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Why is the former instead of the latter used?

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    Out of context it could mean the latter as well. "Have you returned the book?" - "Ты вернул книгу?". – Vilmar Nov 16 '15 at 6:57
  • This is a big difference between Russian and English. In English you can say "He is starting to read" and "The movie is starting" using the same word "starting," so English speakers are not sensitive to the different roles of that word. In the second sentence the movie is not starting something, other than itself. The first sentence in Russian is он начинает читать while the second is фильм начинается. If you tried to say instead фильм начинает then people would be confused because they expect some kind of object or action that the film is starting when you use начинать instead of начинаться. – KCd Nov 18 '15 at 2:19
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Because вернуться and вернуть are two related yet distinct verbs. "Вернуть" is to return in sense to give back something you've taken/borrowed beforehand. "Вернуться" is to be back. It looks like you've just checked some resource sort of translate.google.com, which is fine but not always provide you with all context needed.

May be it would be a bit easier to memorize the difference if you'll keep in mind following fact: "вернуться" is a reflexive verb — in Russian this verbs are ended with cя/сь. So it is roughly like "to return yourself".

By the way, this cя/cь ending is actually remnant of PIE similar (but more complex) feature. This is exactly what se in reflexive verbs in Spanish stand for. Moreover, English word "self" is related as well.

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  • What's more important, "вернуть" is a transitive verb while "вернуться" isn't, none of the "-ся" verbs are. The former admits a direct object, the latter doesn't. – Seva Alekseyev Nov 16 '15 at 21:48
  • @SevaAlekseyev good point, yes, it worth to mention - reflexive verb never can be transitive in Russian. – shabunc Nov 16 '15 at 23:07
  • Very interesting! What PIE feature are you referring to? – Anixx Nov 17 '15 at 5:35
  • @Anixx, reflexive mediopassive - check out this for instance linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/1684/533 – shabunc Nov 17 '15 at 6:41

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