Verbs and their Conjugations in Russian
Verbs are the perhaps the most difficult element of Russian grammar for Americans to learn, because Russian organizes the concepts of verbs in a way different from that of English. Once the student masters the basic concepts underlying how verbs are used, then those concepts can be applied to virtually any Russian verb.
Let's start with the categories. The first concerns the very beginning students of Russian more than the remaining ones. There are only two types of Russian verb conjugation (the way a verb changes to agree with the person it's referring to -- in English we say "I am" but "you are." The difference in the verb form is its conjugation.). The conjugation patterns sometimes have different names, but we'll simply call them conjugation I and conjugation II (another way which might be good is the "-ё-" conjugation and the "-и-" conjugation, respectively). Other than the conjugation patterns, there are also two main types of verbs: Imperfective and Perfective. In addition to being either of these, motion verbs are also broken down into two groups: Determinate and Indeterminate. The reason why this is complicated for English speakers is that we think of the verbs purely in terms of tense (or the time frame of the verb itself). For example, we have the present progressive -- "; I am writing a letter", "I write a letter" the simple past -- "; I wrote a letter" and the past progressive "I was writing a letter...". Russian doesn't have these tenses; it is more concerned with whether the action is completed or not.
This is normally the first conjugation pattern to which the student is introduced. It is the only conjugation pattern which is being placed in newer Russian verbs such as "кликовать" (to click -- a computer mouse). Most Russian verbs, which in the infinitive (the "to" -- as in "to do" -- form and the Russian dictionary form) end in "-ать" -- but not all -- are conjugation I verbs. So are most verbs in "-ыть" and all verbs in "-ывать", "-овать", "-авать", "-ивать" and "-евать". There are others too (even one of the examples is an "other"). In this section, we won't be covering the specifics of how all these verbs actually conjugate, but rather will simply be covering the endings. One rule must be remembered, though. In Russian, the letter "-Ё-" can only exist when it is under stress, and every Russian word has only one stress. If the letter "-Ё-" is not under stress (the stress is somewhere else in the word -- stresses, by the way, simply have to be memorized, though there are helpful patterns and rules) then it becomes automatically "-Е-". Let's use two examples of conjugation I verbs, "жить" and "читать" ("to live" and "to read"). To form the verb conjugation, the infinitive ending (the "-ть") must be removed. If there's a change in the verb, it'll occur now. In our example "жить" suddenly a "-в" appears. In conjugation I verbs, if there's a change in the verb, then it exists throughout the entire verb conjugation pattern. Here's what happens (the actual verb endings are bolded and the translation in on the right):
There is a commonality in the consonants used in the endings (other than in the "я" form). In the verb "to read", the ending is not under stress, so it follows the rule mention above about stress. Note the differences in the "я" and "они" forms. This can be explained by spelling rules. For now, when adding endings, "ю" and "я" follow vowels.
The consonants used for this conjugation are exactly the same as in conjugation I; it's the vowels that are different, and the rule about any changes in the verb form. In conjugation II verbs, if there is a change, it occurs only in the "я" form of the verb. Most verbs ending in "-ить" and "-еть" are conjugation II verbs. Our examples will be "говорить" and "видеть" ("to speak" and "to see").
Here's what happens (the actual verb endings are bolded and the translation in on the right):
There is still the commonality in the consonants used in the endings (other than in the "я" form). Here, however, the base vowel is different. Notice as well a crucial difference in the "они" form -- a "-я-", not an "-у-" or "-ю-" is used to construct the verb (the consonant, however, is the same). Notice that the regular "я"-form ending is "-ю", not "-у" (though the latter occurs for spelling rule reasons, as shown above).
Ready to try some verb conjugations? Go to the verb exercise page.
For now, we will only delve briefly in this verb topic. There's more to come later. In Russian, imperfective verbs are those that denote habitual or incomplete actions (or when an action's completion is not the point). For example, using the verb to write, "I write a letter" or "I am writing a letter" mean pretty much the same thing in English. We don't know whether the action has been completed.
The best way to think about your choice in Russian, is to decide whether the action has been completed or not but including all the information you can. For example, " I am writing this letter (right now and but I haven't finished it yet)."
The habitual action is a little more complicated, because the action can be completed, but the person often does this action. "I am writing this letter (and will soon finish like I have in the past.)
Key words to look for are: always, never, often, every (hour, day, week, month, year), etc. These words tell us that the action are done over and over again.
Russian imperfective verbs are most often unprefixed.
Perfective verbs are reserved for actions that have been completed, or, at least, when the speaker wants to emphasize the completion of the action. The most important question to ask when deciding which aspect to use is "Has the action been completed?"
"I wrote the letter (and completed it)" would use the perfective, prefixed form of the verb.
"I will buy the groceries today" would use the perfective aspect because the speaker is planning on completing the action, but "I will buy groceries every week" uses the imperfective aspect because that action is habitual.
When choosing your aspect, think the action through - will it be complete? do you do that action habitually, or is it a one-time action? are there any key words like every or always?
This section will also be developed further at a later date. This set of verbs (determinate vs. indeterminate) has many different names. Some textbooks also call this actual vs. habitual. If you think of this set in both terms, it may help, because habitual is obvious - it's a habit that is done often, while determinate, for example, means that there is a previously determined destination.
Verbs of motion can be similarly characterized as the imperfective/perfective set. Some verbs mean habitual motion, round-trip, or meandering trips, like going to and from school, and other mean a one-way, straight, one-time trip, like walking to the corner store.
Determinate verbs are the one-way, definite destination type. "I go to school" means a lot for English speakers. It implies a habitual action and a round trip, because we assume that the speaker will also be returning from school. In Russian, the meani ng can be quite different. If one uses the "idti" form of the verb of motion, it means one thing, and the "khodit'" form means another. The former form means a one-way trip, on foot to school. The latter form means a habitual, perhaps round-trip variant, also on foot.
Again, the best way for you to decide which verb to use is to complete the sentence you are creating as much as possible. "I go to school (every day, by the same route on foot)" tell you exactly which verb to use. "I carry a bookbag (on my back, every day as I walk to class" can help you decide between "nesti" and "vesti" as well.
Again, there'll be more on this at a later date. Indeterminate verbs are simply the verbs that are habitual or that have no previous-decided upon destination. "I drove around the city" means that there was no destination, but that you and the car wandered aimlessly around the city. "I go to school every day" - this is a habitual motion, so the indeterminate verb would be used - whether the speaker goes on foot or by car.
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