Grammar 19--Imperfective, Perfective, and Future Tense

Russian verbs come in pairs. One of each pair is said to be imperfective. This means that it refers to an ongoing action or repeated action. The other is perfective which means that it describes a single completed action and the narrator believes that its completion moves his story forward. Consider these examples:

Imperfective:

Я спрашивал каждого.
I was asking each person.

Perfective:

Я спросил вас.
I did ask you.

In the imperfective example, the speaker is simply explaining what he was doing. In the perfective he is making the point that you had your chance to voice an opinion. It moves his story forward.

In Grammar 4--Verb Conjugation we showed you the past and present tenses of imperfective verbs. We now show you the future tense which is formed differently for imperfective and perfective verbs. The future tense of imperfective verbs is made using a form of “to be” as a helping verb, just like in English. Perfective verbs have no present tense. The future tense looks like the present tense of an imperfective verb.

Conjugation of спрашивать/спросить (to ask in the sense of inquire)


Past TensePresent TenseFuture Tense

Imperfective

спра́шивать

to be asking

Я спра́шивал(а)
I was asking

Мы спра́шивали
We were asking

Ты спра́шивал(а)
Thou wert asking

Вы спра́шивали
You were asking

Он спра́шивал
He was asking

Она́ спра́шивала
She was asking

Оно́ спра́шивало
It was asking

Они́ спра́шивали
They were asking

Я спра́шиваю
I am asking

Мы спра́шиваем
We are asking

Ты спра́шиваешь
Thou art asking

Вы спра́шиваете
You are asking

Он/Она́/Оно́ спра́шивает
He/She/It is asking

Они́ спра́шивают
They are asking

Я бу́ду спра́шивать
I will be asking

Мы бу́дем спра́шивать
We will be asking

Ты бу́дешь спра́шивать
Thou wilt be asking

Вы бу́дете спра́шивать
You will be asking

Он/Она́/Оно́ бу́дет спра́шивать
He/She/It will be asking

Они́ бу́дут спра́шивать
They will be asking

Perfective

спроси́ть

to ask (once)

Я спроси́л(а)
I asked

Мы спроси́ли
We asked

Ты спроси́л(а)
Thou askedst

Вы спроси́ли
We asked

Он спроси́л
He asked

Она спроси́ла
She asked

Оно спроси́ло
It asked

Они спроси́ли
They asked




Perfective Verbs have no Present Tense

Я спрошу́
I shall ask

Мы спро́сим
We shall ask

Ты спро́сишь
Thou wilt ask

Вы спро́сите
You will ask

Он/Она́/Оно́ спро́сит
He/She/It will ask

Они́ спро́сят
They will ask

Conjugation of давать/дать (to give)


Past TensePresent TenseFuture Tense

Imperfective

давать

to be giving

Я дава́л(а)
I was giving

Мы дава́ли
We were giving

Ты дава́л(а)
Thou wert giving

Вы дава́ли
You were giving

Он дава́л
He was giving

Она дава́ла
She was giving

Оно дава́ло
It was giving

Они дава́ли
They were giving

Я даю́
I am giving

Мы даём
We are giving

Ты даёшь
Thou art giving

Вы даёте
You are giving

Он/Она́/Оно́ даёт
He/She/It is giving

Они́ даю́т
They are giving

Я буду́ дава́ть
I will be giving

Мы бу́дем дава́ть
We will be giving

Ты бу́дешь дава́ть
Thou wilt be giving

Вы бу́дете дава́ть
You will be giving

Он/Она́/Оно́ бу́дет дава́ть
He/She/It will be giving

Они́ бу́дут дава́ть
They will be giving

Perfective

дать

to give (once)

Я дал(а́)
I gave

Мы да́ли
We gave

Ты дал(а́)
Thou gavest

Вы да́ли
We gave

Он дал
He gave

Она дала́
She gave

Оно да́ло
It gave

Они да́ли
They gave




Perfective Verbs have no Present Tense

Я дам
I shall give

Мы дади́м
We shall give

Ты дашь
Thou wilt give

Вы дади́те
You will give

Он/Она́/Оно́ даст
He/She/It will give

Они́ даду́т
They will give

Note that the conjugation of давать in the present tense and дать in the future are irregular.

Perfective and Imperfective Illustrated

Students often misunderstand the statement that the perfective describes a single action. They mistakenly ask themselves whether the action has ever been or ever will be repeated. What actually matters is whether or not the speaker is referring to a single instance of the named action. The illustration below should make this clear. In each case the factual context is the same: the teacher regularly assigns homework. But depending on what he wants to say he chooses the perfective or the imperfective to talk about how he assigns homework.

Perfective and imperfective describing the giving of homeworkNotice that when he wants to say that he is the kind of person who assigns homework, he uses the imperfective (давать). But when he refers to giving a particular homework assignment and wants to say that as a consequence the students ought to have done it or will be able to do it, he uses the perfective (дать).

Just talking about a particular homework assignment is not enough to justify the use of the perfective. For example, in this sentence our teacher uses the imperfective to talk about a single assignment:

Я давал домашнее задание когда землетрясение ударило.
I was giving the homework assignment when the earthquake struck.

Here he is not making the point that the assignment was given. It is simply context. He telling a story about an earthquake. In this story the earthquake striking is a single completed action which advances the plot. Consequently it is expressed using an perfective verb (ударить).