3.3. Ну хоть это ты можешь понять?

Module 3.2 covered infinitive complements of verbs of intention. This module covers the main verbal predicator of possibility and ability, the verb мочь/смочь. It forms a pair with module 3.4, which covers the adverb можно.

Like verbs of intention, our verb has an imperfective variant мочь and a perfective variant смочь. Both express both possibility and ability. Imperfective мочь views an ability or possibility itself as an open-ended situation. Note that imperfective мочь does not occur in the future tense. The usage of perfective смочь has been increasing in recent times (Janda 2018 and the references cited there). Though the full account is a little more complicated, we may characterize perfective смочь as expressing a change of state, from being unable to being able, or expressing the notion of being able at some particular point in time. Perfective смочь occurs very frequently with future reference. The lack of a future tense of мочь on the one hand and the frequent reference of смочь to the future on the other can be explained in the following way. If there is a general (open-ended) possibility of something happening in the future, then that possibility about the future exists at present, motivating the present-tense use of мочь. In contrast, there are possibilities that do not exist, or are not relevant at the present time, but will come into being only as a result of contingencies, thus motivating the frequent use of смочь with future reference.

The interaction of the modal spheres of possibility and ability expressed by мочь/смочь and Russian aspect are fairly complicated, so we will treat them separately.

Let’s proceed to ability. Ability is tied to repetition—an ability to do something is demonstrated by doing it whenever you want, or whenever the need arises, i.e., from time to time. For this reason, a simple present-tense imperfective verb can also communicate ability, due to its frequent reference to repeated actions: Он блестяще говорит по-немецки ‘He speaks German splendidly.’ That is to say, repeated observations of an action allow one to infer that the subject can perform that action, here: that the person in question can speak German well.

Exercise A

Examine the following sentences with imperfective infinitives that express ability, and consider (a) whether they seem to be about open-ended situations or repetition and (b) whether repetition is expressed and if so how.



From here we move on to another way of viewing ability: statements of ability that are slightly less generic characterizations of people or things and presuppose some prior enabling condition, either some prior event or the need/decision to do something. Such enabling conditions involve what we will call circumstance-timing, that is, they bring into play a representative scenario. In order to understand this, consider (2) and (4) from exercise A again:


Только Альбина может так резко отшивать парней, я, наоборот, вечно тяну, тяну кота за хвост, пока они сами не потеряют интерес.
‘Only Albina can drop guys so abruptly, I, on the other hand, draw things out forever, I tug on the cat’s tail, until they finally lose interest themselves.’

По-моему, только аргентинцы и бразильцы могут забивать голы, стоя у своих ворот.
‘In my opinion, only Argentinians and Brazilians can score goals standing at their own goal posts.’


These statements of ability could be reformulated in the following ways: ‘Albina is such that she drops/can drop boyfriends abruptly’ and ‘Argentinians and Brazilians are such that they score/can score goals from their own goal’. In these characterizations, nothing about any particular circumstances is asserted or implied, these are purely characterizations of the traits of Albina and Argentinians and Brazilians (respectively). In general, the imperfective is used as a complement of мочь in generalizations about classes/types of objects/people.

However, especially where individual people (as volitional beings) are concerned, statements of ability often presuppose a necessity leading to a choice to achieve a goal. Consider now the following two sentences, which differ in terms of their aspect:


Автобус этой марки может перевозить не больше сорока человек.
‘A bus of this make can transport no more than forty people.’

Наша компания может перевезти ваш груз в любую точку России.
‘Our company can transport your freight to any place in Russia.’


The first sentence is again simply a generic characterization of the bus, i.e., of a class of buses: ‘This make of bus is such that it can transport no more than 40 people at a time’. With the second sentence we come to circumstance-timing: ‘Our company is such that, when the necessity arises, it can transport your freight to any particular destination in Russia’. The second kind of statement is circumstance-timed because it involves a need that arises on some particular occasion (to get freight to a particular destination), whereupon the company can transport the cargo so that it ends up at the given desired destination. There is a chain of choices here: the necessity of getting cargo to a particular destination motivates the client to contact the company, whereupon the company makes the choice to transport the freight to the particular destination at the particular time. The scenario is a generic or representative one, but it still involves a chain of events.

You will probably have noticed that the first sentence has an imperfective infinitive, whereas the second has a perfective infinitive. You should also notice that the first has an inanimate subject, whereas the second, while its subject is a collective, nevertheless has someone in control (the person/people in charge of the business). Singular agentive (animate) subjects frequently occur in statements of ability of the second kind.

The case of the Argentinians and Brazilians is of the first kind: even though these people are agentive as individuals, the characterization in terms of nationalities abstracts away from individuals who make particular decisions in particular circumstances. Similarly, Albina’s conduct with her boyfriends is presented as something that she can do independent of any particular circumstances—it is a personality trait of hers.


Exercise B

Examine the sentences and consider whether they have an animate or inanimate subject and whether they are generic statements of some characteristic or circumstance-timed statements.


Above we mentioned an analogy between imperfective present-tense usage referring to repeated events, which can be interpreted as a statement of ability. The negated perfective-present usage just discussed for exercise B is an example of the usage of present-tense perfective verbs in statements of probability more generally, which in Russian is called the ‘potential usage’ of the perfective present. An affirmative example is Любой юрист скажет, что мы имеем равные права ‘Any attorney will tell you that we have equal rights’. The meaning of the perfective in such usage is comparable to the meaning of perfective infinitives with мочь; thus, in this example скажет ‘says/will say’ does not make a statement about the class of attorneys so much as it conveys that if an attorney has some occasion to make a comment (e.g., in response to a question), that attorney will say that we have equal rights. Indeed, Šatunovskij (2009: 316–319) explains this ‘potential’ meaning of the perfective present in terms of conditions or contingencies in which an agent is likely to make a choice to perform some action. In our view, the use of perfective infinitives with мочь is also best explained in the same way, as expressing an ability contingent on a need that motivates a choice to perform an action for some purpose. If that seems like a lot to remember, then fall back on the fact that if the action is completable and the subject is human and singular, you can and probably should use the perfective.

The ‘potential’ meaning of the perfective present, which is less about inherent ability than the likelihood of someone performing an action, brings us to the use of мочь in statements of probability. As aspectual usage in infinitive complements of мочь аs a verb of probability/possibility is more or less the same as it is with мочь as a verb of ability, we will not focus on probability/possibility here. The subjects of statements of possibility tend to be verbal nouns or generic noun phrases, as in the following:


Поставки могут осуществляться и днём, и ночью.
‘Deliveries can be made day or night.’

На войне всякое может произойти.
‘In war anything can happen.’


If the infinitive complement refers to a single process or to repeated actions it is imperfective. Thus, in the first example, in which осуществляться ‘be carried out’ is modified by the adverbs of repetition и днём, и ночью ‘both during the day and night’, then it is imperfective. If the action that is at issue is one that is completable and leads to some kind of result, then the perfective is used, as in the second example. The second example also has the same kind of circumstance-timing as in statements of ability. Thus, the sense of the second example is that depending on the circumstances, various things can occur in wartime, which will have varying results/consequences in each case. The possibility of various events might be directly contingent on previous events, as in the following example:


Что может случиться, пока мы в отъезде?
‘What can happen while we are away on a trip?’


Here the question is about what could happen while the people are out of town, i.e., after they have departed, thus being enabled by their absence. A common case of circumstance-timing is telling how much of something can happen on a given occasion, as in Сколько литров воды человек может выпить за раз? ‘How much water can a person drink at a time’ Here the variable of the amount of water that can be drunk on a single occasion necessarily creates a focus on an imagined single event of what can happen.


Circumstance-timing is a special case of sequentiality. When a prior situation is mentioned or implied, that creates a sequence of events in which the potential action is a part, which in turn motivates the perfective. It should not come as a surprise that when there is sequential chain of potential actions expressed with infinitives, the perfective is likewise used (as in Ты можешь встать и пойти домой ‘You can get up and go home’), as it is when there are otherwise any indications of event sequencing. With these points in mind, proceed to exercise C.


Exercise C

Choose the aspect that is most appropriate in the context.



Let us now consider statements about the ability of a human to do something once in the future, as in the following:


Заехать за тобой я могу завтра после работы.
‘I can drop by to get you tomorrow after work.’

In responses to requests for favors and present-tense statements about plans for the future, мочь can refer to ability to carry out a single action. Unlike the statements in exercises A and B about general ability, this statement is not based on repetition. Thus, you should use the perfective in statements of the ability to do something at a particular time in the future. There is good reason for this, because in statements such as Заехать за тобой я могу завтра после работы, a sequence is presupposed: the first relevant point in time is speech time, followed by the end of work on the next day, which is followed by the stopping by, which is in turn followed by the goal the interlocutors have that will be enabled by the speaker picking up the listener.

Statements about the ability to complete an action once in the future raise the issue of the aspect of the predicator—whether to use imperfective мочь or perfective смочь. In the first person, the difference can be very subtle. Imperfective мочь, as in Заехать могу завтра is very common in responses, e.g., when someone is agreeing to do something that someone else is asking them to do. In contrast, Заехать смогу завтра is more assertive, ordinarily reflecting the active planning on the part of the speaker. This can range from the assertion that tomorrow is the only time the speaker can come (due to his/her schedule) to a focus on the part of the speaker on what will happen tomorrow, due to his/her eagerness to stop by tomorrow. Note that in lax speech Russians can also use могу in place of смогу when a particular point in time in the future is at issue, which is facilitated by the fact that there are always two different ways of construing the possibility of doing something at a particular time in the future. Taking the example Заехать могу/смогу завтра as an example, one could think of it as ‘the possibility of me stopping by tomorrow presently exists’ versus ‘the possibility of me stopping by will exist tomorrow’. The difference between first-person могу and смогу referring to the ability to carry out a single action in the future is so subtle/subjective that it cannot be covered in exercises here.

When speaking to someone else (i.e., using the predicator in the second person) about the ability to carry out a completable action, we can make a three-way distinction between (1) the general ability to carry out the action when the circumstances arise and (2) asking for a single favor on the one hand (both мочь), and (3) asking whether tomorrow someone will be able to carry out the action (смочь). Let’s take a look at some examples:

Ты можешь чихнуть не закрывая рот?
‘Can you sneeze without closing your mouth?’

This a question about a general ability; with the perfective чихнуть it is based on a contingency: when you know you have to sneeze and decide to try doing with your mouth open, can you do it? Note that the question above is extremely unlikely as a request for a favor.

Now consider some requests for single favors:

Пока я ищу ножницы, можешь мне вставить нитку в иголку?
‘While I am looking for the scissors, can you put thread in the needle?’

Паш, а ты можешь помочь мне завтра с машиной? У меня опять правый поворотник не горит.
‘Pasha, can you help me with my car tomorrow? My right turn signal isn’t working again.’

Можешь позвонить Паше завтра и попросить передать мне документы?
‘Can you call Pasha tomorrow and ask him to hand the documents over to me?’

Questions about favors focus on how the listener can respond now, i.e., are they presently willing to commit to something, and thus call for a present-tense form of the modal predicator, which leads them to use imperfective мочь.

Now come questions about someone’s ability to do something in the future. We will comment on each individually:


Жена обращается к мужу:

– Вань, у Даши завтра выпускной в садике в 3 часа.Сможешь отпроситься с работы?

‘A wife addresses her husband:

“Vanya, Dasha’s nursery school is having their graduation celebration tomorrow at 3. Can you ask and get off work?’


Here what the wife is asking for is akin to a favor. However, Vanya, as the child’s father, is responsible for the child, so this question presupposes that Vanya is willing to go and asks whether tomorrow he will be able to successfully request to get off, before 3 o’clock.


Две подруги разговаривают по телефону: 

– Маша, сижу думаю, что мне приготовить завтра на наше чаепитие с девочками. Есть идеи? Я хотела шарлотку. Яблок много в холодильнике завалялось.

– Шарлотку? А ты сможешь вместо шарлотки свой фирменный рулет из яблок испечь? Я его обожаю!

Two female friends are talking on the phone:

“Masha, I’m sitting and thinking about what I should make tomorrow for our tea with the girls. Any ideas? I wanted to make charlotte.  There are a lot of old apples in the fridge.”

“Charlotte? But can you bake your trademark apple roulade instead of charlotte? I adore it!”’


Here Masha is not asking her friend to make the roulade for her, but simply asking whether tomorrow it will be possible for her to make it, to solve her problems of what to make and what to do with the apples.


Станислав Иванович должен быть после обеда, тогда и сможешь всё у него узнать. Я тебе сейчас ничего определённого сказать не могу, к сожалению.
‘Stanislav Ivanovich should be here after lunch, you will be able to find out everything from him then. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anything in particular now.’


In this last example, the secretary is not asking the visitor anything but telling him he will be able to find out what he needs to know after the lunch break. Here смочь arguably occurs with its canonical meaning of the change of state from not being able to being able to do something: he will not be able to find things out before the lunch break is over—only after the lunch break is over will he be able to see Stanislav Ivanovich and find out what he needs to know.

The takeaway here is as follows: if you are asking for a favor, use the present tense of мочь; if you are asking about a future possibility at a particular point in time, it is better to ask with the future of смочь.

This last example is similar to how смочь is used in the past tense, which we cover now in exercise D.

Exercise D

Given that imperfective мочь occurs in contexts of repetition and perfective смочь occurs in contexts of a sequence of one-time situations when there is a change of state from ‘not being able’ to ‘being able’, choose the past tense of мочь or смочь based on the context in each sentence:



Let’s cover one more important use of смочь in exercise E.

Exercise E

For the following sentences with a negative statement of ability, choose the statements that are true.



Now try to make the choice between the negated past-tenses of мочь and смочь in exercise F.

Exercise F

Choose the aspect of ‘be able to’ that is most appropriate in the context.



The choice between imperfective мочь and perfective смочь, whether in the affirmative or negative, should make more sense now. At this point some remarks on the aspect of the complement infinitive with negated мочь/смочь are in order. In exercises E and F, the infinitive complements of negated мочь/смочь were perfective. The rule motivating this, which you should in fact be familiar with by now, is that a complement of negated мочь/смочь is imperfective if it refers to an open-ended process or a repeated action, but perfective if it refers to a single completable action. This usage contrasts with what we said about infinitive complements of хотеть/захотеть and хотеться/захотеться in module 3.2: the default for infinitive complements of negated verbs of wanting is the imperfective, even for single completable actions, because the lack of a desire to do something entails the lack of any goal for that action. The reason that perfective infinitives are used regularly with negated мочь/смочь is that the inability to do something works the opposite way: a statement of inability presupposes some understanding of why the action would be undertaken, and that involves an implicit goal for the action. That is to say, the sequencing of a single completable action and its goal is in effect for negated мочь/смочь. As this tendency is so strong, it is not the focus of exercises.

Now try to make the choice on your own for the infinitive complement of мочь/смочь in exercise G. Note that the choice between мочь and смочь is not part of this exercise, as it was the focus of exercises D and F; this exercise focuses solely on the aspect of the infinitive complement.

Exercise G

Choose the aspect that is most appropriate in the context.

Final Thoughts

This module has covered the aspect of infinitive complements with the main predicator of ability/possibility, the verb мочь/смочь. The general rules bear certain similarities to as well as differences from the rules for the verbs of intention covered in module 3.2. We may summarize the rules we have established here as follows:


  1. If the infinitive refers to an open-ended situation, a long-term process, or to repeated actions, the imperfective is generally used. The main exception to this is when an open-ended situation is presented in a sequence of events, in which case a perfective delimitative is used (e.g., попеть). Sequencing should be understood in a broad sense, which brings us to the next rule.
  2. As far as statements of ability are concerned, we may distinguish on the one hand statements about an object/class of objects referring to inherent abilities of the object, in which case the imperfective is used, and on the other statements about what humans can do when a desire/need to do something arises, i.e., circumstance-timed ability, in which case the perfective is preferred.
  3. The difference between imperfective мочь and perfective смочь is that between an ongoing/extended ability (usually involving repetition) to do something and the ability to do something that is enabled or is otherwise relevant at a particular point in time. Negated смочь occurs when the subject was unable to do something at a particular point in time, possibly after an attempt, or will be unable to do something at particular point of time in the future.
  4. For both affirmative and negated мочь/смочь the perfective is preferred for infinitive complements referring to single completable actions with a goal. Negation of the predicator does not trigger a switch to the imperfective (as it does when verbs of intention are negated), because statements concerning the inability to do something are compatible with (and most often presuppose) the presence of a goal in the subject’s intentions.


The  next module covers aspectual usage in infinitive complements of можно; the principles governing aspectual usage with можно are similar to those covered in this module, but there are enough differences to merit a separate module.


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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.