3.7 Supplement: Чего спрашивать?

The preceding modules have repeatedly invoked the notion that perfective infinitives occur when the speaker has a goal for the action. Consider a slightly edited version of the title of module 3.2: Я хочу купить это кольцо, но не хочу переплачивать ‘I want to buy this ring, but I don’t want to overpay’. The first infinitive is perfective because the desire on the part of the speaker to carry out the purchase reflects a goal (e.g., to have a nice ring to wear on certain occasions or to impress people, etc.). In contrast, the second infinitive is imperfective because the speaker has no goal of his/her own for the action of overpaying.

This same mechanism applies to aspectual usage in “bare” infinitives, i.e., infinitives that are not complements of predicators such as хотеть, надо, etc. A quick example of a bare infinitive is  the command Молчать! ‘Be quiet!’. This infinitive is imperfective because it refers to an extended action of being quiet with no endpoint—a canonical use of the imperfective.

Much more important for students are infinitives that occur in yes/no ‘Should I…’ questions concerning single completable actions, in which the assumption of a goal for an action triggers the perfective whereas the lack of a goal triggers the imperfective. Consider the following dialogue:

Лариса обращается к мужу:
– Саш, сходи, пожалуйста, в магазин за хлебом.
– Молока тоже взять?
– Да, возьми заодно, две бутылки.
‘Larisa is talking to her husband:
“Sasha, please go to the store to get bread.”
“Should I get some milk too?”
“Yes, get it while you’re there, two bottles.”’

The reason for the perfective here lies beyond completion—with the modality the speaker expresses a presupposition that the listener has a goal for carrying out the action (here: buying milk), in which case the speaker is willing to carry it out.

The exceptions to this are questions that reveal a lack of certainty on the part of the speaker whether something should be done at all, i.e., when there is a lack of certainty whether the listener has a purpose for the action. In such cases, which often occur with the tag или нет? ‘or not?’, the imperfective is required, as in the following:

– Я не понял, коньяк покупать или нет?!
“I don’t understand, should I buy brandy or not?!”

Despite the impersonal construction, the lack of certainty in this question, i.e., the speaker’s lack of the assumption that the answer is yes, makes it tantamount to asking Do you want me to buy brandy or not?

Going back to our previous dialogue, the imperfective is possible, as in the following:

Муж и жена в магазине. Муж стоит рядом со стеллажом молочных продуктов и, оборачиваясь к жене, спрашивает:
– Лена, молоко брать?
– Да, десятипроцентное только. Пожирнее.
A husband and wife are in the grocery store. The husband is standing by the dairy section and asks his wife:
“Lena, should I get milk?”
“Yes, but only the 10%, more milkfat.”’

However, this question signals the same lack of certainty. That is to say, in the dialogue up above with the perfective (Молокa тоже взять? ‘Should I get some milk too?’), the husband’s presupposition is that his wife probably does want him to get it (say, in the case that he knows there’s not much milk in the refrigerator, and moreover knows or infers that his wife is also aware of his fact). In contrast, in the last dialogue with the imperfective (Лена, молоко брать? ‘Lena, should I get milk?) the husband is making no assumption about the need to get milk and simply asks for guidance.

The takeaway here is that if you need to ask a question that could be formulated as Should I do X or not?/Do you want me to do X or not? you should use the following construction: [imperfective infinitive] или нет? Note again that the imperfective is enough to signal this lack of certainty and request for guidance, and  adding the tag …или нет? is never wrong, but not required.

Also useful for students are question-word questions that presuppose a complete lack of a goal on the part of the speaker. These occur when the speaker either completely fails to see any purpose for an action, or is clueless about what to do. We take these in order.

A good example of an exchange where the speaker fails to see the point of doing something is the following, from Vasily Grossman’s For a Just Cause:

– А кто он такой, ты спрашивал его? – спросил начальник.
– А чего спрашивать, я сам вижу – человек,– ответил Вавилов.
‘“And who was he?—Did you ask him?” asked the superior.
“Why should I ask? I saw myself—he was a man,” Vavilov answered.

Here Vavilov had no goal for asking the man who he was because he considered the relevant answer to his question to be blatantly obvious.

The question word чего ‘what/what for’ signals the lack of a purpose on the part of the speaker. Another question word with the same effect is зачем: it asks what the purpose for something is, whereby the speaker ordinarily signals that he/she has no purpose for the action, and the infinitive is imperfective, as in the following:

Два друга разговаривают по телефону:
– Ты правда хочешь во все эти детали вникать?
– Ну да, иначе зачем мне звонить тебе и это все выспрашивать? Мне важно знать все мельчайшие подробности.
Two friends are talking on the phone:
“Do you really want to get into all these particulars?”
“Well yes, otherwise why call and ask you about all of it? I need to know every last detail.”’

Here the speaker is asking why he/she would call and ask all sorts of questions if he/she had no goal for doing so. Another example:

Как так произошло? Почему всё так вышло? Выяснять бесполезно. Да и зачем ворошить прошлое?
‘How did that happen? Why did everything happen like it did? It’s no use trying to clarify things. And why stir up. the past?’

Here the speaker sees no point, i.e., no goal for trying to bring clarity to what happened, and no goal for stirring up the past.

Another question word that merits a few comments is куда. In questions with куда, if the speaker presupposes that there is somewhere to go and that someone will tell him/her, the perfective is very common, as in the following dialogue.

– Паш, привет. Сможешь подъехать сегодня к 5?
– А зачем?
– Пришел пакет документов на твоё имя.
– Куда подъехать? К вам в офис?
– Да, в офис.
‘“Pasha, hi. Can you come today at 5?”
“A packet of documents came for you.”
“Where should I come? To your office?”
“Yes, to my office.”’

If the speaker does not presuppose that the listener has a good answer about where to go, then the imperfective is preferred, as in the following dialogue.

Ирина и Юлия идут по коридору после первого дня работы на новом месте:
– Юль, ты помнишь, где здесь выход? Куда идти?
– Слушай, не знаю. Лабиринт какой-то… А вот лестница, точно. Нам сюда.
‘Irina and Yuliya are walking down a hallway on their first day at a new job:
“Yuliya, do you remember how we get out of here? Which way should we go?”
“I don’t know.  This is some kind of maze… Look, there’s a stairway over here, that’s it. Let’s go here.”’

Likewise, if the speaker presupposes that no possible alternative is acceptable, the imperfective is also preferred, as in the following.

Скандал в семье.
Жена: Слушай, уходи! Собирай вещи и уходи, прямо сейчас! Видеть тебя не могу!
Муж: Ты в своем уме? Куда мне идти в 12 ночи? Ты сильно в роль вошла. Остынь. Я спать.
‘A family fight.
Wife: Listen, get out! Get your stuff and get out—now! I can’ stand the sight of you!
Husband: Are you crazy? Where am I supposed to got at midnight? You’re really something. Cool off. I’m going to bed.’

This logic lies behind the rhetorical question Kуда деваться? ‘Where to get to?’, which has a meaning of ‘There’s nothing to be done’. Likewise, the lack of any goal for any particular choice of action produces the imperfective in the frequent question Что делать? ‘What should I/we do?’.

There are many subtle variations on the patterns shown above, and often the difference is very slight. Nevertheless, there is a fairly simple takeaway for students: With ‘Should I…’ questions and question word questions (e.g., зачем, куда or что), if you are fairly sure your interlocutor will give a positive answer to your question, use the perfective. If, however, you feel completely clueless about what to do and/or doubt whether you will get a useful answer to your question, the imperfective is the better choice.


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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.