3.1 Пожалуй, начнём?

In parts 1 and 2 we briefly reviewed the forms of imperfective and perfective verbs in Russian, which we will henceforth show as a pair like читать/прочитать, with the imperfective to the left of a slash, and the perfective verb to its right. We also went over the basic functions of perfective and imperfective verbs and were introduced to the idea that an imperfective verb can refer to a single completed event, i.e., an action viewed by default as a complete whole. This idea, which is crucial to a better understanding of how Russian aspectual usage works, will play an important role in the three core parts of this textbook: infinitives, imperatives, and past-tense statements of fact. This first part, infinitives, serves somewhat as an introductory module before we proceed to the more complex topics of imperatives and past-tense usage. In the modules for infinitives we will see the three meanings of imperfective verbs that we saw in part 2 (open-ended processes, repeated actions and single completed actions) in abundance.

Let us proceed to infinitives without further ado. To borrow a phrase from the late Rodney Dangerfield, infinitives “don’t get no respect” in the English-speaking world; they take a back seat to the array of tensed verb forms in English. Not so in Russian: infinitives are used all the time, and it is quite easy for an infinitive to be the only verb in a clause, e.g., Что тебе объяснять? ‘What am I supposed explain to you?’, Молчать! ‘Silence!’, or Если нарушить эту тишь, то очень сложно будет вновь принести покой ‘If you disturb that silence, it will be very hard to return things to a calm again’.

The widespread use of infinitives in Russian is due in part to the exploitation of their vagueness, which enables the communication of various attitudes on the part of the speaker. Alas, going into detail about the array of infinitival constructions in Russian would demand a separate textbook, and we must content ourselves here with coverage of aspectual usage in some basic types of constructions.

Aspectual usage in infinitives is relatively straightforward compared to imperatives and past-tense usage, and the modules in this section serve as a kind of review of the concepts governing imperfective usage highlighted in module 2, though aspectual usage in infinitives probably slips under the radar of many students of Russian. Note that while the choice itself is relatively straightforward, the meanings of modal verbs interact with the choice in rather complex ways; these interactions are the focus of modules 3.2–3.6.

For now, let’s keep things simple with phase verbs.


This first module involves one of the few hard and fast rules of Russian aspectual usage: constructions with phase verbs, i.e., verbs of beginning, continuing, and stopping. The following phase verbs, the main ones in Russian that take an infinitive, are listed here :

начинать/начать ‘begin’
стать ‘begin/start (perfective)’
продолжать/продолжить ‘continue’
заканчивать/закончить ‘finish’
переставать/перестать ‘stop’
прекращать/прекратить ‘stop’

In English such phase verbs can take an infinitive оr a gerund, e.g., ‘Sonya started to sing’ or ‘Sonya started singing’. In Russian, they take an infinitive complement (and some of them can take a noun, but we will not treat this usage). As just mentioned, these are only the main phase verbs in Russian (for a comprehensive list, see Bojko 1973: 10–19[1] ), and though comments on their exact meanings must be kept to a minimum, we can point out that in contrast to neutral начинать/начать ‘begin’, the verb стать can signal an unexpected transition to a new action, and in the past tense often conveys a gradual or temporally indeterminate onset of an action, as in Незаметно стал меняться мир вокруг меня ‘The world around me started imperceptibly to change’ . As for the difference between переставать/перестать and прекращать/прекратить, both mean to cease doing something, but the former presupposes a choice to stop, whereas the latter tends to refer to a sudden/unexpected cessation,  possibly forced by outside pressure.

In exercise A, see if you know the aspect of the infinitive complements of the phase verbs, which are bolded.

Exercise A

Examine the bolded infinitive complements of the italicized phase verbs in the sentences below, and then answer the questions that follow.


  1. Уже 9 вечера, а Мишки всё ещё нет. Я начинаю беспокоиться, что что-то случилось.
  2. Сергей начал серьёзно заниматься бегом только 3 месяца назад и уже занял третье место в марафонском .
  3. Если Паша опять станет кашлять, дайте ему вот эту микстуру.
  4. Елена уже заканчивала резать салат, когда на кухню вбежал плачущий Ванечка.
  5. Когда виолончелист закончил играть, в зале раздались громкие аплодисменты.
  6. Продолжайте верить в чудеса несмотря ни на что!
  7. Саша взял другой карандаш и продолжил писать.
  8. По взмаху его оркестр то начинал, то прекращал играть, то звуковую мощь, то затихал.
  9. Ты слышал, что вчера прекратил поставлять газ в Европу из-за санкций США и ЕС?


If phase verbs require an imperfective verb, we should keep in mind the point made in module 2 that imperfective verbs can refer to single actions in progress (processes) or repeated actions. (NOTE: after phase verbs, imperfective verbs never refer to single completed events.) The former, actions in progress, are begun/continued/stopped on particular occasions. Related to such actions in progress are long-term open-ended situations, which occupy longer spans of time. (Repeated actions in simple statements are always long-term situations, as the repetitions must be distributed over a longer span of time.) In the two items in exercise B, see if you can figure out which one is an action in progress at a particular point in time, and which one is a long-term open-ended situation.

Exercise B

Identify which of the following two sentences from exercise A contains an imperfective infinitive referring to a process ongoing at a particular point in time and which contains an imperfective infinitive referring to a long-term open-ended situation.


Now let’s try the same kind of thing with some new sentences.

Exercise C

In the following sentences, indicate the kind of situation to which the imperfective infinitive refers: to a process ongoing on a particular occasion, to a long-term open-ended situation, or to a repeated action.


Phase Verbs as “Predicators”

By now it should be clear that phase verbs take imperfective infinitive complements—so that the aspect of the infinitive complement presents no difficulty. However, phase verbs themselves can occur in either the imperfective or the perfective aspect, as shown in the list above (the only exception is стать ‘start/begin’, which does not have an imperfective partner). Verbs and modal words that take infinitive complements in Russian will be hereinafter be termed predicators (after Forsyth 1970[2]), and phase verbs are one kind of predicator. With all of this in mind, proceed to exercise D.

Exercise D

Determine the aspect of each phase verb in the sentences below, which you have already seen in exercise A.


As predicators that are themselves used in both aspects, phase verbs refer to actions of beginning, continuing or finishing themselves as open-ended processes, repeated actions or completed actions in a sequence. See if you can keep this straight in exercise E.

Exercise E

Based on the aspect of the phase verb and contextual information in the following sentences, determine whether the bolded phase verb refers to (a) a single open-ended process, (b) a repeated action, or (c) an action completed on a particular occasion.


Negation and Phase Verbs

Under negation, phase verbs follow the general rules for aspect and negation in Russian: negated open-ended situations and negated repeated actions require the imperfective aspect. Perhaps a better way to put it is as follows: if there is an absence of a single process or event that continues over some period of time, or if there is a repeated absence of a process or complete action, the imperfective is used. In contrast, if what is at issue is the absence of the occurrence of a single complete action at some particular point in time, i.e., the failure of an event to occur on a particular occasion when it is expected to (which usually involves some sequence of events in the context), the perfective aspect is required. Negated predicates tend to be imperfective, because people tend to mention the failure of something to happen at all, for all times; they mention an event failing to occur at a particular juncture in time less frequently. Note that the infinitive complement, which is always imperfective with phase verbs, remains unchanged.

Exercise f

In the following examples, indicate whether the negated phase verb in bold font refers to the absence of an action over some period of time, the absence of a repeated action, or the absence of a single complete action at a particular point in time, in a sequence of events.


Now see if you can choose the appropriate aspect of phase verbs in various contexts.


Based on the situational context provided in the following sentences, choose the appropriate aspect of the phase verb.


Final Thoughts

The overall point of this module is simple: phase verbs take imperfective infinitive complements. This is a watertight rule with no exceptions. The imperfective infinitive complements variously refer to single open-ended processes (either involving uncompletable actions, e.g., она начала плакать ‘she began the process of crying’, or completable actions, e.g., она закoнчила убираться на кухне, ‘she finished the process of cleaning up the kitchen’) or to repeated actions (e.g., Ольга стала часто заходить в новую пекарню ‘Olga started to come to the new bakery often’). When the phase verb itself refers to a repeated action, e.g., Часам к восьми она обычно заканчивала убираться на кухне ‘She usually finished cleaning up the kitchen by about eight o’clock’, it is a moot point whether the infinitive complement refers to a repeated action or not.

Remember that perfective продолжить with an infinitive complement (e.g., мы продолжили работать) presupposes a prior period of not performing the action (working) and subsequently resuming it.

Remember also that negated perfective стать (e.g., не стала есть) refers to a decision not to do something in some context, and often a refusal to do something—‘she refused to eat’.

The requirement for the infinitive complementing a phase verb to be imperfective while the phase verb itself can by either imperfective or perfective is a particular kind of interrelationship between a predicator and its infinitive complement. In subsequent modules we will see more complex interrelationships in which both the predicator and its infinitive complement can occur in either aspect.

  1. Бойко, Анна А. (1973) Сочетания с инфинитивом несовершенного вида в современном русском языке. Ленинград: Издательтсво Ленинградского университета.
  2. Forsyth, J. (1970) A Grammar of Aspect: Usage and Meaning in the Russian Verb. New York: Cambridge University Press.


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Russian Aspect in Conversation Copyright © 2023 by Stephen M. Dickey, Kamila Saifeeva and Anna Karpusheva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.