This is a short essay that will appear in my book. It is assumed that the reader understands the basics of Russian verb conjugation and the notion of tense.

What is Aspect in Russian?

The aspect of a verb is a categorisation of how it expresses its action. Consider the following sentences with the verb ‘to read’:

  • I was reading the book when the telephone rang.
  • I read the report yesterday.

The first sentence conveys the process of reading the book with no sign of completion. Indeed a telephone call interrupts the act of reading. The second sentence conveys a result and a sense of completion.

In Russian there are two aspects - the imperfective and the perfective.

The imperfective aspect is usually used for actions that have been, are in or will be in progress. We use it to convey actions in progress, repeated actions or actions that are generally done. It is about the process rather than the result.

The perfective aspect is usually used for actions where we want to convey a completed result. We use it for one-off completed actions or one-off intended actions usually with a result. It is about the result rather than the process.

The verbs that we have met up until this point have been imperfective. We use the present tense to describe actions that are in progress and so it by nature imperfective. The past forms and the compound future forms that we have seen up until now have been imperfective too. Here are some examples:

Я читаю книгу.
I am reading the book. And the action is in progress.

Я читал книгу, когда она позвонила мне.
I was reading the book, when she called me.

I was in the process of reading the book when she called me.

Я буду читать книгу каждый день.
I will read the book every day.

Here I’m more concerned about conveying the process. Note that I’m not conveying whether I will complete the action of reading.

Most Russian verbs come in a pair of an imperfective verb and a perfective verb. For example to read has imperfective form читать and perfective form прочитать.

Perfective verbs look exactly the same as imperfective verbs. They conjugate in the same ways with 1st, 2nd or irregular conjugations. But the conjugated forms are the future perfective version of the verb. So for our example:

я прочитаю I will read
ты прочитаешь You will read
она прочитает She will read
мы прочитаем We will read
вы прочитаете  You will read
они прочитают They will read

The perfective aspect conveys a result rather than a process. So: 

Я прочитаю книгу.
I will read the book. In the sense that I will read the book and complete it, whereas:

Я буду читать книгу …
Suggests that I will read the book but I want to tell you about the process rather than whether finish it.

The perfective verb has past forms in the same way as the imperfective verb. But the forms are the past perfective. So for our verb прочитать:

он прочитал    He read
она прочитала She read
оно прочитало It read
они прочитали They read

Again, the perfective verb conveys a result rather than a process. So:

Я прочитал книгу вчера.
I read the book. In the sense that I completed reading the book, whereas:

Я читал книгу вчера.
I was reading the book yesterday. But I didn’t necessarily finish it. I want to convey that I was in the process of reading the book.

For a regular perfective verb, one can deduce the future perfective conjugations if one knows the infinitive, the я form and the ты form in exactly the same way as the imperfective.

Sometimes the difference between the two aspects is subtle. As always the best way to learn is by example and we have included examples of all aspects and tenses for each verb.

The Perfective Pair

The perfective version of the imperfective verb must convey the same meaning. The perfective occurs as follows:

1. A prefixed version of the imperfective. e.g. читать/прочитать (to read) where here про is the prefix.

In this case, the perfective conjugation usually follows the imperfective conjugation. For example, читаю/прочитаю, читаешь/прочитаешь, etc.

2. A similar infinitive but with the other conjugation. e.g. встречать/встретить (to meet). In this example, the imperfective form has the 1st conjugation. The perfective form has the 2nd conjugation.

3. A internal modification to the imperfective infinitive. e.g. вставать/встать (to get up).

4. A different infinitive all together. e.g. говорить/сказать (to say).

There is no general rule to form the perfective from the imperfective. The pairs of verbs must be learnt together.

One verb that causes learners confusion is покупать/купить (to buy). Here покупать is imperfective and купить is perfective.

There are some imperfective verbs that do not have a perfective partner and vice versa, but they are rare1.

The Imperfective Aspect

We use the imperfective aspect in the present tense as all such actions are in progress. We form the present tense from the imperfective infinitive.

We use the imperfective aspect in the past and future tenses:

  • to convey regular and repeated actions,
  • when we describe how long a process took or will take,
  • when we are describing the process rather than a result.

We form the past imperfective from the imperfective infinitive. The compound future form is the imperfective future.

We use the imperfective aspect for processes. So it is often used to describe simultaneous actions. For example:

Я готовил завтрак, когда жена готовила кофе.
I was making breakfast, while my wife was making coffee.

The Perfective Aspect

It is impossible to use the perfective aspect in the present tense. 

We form the future perfective by conjugating the perfective infinitive. We form the past perfective from the infinitive in the usual way as we saw above.

We use the perfective aspect in the past and future tenses:

  • to convey one-off actions,
  • to describe a completed action,
  • when we are describing a result rather than a process.

We use the perfective aspect for results. So it is often used to describe consecutive completed actions. For example:

Я встал рано, и я выпил кофе.
I got up early and I drank a coffee.

Я встану рано, потом я выпью кофе.
I will get up early, then I will drink a coffee.

(Thanks to Viktoria for some suggestions and corrections.)

  1. There are some cases where linguists disagree about the pairings (e.g. жить). We will touch on this later but generally will leave the matter to the linguists.