3.4 Можно, если осторожно…

Now we turn to aspectual usage with можно.   The predicator можно is not a verb, but an adverb and most frequently occurs in impersonal constructions with an infinitive, though it can combine with a dative subject. Its meaning is ambiguous between ‘possible’ and ‘allowed’. The negated form of можно is нельзя, which is not treated here (if нельзя is used in the meaning of ‘not allowed’ it ordinarily takes an imperfective complement; if it is used to mean ‘not possible’, it ordinarily takes a perfective complement).

So let’s proceed to exercise A.

Exercise A

Indicate whether the following imperfective complements of можно refer to processes or repeated actions.

Now we turn to the perfective in exercise B.

Exercise B

Examine the following sentences with можно and the perfective, and select the most accurate description of the perfective infinitives.

Let us now move on to another function of the imperfective with можно in questions.

Exercise C

Examine the following sentences with можно and the imperfective, and select the most accurate description of the discourse.

Exercise D

Which of the following statements most accurately characterize the questions with можно in exercise C?

Now see how the questions in exercise C compare to questions and statements with the perfective.

Exercise E

Examine the following sentences with можно and the perfective, and select the most accurate description of the discourse.

Exercise F

Let us now consider some more circumstance-timing with можно. It is important for students to know how to ask questions of the type Where can I wash my hands? The first thing to know about these questions is that the predicator for the questions is можно and not мочь. The second thing to know is that if the action is a single completable one, the perfective is strongly preferred. Thus, the question above will be Где можно помыть руки? It is important to understand that such questions presuppose a need and therefore a goal on the part of the speaker, whether right at the moment of speech, as is easy to imagine with Где можно помыть руки? or on different occasions when the need might arise, as in Где можно взять запчасти? ‘Where can I get replacement parts?’. In both cases, the event is singularized to represent the causal relationship involved in the prior need or desire, the action itself, and the subsequent desired outcome.

The main exceptions to this rule are questions that presuppose some kind of permission. A simple example is Where can I go swimming here? in the sense of ‘where is it allowed?’. In such cases the imperfective is used: Где здесь можно купаться? The presupposition of some kind of permission shifts away from any particular desire or need on the part of the speaker, and there is no motivation for singularizing the event. The sense of this question is thus more like Where is swimming allowed? The lack of a motivation for singularizing the event can be seen with regard to handwashing in the following, in which there is an inspection of renovation work at a school, and the inspector is examining the cafeteria: Инспектор осматривает столовую и спрашивает: Где здесь у вас руки мыть можно детям? Here what is at issue is where the children are allowed to wash their hands (as opposed to cafeteria staff).

Thus, if you are asking where you can do something with a focus on what you want/need to do and permission is not at issue, use the perfective. If some kind of permission is at issue, then use the imperfective.

With the above in mind, try exercise G.

Exercise G

Choose the most appropriate aspect in the following questions.

The relevance of a contingency for triggering the perfective with можно is much like what was said for мочь/смочь in module 4.3. Any time an enabling condition comes into play and sets up a sequence, the perfective is preferred, as in Посоветуй, где можно покупаться, если в Стамбул приехал? where arriving in Istanbul is a situation preceding and conditioning the possibilities for the swimming event. Similarly, Зачем каждый раз отношения выяснять, когда можно просто спокойно поговорить activates a scenario of a marital disagreement with the need for some kind of interaction to resolve it. Consider also the following dialogue:

Два друга:
– «Если долго думать, что-нибудь можно придумать», – так, по-моему, в пословице говорится?
– Аха-х. Почти. «Если долго мучиться, что-нибудь получится» – вот, как там говорится.
– Ну, в общем смысл один!
Two friends:
“‘If one thinks for a long time, one can think up something’,—isn’t that how the proverb goes?”
“Uh-huh. Almost. ‘If one torments oneself for a long time, something comes out of it’—that what people say.”
“Well, they basically mean the same thing!”’

In each of the statements (only the first of which contains можно) a preceding effort is mentioned as a condition (Если долго думать… and Если долго мучиться…, respectively) which leads to the attainment of some desired outcome (придумать что-нибудьand что-нибудь получится, respectively). These three examples are just a sample of the many forms that a preceding contingency can take.

In contrast to the imperfective with мочь, the imperfective with можно is not about the inherent capabilities of an object (as in Новый кран может поднимать до 50 тонн); rather, it is about external factors determining what is possible. As pointed out above, this often takes the form of rules, i.e., what is permissible, as in Где можно парковаться? However, the way the world is structured in general can have the same effect, as in Раньше нужно было ходить в банк или банкомат, чтобы деньги снять и купить что-то. Сейчас вообще ничего снимать не нужно. Можно за всё с телефона расплачиваться ‘One used to have to got to a bank or an ATM to withdraw money and buy something. Now you don’t need to withdraw anything. You can pay for everything with your phone’. This comment describes the previous general structure of the world (in which it was necessary to go to the bank to get money to buy something) and contrasts it with the way the world is structured now (in which it is possible to pay for everything by means of one’s cell phone). Students should be aware of the possibility of alternative construals, so that Можно расплатиться кредитной картой? ‘Can I pay with a credit card?’ has the perfective of ‘pay’ because what is at issue is a particular occasion when the speaker wants/needs to pay with a credit card; this is more about the technical possibility than permission. Similarly, statements about the general state of things can focus on the ability to do what one wants when the occasion arises, as in the following:

В небольших городах и поселках можно расплатиться только наличными средствами.
‘In small towns and villages one can only pay with cash.’

Теперь у нас можно расплатиться банковскими картами!
‘Now you can pay in our store with debit cards!’

In the first example, the idea is that when in small towns and villages and the need arises to pay for something, one can only pay in cash. In the second, the sense is that unlike before, one can now pay in our stores with a debit card (when one needs to pay). In these cases we have contingencies very subtly expressed, but they can still be presupposed. Again, however, they do not have to be and the imperfective can be used in the each of these examples to focus on how the world is structured and the general possibility for paying in these ways, as generically repeated actions. Students should be ready for both aspects with the corresponding difference in nuance.

Permission on a Single Occasion

The last point of aspectual usage with можно we will cover involves the issue of permission to do something on a single occasion.

Exercise H

Examine the dialogues and select the statements that are true about each.

Now answer the question in exercise I.

Exercise I

Which statements are true about the dialogues in exercise H?

Now you can try: in exercise J, see if you can make the correct choice based on the conversational context.

Exercise J

Choose the most appropriate aspect in the context.

Now try to make the choice on your own for infinitive complements of можно in various contexts in exercise K.

Exercise K

Choose the aspect that is most appropriate in the context.

Final Thoughts

This module has covered the aspect of infinitive complements with the adverb можно. The general rules bear many similarities to and also differences from the rules for the verb мочь/смочь.  We may summarize the rules we have established here as follows:


  1. Aspectual usage with можно generally follows the same principles as with мочь/смочь: open-ended situations, long-term processes, or repeated actions are imperfective, whereas single completable actions presuppose a goal and are perfective. Likewise, when an open-ended situation is presented in a sequence of events, a delimitative is used, as observed in point 1 above.
  2. While the imperfective occurs with мочь/смочь in statements of inherent ability, the imperfective occurs with можно generally with regard to the permissibility of an action (according to the “rules”).


Again, there are various real and apparent exceptions to these rules, but they represent dominant tendencies. Here we may briefly mention aspectual negation with нельзя ‘it is not permitted/it is impossible’, which functions as the negation of можно. If something is not permitted, then the infinitive is imperfective as in Это нельзя трогать ‘That is not to be touched/No touching permitted’. If something is not possible, then the perfective is used, as in Насильно нельзя изменить природу человека ‘It is impossible to change a person’s nature by force’. This principle follows the same logic as with the negation of мочь/смочь: when we say that something is/was impossible, we usually presuppose a purpose and goal for that action, and the perfective is appropriate.

In the next two modules, we move on to predicators of necessity.


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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.