5.4 Я слышал, что жизнь прекрасна

This module takes up the usage of three very frequent verbs that occur very often in the past tense in the imperfective as statements of fact: видеть, слышать, читать. The usage covered here is similar to some of the usage of verbs of communication covered in 5.3, but as verbs of communication have their own dynamics, we are covering these very frequent verbs separately in their own module.

Exercise A

Examine the dialogues that follow, and after each dialogue choose the statement that most accurately characterizes the actions of the speaker. Then answer the question at the end of the exercise.


Let is now proceed directly to contrastive perfective usage, which is covered in exercise B.

Exercise B

Examine the dialogues that follow, and after each dialogue choose the statement that most accurately characterizes the actions of the speaker. Then answer the question at the end of the exercise.


At this point let us summarize and make a few additional comments before we turn you loose to try the final exercise: If the speaker makes a simple statement indicating how they learned some information they are about to mention, with no information about a temporal/causal and in a casual manner with their own formulation of the information, the imperfective is usually the better choice. If the speaker presents the seeing/hearing/reading as being in some temporal/causal sequence and/or makes a (near) verbatim quote, the perfective is the better choice.

The preference for past-tense увидеть, услышать, and прочитать in a temporal/causal sequence is strongest when the action leads to some real action by the subject as a consequence. In cases when the person decides not to undertake some subsequent action, Russians often use the imperfective, and you can too. Recall again the following statement from dialogue (4) in exercise B:

Я услышала ваши голоса и решила подойти поздороваться.

Here the hearing action is presented as leading to a real action by the subject (we could paraphrase this as Я услышала ваши голоса и подошла).

Compare the following sentences in which the seeing did not lead to any real action on the part of the subject:

Видела тебя сегодня в метро, но решила не подходить.
Видела эту юбку в магазине, но решила не покупать.

In these sentences, the seeing action did not lead to any real action (we could paraphrase them as Я видела тебя сегодня в метро, но не подошла and Я видела юбку в магазине, но не купила respectively). If the speaker had gone up to the listener, or bought the skirt, увидела would be strongly preferred.

Now try your luck in the final exercise.

Exercise C

Examine the dialogues, and choose the aspect that is most appropriate in the context.


Final thoughts

The material in this module has started dealing with the communicative functions of past-tense imperfective statements of fact and contrasting perfective past-tense usage, with regard to the pairs видеть/увидеть, слышать/услышать, and читать/прочитать. The past tense of imperfective видеть, слышать, and читать occurs commonly in casual speech to let a listener know how the speaker found out about some piece of information that they are mentioning in the conversation; the piece of information is ordinarily expressed in the speaker’s own words, not an idea quoted verbatim.

The past tense of the perfectives увидеть, услышать, and прочитать is much more limited in such usage. These verbs ordinarily refer to actions of seeing, hearing, and reading that are important to the speaker themselves as actions in particular circumstances. Such important actions are only infrequently mentioned as the way in which someone acquired some information; more often they are real, “independent” actions with consequences, as when the husband tells how he met his wife: Шёл по улице, увидел, влюбился.

Regarding the concept of indicating the source of information in a temporal/causal sequence, it is instructive to consider the following two dialogues from exercises A and B again:

Наталья хочет заказать торт на день рождения сына и звонит в компанию: 
– Алло, компания «Кейкс». Меня зовут Нина. Чем я могу вам помочь?
– Алло, добрый день. Я тут прочитала у вас на сайте, что можно попробовать торт перед заказом бесплатно. Я хотела узнать, как можно записаться…чтобы попробовать.
– Да-да, конечно. Вы можете приехать к нам в любой будний день с девяти до шести. Я могу вас записать. Как вас зовут?

На дне рождения тёти Михаил познакомился с врачом Алексеем.  
– Я хотел спросить, я вот слышал, что есть какие-то препараты, которые улучшают память. Есть ли от них результаты и какие процессы в мозге они регулируют?

In the first dialogue, we have a temporal/causal sequence: Natalya read a particular piece of information on the bakery’s website, which made her want to find out how to sign up to try some cake for free and then do it. Note that the order of events is iconic—what is mentioned first also happened first. In the second dialogue, while the information that Mikhail heard in some objective sense motivated his question, it is not presented this way, but is presented as a kind of temporally back-shifted comment: it is isolated from the circumstances of its occurrence, and does not justify я хотел спросить ‘I wanted to ask’, but simply motivates in terms of its content the question Есть ли от них результаты и какие процессы в мозге они регулируют? Another way of looking at it is that the line in the second dialogue has the structure of the introductory lines in the dialogues in Exercise A, but is preceded by the (disjointed) preface to the question, я хотел спросить.

The fact that these perfectives fit best into temporal/causal sequences motivates the listener’s response in the following alternative version of the joke in dialogue (9) of the exercise C:

Молодой человек рассказывает приятелю:
– Сегодня в магазине увидел очень интересную книгу! Называется “Как решить 50% своих проблем”.
– И что, купил?
– Да, целых две.

The listener asks whether the speaker bought it, because s/he knows that the seeing event is being presented as an important event in particular circumstances. And a very plausible way for the seeing of the book to be an important step in a causal sequence is if the speaker bought it after seeing it. In the version of the joke in dialogue (9), the temporal/causal sequence is easy to recognize: Вчера я увидел книгу, которая называется “Как решить 50% ваших проблем”. Поэтому я купил их две. First the man sees the book and then buys it.

The past-tense of perfective прочитать occurs as a source of information when the information is quoted verbatim or nearly verbatim. The most important reason for this is that the ability to quote the information as written (allowing for the imprecisions of human memory) turns the reading action into an action with a result that is important for the speech situation. Additionally, as pointed out for exercise B, an idea quoted verbatim presupposes a particular source text, and along with it a particular reading event where the speaker read the idea.

Students should be ready for past-tense perfective usage in which the speaker is looking for a certain kind of reaction from the listener. In the comment after exercise B, this kind of usage in dialogues (5) and (6) was discussed. Another case is an alternative version of dialogue (1) in the exercise C:

Я тут/вчера услышала новость, что у вас внук родился!

Though native speakers might object that the imperfective in dialogue (1) of the exercise C can be replaced with the sentence above (or something like it), there is no communicative synonymy between the two. The imperfective in the dialogue simply states how the information was acquired. The perfective in the sentence above creates a different dynamic—the speaker wants to hear more about it from the listener (they are looking for a certain reaction). We may at this point try to summarize the communicative properties of past-tense statements in the imperfective and perfective as follows.

Imperfective Past Perfective Past
Simple, isolated statement Statement involving a temporal/ causal sequence
Speaker is mentioning how s/he acquired a piece of information that is summarized in the speaker’s own words Speaker is mentioning how s/he acquired a piece of information that is quoted (nearly) verbatim
Casual statements responding to a previous prompt by the listener Statements in which the speaker is controlling/attempting to control the flow of the discourse/elicit a certain response from the listener


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

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.