaking) should get hung up over or worried about. I don’t think it’s the most important thing to focus on.

However (if I can speak for Ftornay) I think we are perhaps not typical leaners - in that we ENJOY the complexity and are fascinated by it! :slight_smile:

Quite exact, Jay!!! Hahahahaha!!!

There are some verbs which don’t have an aspectual pair just due to their semantics. For example, the perfective verb очутиться means ‘‘to find oneself unexpectedly somewhere’’ and since unexpectedness can’t last this verb doesn’t have the imperfective pair. Similarly, some verbs (like опасаться, ожидать etc) don’t imply any result of the action and used only in the imperfective form. Many state verbs don’ have the perfective form for the same reason they are not usually used in continuous tenses in English.

As for prefixes. There are several ways to make the perfective aspect: by changing suffixes (получить / получить), adding prefixes (строить / построить), using both prefixes and suffixes (ронять / уронить); in addition, in some verbs you change the aspect shifting stress from one syllable to another (нарéзать / нарезáть) and some verbs (mostly those which end in -овать) don’t even change the form at all (so, eg. организовать may be perfective or imperfective depending on the context). Also, it should be kept in mind that very often when you add the prefix (i.e. modifier) along with changing the aspect you change the meaning of the word (slightly or sometimes compitely).

As has been said, ‘‘Я смотрел этот фильм / Я посмотрел этот фильм’’ are interchangeable.

Aspects can be used interchangeably in those sitiations when their semantic difference (duration, result etc) is not crucial or important for the context in which they are used, i.e. when you refer to the simple fact and nothing more. The same happens in English when the simple past may be used instead of the present perfect (I watched the movie = I have watched the movie = I khow this movie).

Such replacement is especially common in responses, when the context what you are talking about is clear:

– Что ты ему сказал (perf.)?
– Ничего я ему не говорил (imperf.) (=ничего не сказал)

– Ты взял (perf.) книгу?
– Нет я не брал (imperf.)

In these cases, there is no ambiguity in your answers because you have been asked what you have been asked and that’s exactly what you’re answering.

"…As has been said, ‘‘Я смотрел этот фильм / Я посмотрел этот фильм’’ are interchangeable.

Aspects can be used interchangeably in those sitiations when their semantic difference (duration, result etc) is not crucial or important for the context in which they are used, i.e. when you refer to the simple fact and nothing more. The same happens in English when the simple past may be used instead of the present perfect (I watched the movie = I have watched the movie = I khow this movie)…"

Many thanks for this reply. This is interesting. I think there is a problem in that there is not any exact parity between the English past perfect and Russian perfective aspect? (That is, there may be overlap - but there are situations where they would be used quite differently, yes?)

For example: Let us take a sentence like “I once read ‘War and Peace’”. This can equally be perfective or imperfective in Russian, right? (If I have understood you and Evgueny correctly here??)

In English, though, “I have once read ‘War and Peace’” sounds slightly wrong to me (although it is of course still entirely understandable.) In English, the “I have” definitely implies some ongoing relevance at the point of speaking. But the word “once” contradicts this by implying that one is referring in a more distant and matter-of-fact way to an action in the past.

Grammatical time is the category which is used to express ACTUAL (calendar, so to say) time and to localize actions or states in the reference frame of actual time. The perfect tense, for example, indicates a direct link between an action occurred in the actual past and its consequence or importance for the actual present. Aspects, however (at least in Russian, in other languages it may be different), are concerned only with their INTERNAL temporal frame, i.e. with moving from the initial point where an action started to the final point where this action stops, without any connection to actual time outside its internal frame. The perfective is often explained as a completed action with a result in the present moment, but essentially it’s just an action which stopped (i.e. reached its final point), for whatever reason, be it completion (resulted in something or not) or interruption. Whether or not it has a result or effect on the present moment afterwards depends on the context of the sentence, not on the grammatical category itself.

“…As has been said, ‘‘Я смотрел этот фильм / Я посмотрел этот фильм’’ are interchangeable.”

These are hardly interchangeable. If I want to say that I have seen Titanic, I would use “Я смотрел этот фильм”. I would absolutely not use “посмотрел”, unless it has happened recently, and your conversation partner knows that you were planning to see Titanic. In other words, “посмотрел” implies “recently”.

It is, however, peculiar that “смотрел” expresses a Perfective aspect, as it does, even though syntactically it is not perfective. I can imagine another usage, such as “Я лежал на спине и смотрел на небо”, where the action was continuous and not complete.

The usecase with the movie is unusual in that the word is not used in the ordinary sense. Normally, смотреть does not take a direct object: you can смотреть на небо, not смотреть небо. In this case the ordinary rules about perfect/imperfect seem to apply.

Notably, you cannot say я смотрел эту картину, since a picture has no duration in time. Thus, there is something essentially continuous about смотреть. And yet you can say, я посмотрел на небо or я посмотрел на картину.
Go figure…

Не говорят “я смотрел картину”, если картина нарисована.
Но если слово “картина” означает “кино, фильм”, то тогда можно сказать “я смотрел картину”, хотя в разговорной речи “картина” - всегда нарисованная неподвижная картина (в отличие от кино или фильма). Лишь в прессе часто встречается слово “картина”, обозначающее кино.

These are hardly interchangeable.

Agreed, interchangeable is a bit misleading word. What I meant to say is that they are semantically related and mean the same thing (i.e. that you are familiar with the movie), but are often used in slightly different contexts. [They may be completely interchangeable though, for example: Спасибо, я уже смотрел этот фильм, можете порекомендовать что-нибудь другое? = Спасибо, я уже посмотрел этот фильм, можете порекомендовать что-нибудь другое?]

In other words, “посмотрел” implies “recently”.

Totally disagree. The perfective aspect does not imply anything apart from the fact that the action was finished (or ‘‘is finished’’, or ‘‘has been finished’’). You can say ‘‘посмотрел давно’’ or ‘‘посмотрел пятьдесят лет назад’’. Again, aspects have nothing to do with time, the sentence or context in which they are used has, but not aspects themselves as the grammatical category.

The differencies appear also if we add some details.
For example: Я читал эту книгу= Я прочитал эту книгу.
Но: Я читал эту книгу целую неделю (невозможно “прочитал” - это процесс).
Я прочитал эту книгу за неделю (невозможно “читал” - это результат)

In defense of the theory, that time does have something to do with it,

Два часа назад я смотрел этот фильм. (imperf., действие не закончено). Perf. interpretation is not possible.
Два часа назад я посмотрел этот фильм. (perf., действие закончено)

Я вчера смотрел этот фильм. (imperf., действие не закончено). Perf. interpretation is not possible.
Я вчера посмотрел этот фильм. (perf., действие закончено)

Пять минут назад я смотрел фильм “Титаник” (imperf.)
Пять минут назад я посмотрел фильм “Титаник” ( ?!?!?!?! )
Пять минут назад я досмотрел фильм “Титаник” (perf.)

Вчера я смотрел фильм “Титаник” (perf. ?)

Я смотрел этот фильм на прошлой неделе (perf. действие закончено)
Я посмотрел этот фильм на прошлой неделе (perf. действие закончено)

В прошлом году я смотрел этот фильм (perf! действие закончено)
В прошлом году я посмотрел этот фильм (perf! действие закончено)

Два часа назад я смотрел этот фильм.

The verb in Russian has the tense and the aspect. Since the action took place two hours ago (i.e. in the past) you use the past TENSE of the verb ‘‘смотреть’’, because the grammatical time corresponds with actual time, but the choice of the ASPECT of this verb does not depend on when the action took place, it depends only on whether the action was finished or not.