4.3 Раз хочешь, бери…

Now that you have reviewed the canonical functions of imperfective imperatives—to get someone to engage in an activity or to do something repeatedly—you are ready to move on to usages of imperfective imperatives that refer to single completable actions, but which are conditioned by the dynamic between the speaker and the listener. This module deals with a major case of such usage, and the following exercises will guide you in constructing an understanding of it.

Exercise А

Read the dialogues, each of which contains an imperfective imperative, and select the true statements.


Exercise B

What feature is common to all the exchanges in exercise A?


Now you that you know that imperfective imperatives can be used when the speaker knows that the listener wants or intends to do something and expresses their approval, do the following exercise, which contains both imperfective and perfective imperatives.

Exercise C

Read the dialogues and select the true statements.


Exercise D

Choose the statement that most accurately describes the way the perfective and imperfective imperatives are used in exercise C.


Keeping in mind the idea imperfective imperatives are used with varying levels of speaker endorsement of the listener’s intention, read the dialogues in exercise E and try to figure out the level of the speaker’s endorsement of the plan of the listener.

Exercise E

Read the dialogues, each of which contains an imperfective imperative, and select the true statements.


Further Complications

In exercise D the dialogues were designed to help you distinguish between first-time requests and granting approval of an intention as a basic distinction between the perfective and imperfective aspects (respectively) in imperatives. Alas, life is not so simple. Perfective imperatives can be used to grant approval as well—but in certain circumstances. Exercise F should get you attuned to the difference.

Exercise F

Read the dialogues, each of which contains an imperfective or a perfective imperative, and select the true statements.


Exercise G

Choose the statements that most accurately describe the way the perfective and imperfective imperatives are used in exercise F.


The complications are not over. Continue with exercise H to see another way in which the perfective can differ from imperfectives when granting approval.

Exercise H

Read the dialogues and select the true statements.


Exercise I

Choose the statements that most accurately describe the way the perfective and imperfective imperatives are used in exercise H.


There is a last complication that involves another use of perfective imperatives in contexts when approval is granted, but which in our view does not need to be activated as a focus of exercises. In most contexts in which an imperfective imperative is used to grant approval, there is always possibility using a perfective imperative in the same context. A representative example of this variation is the following dialogue:

Мать готовит праздничный вечер для своей дочери, которой исполняется четырнадцать лет. Дочь спрашивает у матери:
– Мам, а можно я Катю с Димой приглашу? Я с ними в лагере этим летом познакомилась.
Приглашай/Пригласи, конечно.
A mother is preparing an evening birthday party for her daughter, who is turning fourteen. Her daughter asks her:
“Mama, can I invite Katya and Dima? I met them at camp this summer.”
“Invite them, of course.”’

At first blush, one could think that the imperfective and perfective imperatives are synonymous alternatives, but this is not true. The imperfective imperatives used to grant approval on which we have been focusing, such as приглашай above, are casual and passive, i.e., purely reactive utterances that grant approval to the listener’s intention. Although they can sound more or less encouraging (welcoming) depending on intonation, they, as a rule, do not signal a message other than a simple endorsement. Perfective imperatives such as пригласи above are not in fact casual utterances. Rather, they are in fact requests: the speaker does not act on his/her knowledge of the listener’s intention, and “coopts” the conversational situation by turning what would be a granting of approval into a request in which the speaker maintains initiative in the conversation—the action is, as it were, turned into “the speaker’s idea.” In other words, the speaker is assuming control of the conversation. The effect of this strategy is that such perfective imperatives, when spoken between coequals, come off as matter-of-fact or “businesslike,” or maybe even somewhat “uptight” depending on who is talking to whom. Consider the following dialogue:

Юрий и Вадим работают над научным проектом:
– Я тут ещё несколько статей нашёл по нашей теме. Хочешь, на почту тебе пришлю?
– Да, присылай/пришли.
‘Yuri and Vadim are working on a scholarly project:
“I just found a few articles on our topic. Do you want me to send them to you?”
“Yes, send them”’

Here the imperfective is the casual, reactive approval; the perfective is more unemotional, perhaps standoffish, and can even be impatient.

Note that this use of the perfective imperative is distinct from the uses of the perfective imperative discussed above to signal the speaker’s doubt about whether the listener will attain his/her goal or the speaker’s active role in the planning of the action. In any case, between speakers who are on casual terms the imperfective is never wrong (and note again that it can be used with varying levels of endorsement). The perfective imperative is a very specific strategy, and not one that we think is worth learning (though students are well advised to be aware of it). Rather, we think that imperfective imperatives as the default way of granting approval should be learned for eventual active use exclusively here. An additional reason for recommending the imperfective imperative in cases of granting approval to students is that it always occurs with the standard downward imperative intonation (known as IK-2), whereas the perfective requires a specific rising intonation (a low-key version of what is known as IK-6).

In exercise J, we will indicate when both aspects are possible in this kind of variation, but consider the imperfective to be the preferred aspect in these contexts for students.

What you have learned so far is a lot to keep in mind. Try exercise J to see how you are doing so far.

Exercise J

Choose the aspect that is more appropriate in the context. Note that in numerous dialogues both aspects are possible, and you should pay attention to the feedback for both options.


Final Thoughts

Russians use imperatives much more often than English speakers do. English speakers tend to use modal questions (Could you please pass the salt?) because direct, on-line commands are felt to be pushy or rude. A big reason why Russians use more imperatives is because the interaction of the meanings of the perfective and imperfective aspects with imperatives makes them polite as requests or other kinds of remarks in discourse. Thus, knowing these interactions can help you understand why imperatives get used so frequently in Russian—the idea that Russians have some propensity to tell people what to do more than speakers of other languages is not what lies at the heart of their frequent use of imperatives.

The covert request for the listener to make the choice to perform an action communicated by a perfective imperative is on a par with the modality of English requests, that is to say, both equally give the listener the chance to “opt out” (or pretend to give that chance, in cases when the listener does not really have that freedom). This is why the Russian on-line command Передай соль, пожалуйста is just as polite as English Could you please pass the salt?

When imperfective imperatives are used to grant approval, they are likewise not felt to be pushy or rude, and this is also a consequence of the interaction of the imperfective aspect and the imperative form. If we think of the decision or choice to perform an action as its “unseen” beginning (as suggested by Shatunovsky 2009: 254), when that choice has already been made, we are, as it were, in the middle of the action, and the imperfective aspect is appropriate. In other words, the imperfective imperative can signal that the speaker knows that the decision to perform the action has already been made, and if it was the listener that has already made the choice, the “command” to carry out the action is merely an endorsement of that choice and does not foist the will of the speaker onto the listener.

When perfective verbs are used to grant approval, there is a more complex dynamic involved in the exchange. The more complex dynamic almost invariably involves what will happen after the proposed action:

In one variant, the speaker expresses a doubt that the action will have its desired consequences. For example, in dialogue (4) of exercise F, Valeriya’s friend doubts that her plan to write the celebrity will elicit a response. Note that the action of writing the letter will be completed in any case.

Валерия нашла аккаунт популярного актёра в социальной сети. Она просит совета у подруги:
– Ань, как думаешь, написать ему? Может быть, «Привет. Как дела?» …
– Ну напиши. Только он вряд ли ответит. Знаешь сколько таких сообщений он получает каждый день?
Valeriya has found the social media account of a popular actor. She asks her friend for advice:
“Anya, what do you think, should I write him? Maybe, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’…”
“Well write him. But he’s hardly going to answer. Do you know how many of that kind of messages he gets every day?”’


This logic lies behind the matter-of-fact response Войдите! ‘Come in’ to a knock on the door of an office: the speaker does not know who has knocked, and can give them entrance, but won’t guarantee that they will get what they came for.
In contrast, in dialogue (3) of exercise F, Dasha’s mother takes no position on whether her letter to Santa will have its desired consequences, for obvious reasons. And here too the action of writing the letter will be completed.

Маленькая Даша говорит маме:
– Мама, я хочу написать письмо Дедушке Морозу!
–Пиши, конечно, Дашенька. Сейчас дам тебе листочек.
‘Little Dasha is talking to her mother:
“Mama, I want to write a letter to Santa Claus!”
“Write him, of course, Dasha. I’ll give you a piece of paper now.”’

What triggers the perfective in dialogue (4) as opposed to the imperfective in dialogue (3) is not the completion of the action, but the communicated reservation about whether it will have its desired effects or not.

In another variant, the speaker uses the perfective when making it clear that s/he will have to change his/her own course of action if the proposed action is carried out. That is to say, the proposed action will have certain consequences. For example, in dialogue 6 of exercise F Natalya will have to put on her sweater if Dmitry opens the window.

Дмитрий обращается к коллеге, с которой работает в одном кабинете:
– Наталья, я открою окно, вы не против?
– Ох, ну откройте(Тянется за свитером.)
– Ненадолго. Потом закрою.
‘Dmitry speaks to his colleague, with whom he shares an office;
“Natalya, do you mind if I open the window?”
“Oh, well open it…” (Reaches for her sweater.)
“Not for long, then I’ll shut it.”’

Here we can likewise say that Войдите! ‘Come in’ in response to a knock on the door of an office signals that the speaker communicates that s/he will have to quit whatever s/he is doing if the person comes in and instead will have to deal with that person’s business.

In a third variant, the speaker joins in on the proposed action as someone who will participate or who otherwise has a stake in what is going to happen. This may involve changing the planned action, e.g., proposing to order pizza with pineapple in dialogue (2) in exercise H.

Матвей говорит своему соседу по квартире:
– Так неохота готовить… Пиццу, что ли, заказать…
– Ой, закажизакажи! С ананасами!
– Ну нет, только не эту. Давай лучше «Четыре сыра».
‘Matvey is talking to his apartmentmate:
“I really don’t feel like cooking… Should we order pizza?”
“Oh yeah, order it! With pineapple!”
“Oh no, anything but that. Let’s get the one with four cheeses instead.”’

It might also involve otherwise participating in the action or its follow-up actions, e.g., jointly presenting at a conference in dialogue (6) in exercise H.

Александр обращается к своему однокурснику, с которым написал совместную статью:
– Слушай, Паш, тут информация о конференции на сайте появилась… Я, наверное, подам заявку… Выступим вместе?
– О, подайподай, отлично! Мне как раз публикации нужны!
‘Aleksandr is speaking to his fellow student, with whom he has written a jointly-authored article:
“Listen, Pasha, some information about a conference has just appeared on a website… I’ll probably apply. Should we present together?”
“Oh, apply! Terrific! I need publications!”’

In dialogue (17) we also see this mechanism: Vadim grants approval as an interested party, because at that early stage in their project he could use more literature to develop the project.

Юрий и Вадим уже полгода работают над научным проектом:
– Я тут несколько статей нашёл по нашей теме. Хочешь, на почту тебе пришлю?
– О, пришли, да!
‘Yuri and Vadim have already been working on a scholarly project for six months:
“I just found a few articles on our topic. Do you want me to send them to you?”
“Oh yes, send them!”’

Lastly we can mention the perfective as a matter-of-fact alternative to the imperfective, as in dialogue (1):

Валерия готовит салат и уточняет у своего молодого человека: 
– Я базилик добавлю? Ты любишь?
– Да, добавь, если хочешь.
Valeriya is making a salad and asks her boyfriend:
“Should I add basil? Do you like it?”
“Yes, add it if you want.”’

The perfective here is less emotional than the imperfective, and in fact does not really grant approval to an intention on the part of the listener, but takes up the idea as an initiator (this can happen when the listener has asked whether something should happen, which only implicitly conveys an intention), who integrates the action into his/her own goals.

These are the main ways that the perfective differs from the imperfective in granting approval, and all in one way or another involve altering the outcome and/or triggering events subsequent to the proposed action. That is to say, the use of the perfective aspect in granting approval in one way or another involves fitting the proposed action into some sequence of events: e.g., the actions following on the writing of a letter may be different than anticipated; if Matvey orders pineapple on the pizza, his roommate will eat some; if Dmitry opens the window, Natalya will have to put on her sweater, etc.

There are other possibilities for the perfective, which are less common, but they still involve a sequence of events with the proposed action. For example, in the following dialogue, the imperfective играйиграй would signal a non-involved approval by the mother of the Denis’s plan to play video games, whereas the perfective поиграйпоиграй signals control on the part of the mother—Denis can play video games for a little while, and then do something constructive.

Денис просит свою маму:
– Мам, я уже сделал уроки. Можно на компьютере поиграть?
– Ну поиграйпоиграй. Лучше бы на улице погулял – сидишь целый день дома.
‘Denis asks his mother:
“Mama, I’ve already done my homework. Can I play some on the computer?”
“Well, play a little. It would be better if you went outside for a walk—you sit all day inside at home.”’

The use of imperfective imperatives when the speaker knows or infers that the listener wants to do something is very important in Russian. It might be useful for you to know that English has an imperative phrase that corresponds to the imperfective imperative of granting approval of various verbs in Russian: Go ahead. English speakers commonly use this phrase to give the listener the green light to do something that s/he has expressed a desire to do. Very many of the imperfective imperatives in this module translate nicely as Go ahead in English; conversely, if you are speaking Russian and you end up in a situation where you would say Go ahead in English, try the imperfective imperative of the verb at issue.

The next module addresses a related, though distinct pattern of imperfective usage.


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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.