Afterword: Russian Aspect, Sequencing, and Goal-Orientation

This afterword is an optional piece of reading for those who are interested in comments relating the semantic model of aspect tacitly adopted in Russian Aspect in Conversation to the descriptions and commentaries of the conversational usage and pragmatic effects of the Russian perfective and imperfective that run through its modules, using dialogues from this textbook alongside data from the Russian National Corpus. While based on my linguistic analyses (e.g., Dickey 2000,[1] 2018[2], 2020[3], 2021[4]), the exposition below omits theoretical points etc. that are irrelevant for Russian language learners.

A full discussion of how the respective abstract meanings of the perfective and imperfective interact to produce these usage patterns would be at least as long as this textbook, and cannot be undertaken here. Thus, the comments here will remain on a fairly global level and discuss only a few representative types of usage and nuances as examples.

The traditional treatment of aspect in Russian views the meaning of the perfective as the completion of an action, emphasizing the total view of the action and/or the attainment of the completion point inherent in the action (e.g., the completion of the closing in the writing of a letter), which produces a result (e.g., the existence of the letter). The imperfective is described as saying nothing at all about whether the action is a totality or the inherent completion point has been attained, but has a prominent meaning of the action viewed as an ongoing process.

Russian Aspect in Conversation has opted for another approach that can be more plausibly linked to the various discourse effects of the perfective and imperfective. This approach has been around since the 1970’s in one form or another. Briefly, it argues that the meaning of the Russian perfective is one of temporal and causal event sequencing, whereas the meaning of the imperfective is precisely the cancellation of such sequencing (for a brief discussion of the development of this idea, see Dickey 2018: 81–82). In other words, the perfective views an action as located in a temporal/causal sequence of events, i.e., in sequence with other (perhaps unspecified) events, whereas the imperfective isolates an action from any such sequencing, i.e., it focuses on the situation itself, to the exclusion of all else. According to this view, the process meaning of the imperfective as well as its meaning of the repetition of one and the same action and its reference to single completed actions are all contextual variants of the isolation of an action from a sequence of events. If the process meaning of the imperfective is particularly prominent in our consciousness, it is nevertheless an instantiation of the conceptualization of an action as isolated from other events (possibly) in sequence with it.

While this latter approach has its advantages, it nevertheless remains very abstract and requires more specifics to be of much pedagogical or even descriptive use. So let us pin it down a bit. We can model the event sequencing of the perfective as follows (where the symbol > stands for ‘precedes in time’, and Situation refers to any action or state):

Situation 1 > Situation 2 > Situation 3

In this template, Situation 2 is the action referred to by a perfective verb, e.g., раздеться ‘get undressed’; and Situations 1 and 3 are a preceding and subsequent situation respectively. In narratives the asserted sequencing of the perfective produces chains of narrative sequences, as in Из уборной прокрался в спальню, разделся и лёг ‘He slipped from the bathroom into the bedroom, got undressed and lay down’. Here we may for ease of exposition consider разделся as Situation 2, and прокрался and лёг as Situations 1 and 3 respectively. Depending on which verb we are focusing on, these other two verbs could each be Situation 2 with everything shifted accordingly (and then including situations that are not contained in this sentence). Note the causality as well: slipping out of the bathroom into the bedroom puts the subject in a position where he can get undressed (inasmuch as bedrooms are where one usually gets undressed), and getting undressed enables him to lie down in bed (inasmuch as one ordinarily gets undressed before lying down in bed). Moreover, actions that are simultaneous with one another can expressed with perfective verbs as long as they are in a causal and temporal sequence with other situations, as in the following:

Вышел [1] он из управления уже в девятом часу. Было совсем темно. Он постоял [2], подумал [2] и вдруг ринулся [3] на угол к автомату.
‘He went out [1] of the administration building at nine o’clock already. It was completely dark. He stood [2] and thought [2] for a bit, and suddenly rushed [3] to the telephone booth on the corner.’

Here the bracketed numbers mark the temporal ordering of the actions; the standing and thinking for a bit are simultaneous (both [2]), but nevertheless in sequence with the earlier going out of the building ([1]) and the later rushing to the telephone booth ([3]).

Narration has various complexities that are not addressed here. Let us just mention that Situation 1 can be a background situation that is interrupted by the event expressed a perfective verb, as in Однажды вечером художник Вадим ехал домой на трамвае, как вдруг раздался противный скрежет, и трамвай резко затормозил ‘Once in the evening Vadim the artist was riding home on a trolleybus, when suddenly an awful scraping noise rang out, and the trolleybus braked abruptly’. Here the ongoing background situation of the train moving along (imperfective ехал) is interrupted by the sounding out of an awful scraping noise (perfective раздался).

Turning to conversational usage, a major use of past-tense perfective verbs is to locate an action in the recent past, in which case the result of the action is in existence at the time of speech. In this case, the sequencing template above is as follows, with the time of speech as Situation 3:

Situation 1 > Situation 2 > Time of Speech

If we take the simple question Уже вернулся? ‘Are you already back?’ as an example, Situation 1 is the subject’s location at some other place, followed by Situation 2—the returning event—which is in turn followed by the time of speech, at which time the result of the returning event, i.e., the presence of the subject at more or less the same place as the speaker, is in existence. Recency in time is not crucial, it just happens to be that events that are recent are more likely to have results that are on hand and of concern at speech time. However, there are exceptions, as in Ты давно вернулся из Америки? ‘Did you get back from America a long time ago?’.

Lest the impression arise that the aforementioned event sequencing is merely a characteristic of perfective verbs in the past tense, consider the following future tense example.

– Я пойду с вами, буду переводить.
‘I will go with you, I will translate.’

In such cases Situation 1 is the time of speech, which precedes Situation 2—the motion event expressed by the perfective verb, which precedes Situation 3, which is some event or state of affairs that is enabled or produced by Situation 2, which here is the translating activity. Though in the example above the subsequent situation is mentioned explicitly, it is often left implicit, as in Вы меня извините, я пойду домой ‘I hope you will excuse me, I will go home’, where the unmentioned enabled situation is that the speaker will write poetry at home. With respect to actions in the future it should be mentioned that the perfective aspect dominates in the expression of future actions precisely because of our thought about future events occurs largely in the form of goal-oriented plans (or speculation about what might happen with what kind of consequences) that almost invariably assume some kind of event sequencing with the speech time. A frequent mistake of learners of Russian is overuse of the imperfective future tense (presumably because of the formal similarity to the English future with its auxiliary verb will with the Russian imperfective future with its auxiliary буду).

As pointed out in part 2, event sequencing can motivate the perfective in present-tense repeated actions. That is, if a repeated action is presented as being in sequence with other repeated actions, the actions in sequence can easily be perfective, as in the following example.

Отца мы почти никогда не видим: придёт вечером с работы, поужинает и ложится спать.
‘We almost never see my father: he comes home from work in the evening, eats dinner and goes to bed.’

The repetition in this example can be represented as follows:

…[Sit. 1 > Sit. 2 > Sit. 3] [Sit. 1 > Sit. 2 > Sit. 3] [Sit. 1 > Sit. 2 > Sit. 3]…

Here the arrival home and eating dinner are each in a sequence with prior and subsequent actions: the arrival home is preceded by his time at work and followed by eating dinner, and eating dinner is preceded by the arrival home and followed by the lying down to sleep. Note that the third action, lying down, is imperfective: this is a very common pattern for repeated actions, i.e., one or two actions in the perfective are followed by a final action in the imperfective. This is not obligatory, and sometimes the final action is perfective, as in the following:

Наш Антон совсем загрустил: бывает, придёт домой, ляжет на кровать и отвернётся к стене. Может весь вечер так пролежать.
‘Our Anton has become completely depressed: it happens that he comes home, lies down on his bed, and turns to the wall. He can lie all evening like that.’

This aspectual variation cannot be discussed in detail here, but the tendency for the final action to be imperfective is due to the fact that the final action is often not really conceived as being in sequence with another, subsequent action.

Note also that the so-called “potential” perfective indicating the likelihood of something happening, such as Любой юрист скажет, что мы имеем равные права ‘Any attorney will say that we have equal rights’ from module 3.3, has covert sequentiality, consisting of the initial occasion for the attorney to say something on the topic, which precedes his remark about equal rights, which is followed by the assimilation of the information on the part of the hearer.

The above has illustrated how perfective verbs in basic patterns of finite usage involve event sequencing. What imperfective verbs do is cancel such event sequencing. This is shown briefly in the following discussion based on basic finite usage; afterward the discussion turns to the kinds of usage that comprise the focus of parts 3, 4 and 5 of this textbook.

In finite usage, the imperfective aspect cancels the sequencing of the perfective aspect in three basic ways, reflected in three basic functions of the imperfective. The first way is to focus on an action as a process ongoing or extended in time without any inclusion of its outer limits (beginning, endpoint). An example from part 2 is the following:

Катя, возьми, пожалуйста, трубку. Я готовлю ужин.
‘Katya, take the receiver please, I’m cooking dinner’.

Such examples of present-tense imperfective verbs are familiar to Russian students; this example would be explained as presenting the cooking action as ongoing, from within its midst, and omitting its beginning and end “from view.” While all this makes sense, one case just as easily say that the cooking action is presented as not in a sequence with other events, i.e., no actions before or after the cooking are included. We can model this in the following way, where the ellipses represent the lack of a beginning and endpoint:

…Situation 1…

Regarding repeated actions, as in the following example, the same thing can be said: no preceding and subsequent actions that are distinct from the situation expressed by the verb are involved.

Меня вот спрашивают: почему ты до сих пор не женат?
‘People ask me this: why aren’t you married yet?’

We can model this configuration in time in the following manner, in which the ellipses simply represent buffer periods between the individual repetitions of the action:

…[Situation 1]…[Situation 1]…[Situation 1]…[Situation 1]…

That is to say, the same action is presented as repeating with no other actions in sequence with it on its individual occurrences. Note that though the repeated action clearly occurs at different points in time, the individual repetitions are not in any kind of temporal sequence with one another on a given occasion.

Lastly, we come to the statements of fact covered in part 5. This third kind of cancellation of event sequencing is ultimately the most complicated, so for now it is better to leave it at simple statements/questions about general experience, as in the following from part 2:

Я уже однажды брал в этом салоне костюм напрокат – советую, хорошее место.
‘I already once took a suit on rent from that salon—I recommend it, it’s a good place.’

Here the action of taking a suit on rent (i.e., renting) is mentioned as a part of the speaker’s general experience (the speaker experienced the action at some time in the past), in isolation from other events. No other particular actions are mentioned or implied as situations that preceded or followed the taking action, and thus the configuration is very simple:

[Situation 1]

That is to say, the imperfective past in Я уже однажды брал‘I already took…’ refers to a single completed action but without reference to any situations in sequence with it—the imperfective does not assert sequencing with other events, either mentioned explicitly in the context or implied. The taking/renting action took place before the time of speech, but in contrast to Уже вернулся? ‘Have you already come back?’ it did not produce a direct result or consequence that is on-hand at speech time, so the time of the action and the time of speech are not directly linked. Another way of putting is that the imperfective does not create a direct link with the time of speech as the time when the result of the action is in existence.

To sum up what has been said so far, aspectual usage in the three tenses reflects a distinction between the assertion of event sequencing (the perfective aspect) and the cancellation of such event sequencing (the imperfective). While it is easy and perhaps tempting to think of the sequencing in terms of time alone, causal relationships are a crucial part of the sequencing asserted by perfective verbs. Just a couple examples will suffice to make the point. In Я пойду с вами, буду переводить ‘I will go with you, I will translate’ the perfective motion event will put the speaker at a location where they will be able to do the translating; in бывает, придёт домой, ляжет на кровать и отвернётся к стене. Может весь вечер так пролежать ‘…it happens that he comes home, lies down on his bed, and turns to the wall. He can lie all evening like that’, Anton cannot lie down in his bed until he has arrived home, and he cannot turn toward the wall on his bed until he has lain down; the action of turning to face the wall in turn puts him in a position in which he can lie all evening facing the wall.

It must be pointed out that our understanding of the causality between actions involves not only our ability to process spatial relationships but all kinds of knowledge and inferences about human psychology and culture. And crucially, causality involves the goal orientation of human behavior: we cause things, and enable things to happen in order to attain goals. At various points in the modules the relevance of the goal of the subject of an action has been stressed as essential for the use of the perfective. In particular, it is a particular goal for an action on a particular occasion that is important for the perfective. Note that the goal of an action as understood here is a goal that is originally intended by the subject of an action and that is enabled by the canonical result or outcome of an action. Any goal that other speakers might have in mentioning an action would not count as a relevant goal.

In contrast, imperfective usage not only abstracts away from any events in sequence with an action, as pointed out above, but also thereby abstracts away from any particular goal of an action on a given occasion. When Russians use the imperfective to refer to an ongoing or extended process, as in Я готовлю ужин ‘I’m cooking dinner’, they are simply identifying the type of action that is taking place and not simultaneously signaling that there is a goal that the speaker should be aware of and act on. In the case of the example just given, anyone understands that the goal of the cooking is to produce dinner, but the speaker’s interest is not in affecting the listener’s conduct in the near future when the dinner is ready, but to get the listener to take the receiver now, to which the impending existence of the dinner has no direct relation. Similarly, the use of the imperfective for repeated actions generalizes what happens on different occasions as a single type of action, as in the asking of a question in Меня вот спрашивают: почему ты до сих пор не женат? ‘People ask me this: why aren’t you married yet?’ In such cases, no single goal on the part of a single subject can be involved—different people may have different purposes for asking the person the question.

Likewise, statements of general experience such as Я уже однажды брал в этом салоне костюм напрокат – советую, хорошее место ‘I already once got a suit on rent in that salon, I recommend it, it’s a good place’ abstract away from the particular goal that motivated the action. Here, the man had a particular reason, i.e., goal, for getting a suit, but his purpose of mentioning the fact that he had rented a suit from the salon at present is unrelated to his goal in the episode at the time.

Hopefully it is clear now that temporal and causal sequencing and the original goal of an action go hand in hand. It is also worth pointing out that the well-known requirement for perfective verbs in narrative sequences also involves goals. In reading narratives (stories and novels), readers gather information about the characters and learn or infer their goals from the text. Further, readers regularly access their own knowledge sets of common episodes (known as “scripts”) when reading narratives in order to understand the goals of characters in given scenes. For example, in a scene in which a man goes into a grocery store, readers will access their own script knowledge of visits to grocery stores and what happens there to understand the narrative, which involves inferring the goal of the man (e.g., to buy some items of food).

The following presents brief comments on the aspectual usage that was the focus of the core parts (parts 3, 4 and 5) to tie things together, which is followed by some closing thoughts.

In part 3 on infinitives the perfective infinitive was associated with the presupposition that the subject has a concrete goal for the action. In contrast, the imperfective infinitive was associated with the lack of a goal, regardless of whether the verb refers to an extended process, repeated actions or a single action to be completed. Of course, single completable actions are the focus here, so let’s repeat some essential points from part 3.

Module 3.7 presented the distinction in a fairly condensed form: questions with imperfective bare infinitives signal that the speaker has no concrete reason to believe that the action is needed but is asking for guidance from the listener (as in Лена, молоко брать? ‘Lena, should I get milk?’ while in the store), whereas the perfective signals that the speaker has reason to believe that the action is needed (i.e., there is a purpose for it) and is simply asking for confirmation from the listener (as in Молока тоже взять? ‘Should I get some milk too?’ when at home discussing what to get on a trip to the grocery store). Similarly, questions directly questioning the existence of a purpose prefer the imperfective, as in Чего спрашивать? ‘Why ask?’ and Ну да, иначе зачем мне звонить тебе и это все выспрашивать? ‘Well yes, otherwise why would I call you and ask about all of this?’.

Variants of this distinction run through the modules on predicators, 3.3–3.6. Thus, with мочь the perfective occurs when circumstance-timing is involved, often with human subjects, as in the following:

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

Here the ability to carry out the action is presented with respect to a choice by the human subjects to do it for the purpose of satisfying the client/earning money. Where no choice (and thus no circumstance-timing) is involved, as in the case of inherent properties, the imperfective is the choice, as in the following:

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

Similarly, with можно, questions about where the speaker can do something when he/she makes the choice (i.e., has a purpose for doing so) take the perfective, as in Где здесь можно сигарет купить? ‘Where can I buy cigarettes here?’; questions about the possibility of doing something that the speaker has chosen to do in the context of a single occasion also take the perfective, as in Можно мне сегодня пораньше уйти? ‘Can I leave today a little earlier?’. In contrast, the imperfective occurs when general permission as opposed to speaker choice is an issue, as in Где можно парковаться? ‘Where can one park?’, or in the context of a single occasion when the issue is simple permission to do something when the time has come when it would be done, as in Ну что, Михаил Ильич, можно начинать? ‘Well then, Mikhail Ilich, can I get started?’. The difference between this last case and the perfective in the context of a single occasion is that with the imperfective the time for the action is at the time of speech, within the temporal space of the present, and the speaker is not really making any decisions or taking control of the situation, whereas in the case of Можно мне сегодня пораньше уйти? the speaker is exercise his/her choice to do something and proactively arranging a plan, which involves sequencing as well vis-à-vis the present.

Predicators of necessity show the same effects as well where single completable actions are concerned, so that when the time has come to do something and in the mind of the speaker there is simply no choice involved:

Надо вызывать скорую!
‘We have to call the EMS!’

In contrast, the perfective signals that the speaker is making choices about what needs to happen, as in the following:

Вадик, завтра надо встать пораньше, чтобы до школы успеть Артёмку в поликлинику на анализы завезти.
‘Vadik, tomorrow we have to get early so we can take Artyom to the clinic before school’.

The same tendency is seen with приходиться/прийтись. Unplanned actions that are completely imposed by the circumstances are imperfective, as in the following:

Тогда придётся собирать вещи и уходить, он не простит никогда. А куда мне идти?
‘Then I will have to pack my things and leave, he will never forgive me. And where can I go?’

Here the speaker will have to pack up her things and leave—she will have no choice. Note also that she has no purpose for leaving, and indeed nowhere to go (А куда мне идти? ‘And where can I go?’). In this example, as occasionally happens with predicators of necessity, two actions that are technically in a sequence are seen as components of one and the same larger action (here: leaving), as a “package” if you will, and thus are not coded with perfective verbs to signal causality between the two. In contrast, the perfective signals a kind of control and planning on the part of the subject, which is slightly at odds with the predicator:

Сейчас будет укол. Придётся немного потерпеть.
‘Now there will be an injection. You will have to suffer/tough it out for a little bit.’

Here the nurse uses the predicator придётся rhetorically, in empathy with the patient, as the injection is part of her plan: she knows how things will go, i.e., she will give the injection, there will be some pain and then the patient will return to normal. Note that the plan involves event sequencing: first the pre-injection moment, then the injection, then the brief pain, then the return to normal.

These examples with the modal predicators covered in part 3 give an impression of how the choice is made. The functions of each modal predicator are themselves complex, and the full array of possibilities cannot be described here.

Moving on to imperatives (part 4), where single completable actions are concerned, it is simplest to proceed from the perfective, which represents a special case of event sequencing. As explained in module 4.2, a perfective imperative involves the following sequence:

1. Speech Time > 2. Listener’s Choice to Comply > 3. Action > 4. Outcome of the Action

Thus, a simple example such as Назовите ваше полное имя, пожалуйста ‘Give your full name, please’ involves the following: (1) the speech time of the imperative, (2) a covert request for the listener to choose to comply, (3) the action itself, and (4) the outcome of the action (the speaker knows the name). In the case of a single action to be completed, the imperfective always signals some deviation from the configuration given above.

When imperatives are used to grant approval (module 4.3) it is the second step (the listener’s choice to comply) that is missing, because the speaker knows or infers that the listener has already chosen to carry out the action, as in the following:

– Саш, у меня к тебе вопрос. Можешь честно на него ответить?
‘“Sasha, I have a question for you. Can you give me an honest answer?”

Here Sasha does not make a request of the interlocutor (and so she does not need to make a choice to comply), but simply gives her the green light to go ahead and do what she has chosen to do. Note that the level of endorsement of the listener’s plan can vary from warm-hearted encouragement to begrudging approval to irony (disapproval); in the original for this example Sasha is not exactly excited about having to answer the question. It is important to point out that when imperfectives are used to grant approval the speaker is reacting to the listener’s intention (i.e., purpose), whereas in requests with perfective imperatives, the purpose/goal is that of the speaker. In contexts where granting approval is at issue the perfective signals that the speaker is keeping the initiative and making a request, with various pragmatic effects (see 4.3 for details).

Module 4.4 covers a related case, that of invitations. Imperfective imperatives used for invitations skip the second step as well, because the speaker knows or infers that the listener either wants to do something or will want to do it if given the chance. The speaker may very well have his/her own purpose (e.g., to be hospitable to the listener or make the listener feel comfortable), but the listener also has his/her own goal for the action in such routine social situations. A simple example is the following:

А вот и наш Максим! Проходите, дорогой, давайте мне ваше пальто.
‘And here’s our Maksim! Come on in, dearie, give me your coat.’

Here the hostess tells Maksim to come on in, which is her speech act, but given the fact that he has been invited and showed up, he expects to come in; likewise, she tells him to give her his coat, which is expected in such social situations. Note that as with granting approval, invitations can be made with perfective imperatives, but they are more standoffish/stuffy, and not genuine invitations.

The cases covered in modules 4.5 and 4.6 also omit the choice for the listener to comply, but in these cases the opposite dynamic is in play: the speaker does not give the listener the option of complying, but makes the choice in lieu of the listener. In the case of emergency warnings (4.5), the listener is unaware of some impending accident, and the speaker tells him/her what to do. There is no time for the nicety of giving the listener time to choose to comply, as in the following:

Ваня, тормози!
‘Vanya put on the brake!’

Due to the fact that the speaker makes the choice, the goal of the action is chosen by the speaker, but it may be a common (humanitarian) goal, which is usually for the listener not to get hurt.

In the case of impatient/authoritarian commands (4.7), the speaker does not usurp the listener’s decision-making role due to a split-second emergency. Rather, the speaker is simply not giving the listener a choice, due either to the speaker’s status as an authority or in order to “one-up” the listener. An example of the former is the following example, spoken by а police officer.

Николай Сергеевич! Отвечайте на конкретный вопрос: где вы были вчера с четырёх до семи?
‘Nikolay Sergeevich! Answer a specific question: where were you yesterday from four to seven?’

Here the police officer is not giving Nikolay Sergeevich a choice, he must answer the question.

A case of what we are calling one-upmanship is when a speaker who is not in a position of authority tells someone what to do as he/she were, as in the following:

Убирайся и больше не приходи сюда!
‘Get lost and never come back!’

Here the speaker is telling off her ex-boyfriend, and not going to take no for an answer. Note that as with granting approval and invitations, authoritarian commands (with the exception of idiomatic ones like убирайся!) can be made with perfective imperatives, in which case they ostensibly give the listener an opportunity to opt out, even if this is not a real possibility. That is to say, people in positions of authority can give “polite” commands that do not assert their authority with the “brute force” of the imperfective.

As is clear from the discussion above, the straightforward correlation between the perfective and the subject’s goal on the one hand and the imperfective and that between the defocusing of that goal on the other are muddied somewhat. This is due to the nature of imperatives, which involve a request by the speaker for someone else (the would-be subject) to carry out an action. However, the deviations are easy to account for as above. One other point about imperatives is that the correlation between the perfective and event sequencing and the imperfective and the cancellation of sequencing is attenuated. The reason for this is that each imperative is assessed individually with respect to whether it communicates a covert request for the listener to choose to comply. In the case of a chain of imperatives that do signal such a request, the requests for actions in sequence will be perfective, as in the following example:

Лучше выбери часок, сядь и напиши всë как следует.
‘Better select an hour or so, sit down and write everything properly.’

On the other hand, authoritarian commands for a sequence of actions are imperfective because, again, each is assessed according to whether a covert request for compliance is needed. Thus, in the following a sequence of actions is all imperfective:

Вот, бери и уходи.
‘Here you are, take them and go away.’

Here the young woman in the dialogue is telling her ex-boyfriend to take his books and go away—no room for any choice or debate.

Negated imperatives follow the same distinction in whether there is a covert request for the listener to choose to carry out the action. Negated perfective imperatives, which warn the listener not to inadvertently do something, can be seen as communicating a request for the listener to choose not to do something, as in the following:

Проходите, пожалуйста. Только не споткнитесь – тут ступенька.
‘Come on in, please. Just don’t stumble—there’s a step here.’

Here the warning can be seen as a request by the speaker for the listener to pay attention, i.e., to make a conscious choice not to stumble, and then not do it.

In contrast, negated imperfective imperatives come in two variants. In the first, prohibitions, the command overrides the listener’s choice to carry out an action (i.e., one can view them as authoritarian commands in which the listener’s decision-making power is suspended), as in the following:

Не вмешивайтесь, Вадим Алексеевич! Это наше дело.
‘Don’t get mixed up in this, Vadim, Alekseevich! This is our affair.’

In the second variant, the speaker simply approves of the listener’s intent not to carry out an action:

– Уф, не хочу я ему звонить!
– Ну не звони, отправь ему голосовое сообщение.
‘“Ohh, I don’t want to call him!”
“Well don’t do it, send him a voice message.”’

There are minor variations on the tendencies for imperatives outlined above that are covered in the individual modules.

The last case, covered in part 5, is that of past-tense imperfective statements of fact. The basic fact of the cancellation of event sequencing was already described above with respect to the statement of general experience Я уже однажды брал в этом салоне костюм напрокат – советую, хорошее место ‘I already once took a suit on rent from that salon—I recommend it, it’s a good place’. The other types of imperfective statements of fact also cancel event sequencing. The following illustrations on some of the types covered in the modules should suffice to make the point. In the case of annulled results (module 5.2), event sequencing is canceled inasmuch as the imperfective signals that the result is no longer in effect, as in the following example:

Позавчера вот Ленка приходила – часа два проболтали.
‘Lenka came over the day before yesterday—we spent about two hours chatting.’

Here the mention of Lenka coming over is an isolated fact, and since the speaker is not intending to give a play-by-play of what happened after her arrival or to assert that Lenka is still at her place, the imperfective is used—it occurs to cancel those effects of the perfective. If the second clause tells what happened while Lenka was there, it is another statement of fact that is tacked onto the first, not a stage in a coherent narrative (the perfective is required in the second clause because the background of Lenka’s arrival is already known, and the second action of chatting cannot be mentioned at that point independently of that context). Note that when the imperfective is used to signal the annulment of a result, the goal of the action is irrelevant for the statement of fact—Lenka’s goal was to visit the speaker in the hospital, but not necessarily to chat for two hours.

With verbs of communication (module 5.3) the situation is similar—the intended outcome of the action did not occur. The difference from two-way verbs is that the result/outcome was not annulled, but never came into effect. This is shown in the following example:

Приглашала её сегодня с нами пойти, но она сказала, что занята, не может.
‘I invited her today to go with us, but she said that she’s busy and can’t go.’

Here the invitation was made (a completed action) but it’s intended outcome, that the friend come with the speaker to have coffee, did not materialize as the friend declined the request. In contrast, the perfective signals either that there is still time for the intended outcome of the communication to be realized, or that its intended outcome was realized. An example of the latter is the following:

Я отправила им резюме, меня пригласили, я прошла у них медицинское обследование, сдала тест по английскому.
‘I sent them my resumé, and they invited me to come out. I went through their medical examination and passed their English test.’

Here the invitation was accepted by the applicant, who subsequently visited the potential employer. Note that the sequence of events in the last example with the perfective  involves the success of the invitation.

When the imperfective is used to signal the failure of an act of communication to produce the intended outcome, the goal of the action was clearly not realized.

The remaining functions of imperfective statements of fact covered in modules 5.4–5.10 work more or less the same, with the difference that the outcome of the action is not canceled, nor does it fail to materialize—rather, it is simply irrelevant for the purpose of the speaker at the time of speech. This variation can be modeled in terms of the speaker’s focus in the following way.

Prior (Motivating) Situation > Situation 2 > Subject’s Intended Outcome

Speaker’s Own Purpose

That is to say, whereas the perfective mentions a past action with reference to the outcome intended by the subject of the action, the imperfective signals that the action is being mentioned by the speaker with some other current purpose in mind (even if the current speaker was the subject of the original action). Let us consider some examples from the modules.

In the following example, the speaker mentions a past action without regard to its original intent in the circumstances of the action:

Давай киви возьмём побольше. Я читала, что в киви больше витамина С, чем в лимонах!
‘Let’s get a few more kiwis. I read that kiwis have more vitamin C than lemons!’

Here it is completely unclear what the speaker read and what her purpose was for reading it. She merely mentions the reading event to indicate how she acquired the knowledge that she proceeds to communicate—that is her purpose (see module 5.4).

Module 5.5 covers imperfective statements of fact used to communicate that an action has already occurred and does not need to be carried out again. An example is the following:

– Игорь Валерьевич, подпишите, пожалуйста, заявление Петровой.
– Так я же уже подписывал её заявление сегодня…
‘“Igor Valerevich, sign the statement for Petrova.”
“But I already signed her statement today…”’

Here again the purpose for signing the statement for Petrova may be apparent in the context, but it is completely irrelevant for Igor Valerevich’s present purpose, which is to point out that he has already signed a statement for Petrova and that there is no need to sign it again. Though we have an adverb, сегодня, and it is clear that the action happened recently, the speaker is nevertheless disregarding the outcome intended for his signing of the document.

Another variant is related to the variant of the source of information discussed above—cases in which the speaker backs a claim that he/she is making with some fact (module 5.6). Consider the following example:

Ну, «Мебельград» нормальный магазин. Я у них кухонный стол и шкаф покупал – очень доволен.
‘Well, “Mebelgrad” is a quality store. I bought a kitchen table and cupboard there, and am very satisfied.’

Here the speaker had some distinct purpose for buying a kitchen table and cupboard—presumably to make his household life better. But his purpose for mentioning this purchase is to back his claim that the store is a good one.

Another case is that of signaling disapproval (module 5.7). A typical example is the following:

Боже, кто составлял это расписание… Лекция в субботу в девять утра?! Серьёзно?!
‘God, who made this schedule?… A lecture at nine in the morning on Saturdays? Seriously?!’

Such statements ordinarily have a third-person subject, as they occur in who-questions. In this example the purpose of the speaker is not to get an answer regarding who compiled the schedule—that would be a genuine request for information and would call for the perfective. Here the speaker’s purpose has nothing to do with the purpose of the compiler of the schedule (which was to compile a workable schedule regardless of possible inconveniences for students). Rather, the speaker’s purpose is to signal her dissatisfaction with the outcome, and is not a question at all, but functions as a comment.

The functions covered in the other modules of part 5 need not be covered here. The usage they cover works according to the same principle—the purpose of the speaker has nothing to do with the purpose of the subject who originally carried out the action, whether it was the same person as the current speaker or not.

The commentaries given above show that the aspectual usage covered in Russian Aspect in Conversation works according to a single basic distinction: the perfective asserts the place of an action in a sequence of events and focuses the original goal of the action, whereas the imperfective cancels such event sequencing and disregards or otherwise negates the original goal of the action.

While this characterization is accurate, it is no substitute for proceeding through the content of the modules exercise-by exercise. Aspectual use in Russian is ultimately a discourse category, and depends crucially on the intent of the speaker; you will need time to digest the facts presented in the modules if they are to be ready to give plausible interpretations to what they read on your own and eventually internalize these principles into your own spoken Russian. “Time” here means the long haul—probably a matter of years. If that seems intimidating, time flies, and this textbook distills decades of knowledge gained from careful attention to aspectual usage, so it should put you “ahead of the game,” or at least ahead of those who think it’s all about whether an action is presented as completed or not.

There are two last points that should be made. The first is you should be ready for aspectual variation in successive occurrences of the same verb in a single passage. A good example of this is Vasily Grossman’s dialogue from module 3.7:

– 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 the first verb, the past tense спрашивал, is imperfective because the local party boss has no concrete reason to expect that Vavilov had asked the vagrant who he was. In contrast, the next form of the verb is perfective because it occurs in a sequence of events in which the question is presented as having occurred in a sequence with a preceding action (not included) and a subsequent event. As the verb in question is ask, a communication verb, it is important that the party boss received an answer to his question. And then the infinitive is imperfective because Vavilov saw no purpose for asking, as the answer to his mind was patently obvious.

The last point is perhaps unexpected: do not expect that native speakers will be readily able to tell you why the imperfective occurs when one would expect the perfective according to the completion criterion. Russian native speakers grow up using aspect, but only learn about it explicitly in high school, where they learn that the imperfective is basically about process and repetition. Asking them why the imperfective is used in the question in Grossman’s dialogue above А кто он такой, ты спрашивал его? is about like asking a native speaker of English why a definite article is used in a sentence like We thought it was a great campsite, that is, until the mosquitoes hit. The average English speaker won’t have a clue, and will inwardly be hoping that you’ll just go away, or will spin some improvisational yarn that will likely be completely divorced from reality. Similarly, if you simply ask Russian laypeople why the imperfective is used in А кто он такой, ты спрашивал его? those lay native speakers will likely say that the party boss is somehow presenting the action as a process. Which is understandable, since they are not equipped from their education to give any other answer. If you are inclined to go on such intrepid language adventures, try to formulate your questions in terms of the intention of the speaker toward the listener: What was the speaker trying to communicate to the hearer? How would the conversational dynamic change if the perfective were used? This won’t always work, but if an imperfective verb does not obviously focus on an extended process and you are sure that it does not refer to a repeated action, you should be secure in assuming that there is some discourse function in play along the lines of what we have covered in the modules here.

Good luck. If you have read this far, you’re a good way there.

  1. Dickey, Stephen M. 2000. Parameters of Slavic Aspect. Stanford: CSLI.
  2. Dickey, Stephen M. 2018. “Thoughts on the Typology of Slavic Aspect.” Russian Linguistics 42(1): 69–103.
  3. Dickey, Stephen M. 2020. “Time Out of Tense: Russian Aspect in the Imperative.” Journal of Linguistics 56(3): 541–576.
  4. Dickey, Stephen M. 2022. “La base sémantique de l’opposition aspectuelle en russe.” Tatiana Milliaressi, ed. Typologie des aspects. Lille: Presses Universitaires du Sepentrion, 71–99.


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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.