4.2 Aspectual Usage in Imperatives: Some Basic Patterns

As pointed out in the previous section, the canonical functions of imperfective imperatives, with which most students are familiar, are requests for someone to start or continue an activity (i.e., an open-ended process with no anticipation of a particular stopping point) and requests for someone to engage in an activity or to carry out an action repeatedly.

Consider the following examples in which the speaker requests that someone begin an activity:

  • Вот бумага. Ручка есть? Хорошо. Итак, пишите.
    ‘Here is some paper. Do you have a pen? Good. So, write.’
  • Андрей, теперь читайте вы, пожалуйста.
    ‘Andrey, now you read, please.’

In other situations, the imperfective imperative is used to request that someone continue an activity, often with a specification of how it should be done:

  • Ешь спокойно, не торопись. У нас ещё много времени.
    ‘Eat calmly, don’t hurry. We still have a lot of time.
  • Держи крепко, не урони!
    ‘Hold it tight, don’t drop it!’

And of course, we know that imperfective imperatives are used for repeated events:

  • Избегайте сомнительных компаний  и тёмных безлюдных мест.
    ‘Avoid dubious companies and dark places where there are no people.’
  • Сестрёнка, звони мне почаще, я же скучаю.
    ‘Sis, call me more often, I miss you.’

In order to develop your feel for each and to identify them in context, let’s do an exercise.

Exercise A

Read each dialogue and then choose the statements that are true about it (more than one might be true).


Now that you have gone over two main functions of imperfective imperatives, let us turn to perfective imperatives.

While it stands to reason that perfective imperatives are used when the speaker requests that the listener complete some action, there is more going on. Exercises B and C will help pin that down.

Exercise B

Read each dialogue and then choose the statements that are true about it (more than one might be true).


Exercise C

Indicate which statement most accurately characterizes the imperatives in the preceding exercise.


Now let’s see how you can do. In exercise D, you need to choose whether you need an imperfective or a perfective imperative in each exchange. Remember, imperfective imperatives are used for processes and repeated events, and perfective imperatives are the default for new requests for one-time completable actions.

Exercise D

Choose the aspect that is more appropriate in the context.



Final Thoughts

So far, three basic rules of usage should be emerging.

  1. If you are asking someone to engage in an activity with no clear end in sight, i.e., if you are asking someone to do something for the time being—use an imperfective verb.
  2. If you are requesting that someone do something repeatedly in the future, i.e., as some kind of general instruction—use an imperfective verb.
  3. If you are making a new, first-time request for someone to carry out a particular action—use a perfective verb.

You should be aware that Russians use imperatives a lot, more than English speakers do, but that a perfective imperative is rarely, if ever rude as such, and you will not come off as pushy or annoying by using one.

The uses of imperfective imperatives for single completed events, which are exceptions to this general rule, are covered in the following modules.


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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.