Russian Verb Aspects: Choosing in the Present

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Welcome to the second post of the new series about Russian verb aspects!

In the first article you found out what are perfective and imperfective Russian verbs; today it’s time to figure out how to choose between the two Russian verb aspects in the present tense and read some examples.

If you’re not quite sure about the meaning of these words, please go back to the first post (link above), read the ABC’s and download the PDF of the 50 pairs of most common verbs in Russian.

Please remember that these posts are only an introduction to the topic mixed with some tips and tricks. I wrote an entire book in Italian on the Russian verb aspects and maybe one day it will be available also in English!

Now, let’s think about the present!

russian verb aspects

Russian verb aspects in the present tense: Introduction

Before starting the post I really have to mention one thing.

In Romance languages we have only one present tense, which is used to express actions happening when the speaker speaks, habitual actions and sometimes even those actions that will take place in the future (plans, for example).

In English there are FOUR present tenses, which makes things a little bit confusing. So let me clarify.

The present tense in Russian is easier: they have only one and it’s used to describe actions that are habitual or general (like the simple present), that are happening “in the moment” (“-ing form” – present continuous) or, rarely, that are taking place in the near future (also present continuous).

There are no such tricky forms as present perfect and present perfect continuous in Russian.

Affirmative sentences

As I had already anticipated in the previous post, affirmative sentences in the present tense require the use of the imperfective verb aspect in 90% of cases.

In Russian these sentences describe what you are doing at the exact moment you speak, or to tell what you usually do.

Let’s take the pair “готовить – приготовить” (to cook) as an example. One last time: in the aspectual pairs, the first verb is IMPERFECTIVE, the second is PERFECTIVE:

  • Я сейчас готовлю обед – I’m cooking lunch right now
  • Я каждый день готовлю обед – I cook lunch every day

Here the choice is quite obvious because Russian perfective verbs don’t have a present tense, only past and future ones.

Perfective verbs to express present tense

There are sporadic cases when Russians would use perfective verbs in sentences that sound “present” to us strangers.

This is the case of some advertisements, for example:

Профессиональные услуги – Приготовлю обед, ужин в Москве (Professional services – I cook lunch, dinner in Moscow).

Быстро починю компьютер в Москве (I can fix your computer quickly)

People usually advertise what they can do, what they are capable of. However, in Russian ads you would rather find perfective verbs because they want to highlight the result of their services.

This could create some confusion, so just remember the examples above!

russian verb aspects

Negative sentences

In order to choose the right Russian verb aspect in present negative sentences you should follow the same rules.

If you don’t know how to do something, if you don’t do it by choice or for any other reasons, in Russian you use the negation “не” before an imperfective verb.

  • Я не готовлю (I don’t cook). Because I don’t know how to do it, because I don’t have time, because I don’t want to …
  • Я не читаю книги (I don’t read books). Because I don’t feel like doing it, because I don’t like it …
  • Я не говорю по-итальянски (I don’t speak Italian). Because I don’t know the language.

I hope that so far everything is clear.

In some cases, you will find yourself having to use the negation “не” followed by a perfective verb to express an action that in English you would express with the present tense.

Let’s take the pair “говорить – сказать” (to say, to tell).

In Russia, when you ask someone for directions and they don’t know the place you are looking for, they would answer, “Я не скажу.“

At first, I used to get upset because to me that sounded like: “I know, but I won’t tell you.”

Then I realized that this expression actually means “I don’t know, so I can’t tell you,“ and the choice of the perfective aspect is to emphasize the absence of result.

Another interesting use of the Russian verb aspects in the present tense can be found in the Russian imperative; I’ll write a post about that.

Нельзя

Maybe it’s a bit out of topic, but something I get asked a lot is: “What Russian verb aspect should I use after the word ‘нельзя’?

The answer is: it depends on the situation.

Нельзя, as well as its English translation “you can’t,” has two different meanings:

1) Нельзя открывать окно! (The window cannot be opened)

2) Нельзя открыть окно! (The window cannot be opened)

Where the heck is the difference?

In sentence 1, it is forbidden to open the window. In sentence 2, however, the window cannot be opened because there is something that prevents it.

Never forget: Нельзя + imperfective verb indicates a PROHIBITION, while нельзя + perfective indicates an OBSTACLE.

russian verb aspects

Interrogative sentences

When making a question in the present tense, we can only use one of the Russian verb aspects. To know what someone can do, what they usually do or what they are doing right now, you need to use an imperfective verb.

If you make a question with a perfective verb, you’re asking about future plans.

  • Что ты делаешь? – What are you doing?
  • Ты ешь пиццу каждый день? – Do you eat pizza every day?

However, in the next posts you’ll see that even questions with an imperfective verb can refer to a future action.

Russian verb aspects in the present tense: Conclusion

In my opinion, present is absolutely the easiest tense when it comes to choosing between the two Russian verb aspects.

As you’ll read in the following posts of the series, it won’t be this easy in the past and future tenses.

Following post: COMING SOON!

You may also like these posts:

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