В холодильнике ничего не осталось (поесть)?

I've recently took a national Russian proficiency test held in my country, and this comes from one of the grammar-related questions in the most advanced level.

The point of the question was whether to fill in the blank with a perfective or an imperfective verb. I sort of intuitively chose the perfective "поесть" instead of the imperfective "есть" or a few other trick choices, but I'm hard-pressed to explain the rationale for it.

I think this uncertainty comes from the fact that I'd use the imperfective "есть" in the following modified sentences, for instance:

Если в холодильнике ничего не осталось, а есть все равно хочется, ...

Даже если в холодильнике ничего не осталось, блины можно есть без ничего.

Also, in a similarly structured phrase:

Мне ничего не осталось делать {imperfective}, как ...

  • 5
    I'm pleasantly surprised with the quality of Russian-language exams in your country!
    – shabunc
    Jan 7, 2019 at 23:19
  • Russian tests are very old fashioned compared to English ones. There's a huge grammar section, a section on letter writing of all things, and other oddities. The tests are much harder than anything found on IELTS or similar.
    – VCH250
    Jan 8, 2019 at 8:08
  • @VCH250 i'm not surprised a bit Jan 8, 2019 at 10:44
  • if i may an indiscreet question, how did you score? Jan 8, 2019 at 11:00
  • 1
    @БаянКупи-ка I didn't pass Grade 1 (the most advanced), with about 30 points short of the threshold needed to pass. The full mark was 300 or something. No wonder, though, since only less than 10 people seem to pass Grade 1 each year nationwide, and Grade 1 is generally meant for those with at least several years of intensive learning. I passed the second-hardest Grade 2, though. Jan 8, 2019 at 12:11

3 Answers 3


В холодильнике ничего не осталось (поесть)?

With ''поесть'' (perfective) this particular sentence sounds very natural, whereas with ''есть'' (imperfective) - pretty weird.

At the same time, it is perfectly natural to say, ''Есть больше нечего.''

I understand that for non-native speakers, this may be very confusing in terms of rational logic.

In order to confidently make choices in such expressions, you have to develop the ''Russian logic'' - associative thinking based on analogies to many Russian idioms, colloquial expressions, and commonly used everyday phrases. It is very easy to make mistakes if you try to deduce the right choices by purely logical, rational reasoning. For native Russian speakers it is usually much easier to tell the right choice than to try to find the logical reason as to why it is the right choice. Native Russian speakers make their choices based on the subconscious associative ''Russian logic'' rather than on rational reasoning. The correct variants are simply those that are easier perceived by the Russian-speaking mind. Words and expressions in the Russian language activate specific thinking patterns and emotions that are often not easy to describe logically and rationally in another language. You must ''feel'' the language and its specific words and expressions on the subconscious level in order to speak naturally.

So let me answer your question from the ''Russian logic'' standpoint. This logic may be different from what you find in your grammar textbooks, but is what how Russian speakers actually think.

Let's start with the following phrase: ''Что ему осталось сделать?'' This sentence implies that the person has a checklist and has already done some things on that list, so the question is about what is left on the list. Both verbs here are perfective, so the sentence sounds very result-oriented, and this is why it implies a checklist with clearly defined goals.

Let's now make both verbs imperfective: ''Что ему остается делать?'' Now the most natural perception is that the person is in a difficult situation in which he has very few options left, and the question is about exactly what options are left. The question sounds somewhat global, strategic. In the past tense, the same question takes the following form: ''Что ему оставалось делать?'' The latter sentence is often used as an apology for someone's actions or explanation of someone's actions by saying that he had no other choice.

The variant with the perfective verbs sounds result-oriented, while the variant with the imperfective verbs - process-oriented, hence the difference in the perception.

Overall, perfective and imperfective verbs activate different thinking patterns - result-oriented vs process-oriented, so if you use perfective and imperfective verbs together in a single sentence, your conversation partner may get somewhat confused on the subconscious level, depending on the context.

I want to illustrate this by how many results Google gives for the following combinations:

"Что ему осталось сделать?" (perfective + perfective): 9,000 results

"Что ему остается делать?"(imperfective + imperfective): 24,000 results

"Что ему оставалось делать?" (imperfective + imperfective): 53,000 results

"Что ему осталось делать?" (perfective + imperfective): 1,000 results

"Что ему остается сделать?" (imperfective + perfective): 5,000 results

As you see, the pure forms (i.e., ''perfective + perfective'' and ''imperfective + imperfective'') are more common than the mixed ones, although the latter are not ungrammatical. The pure forms are just easier for perceive and are thus preferred, although in some contexts you may need to use a mixed form in order to emphasise some nuance (as I will explain below).

Now back to your refrigerator.

Let's make two obvious observations:

(i) The verb ''есть'' (in the meaning ''to eat'') is perceived as a general concept or a process, whereas ''поесть'' - rather as ''to have a certain meal at a certain time (e.g. now).'' ''Поесть'' is a result-oriented word and denotes a limited action. ''Есть'' is a process-oriented word and feels rather global.

(ii) The verb ''осталось'' is a result-oriented verb. ''Ничего не осталось'' is perceived as a result of a completed action.

''В холодильнике ничего не осталось поесть'' sounds perfectly natural. It is a pure form (perfective + perfective); the idea is expressed purely in terms of result-oriented thinking; the phrase is about particular circumstances rather than a global state of affairs - after all, you can always buy food in a shop to resolve the issue. The perception is, ''Nothing has been left in the fridge to quickly have a meal right now.''

''В холодильнике ничего не осталось есть'', in contract, triggers a weird interplay between result-oriented thinking and process-oriented thinking in the Russian-speaking mind. It is perceived as weird as, ''As a result of some particular process, no options have been left in the fridge as to what to eat globally.''

Just another example: ''Решил пойти купить покушать'' is strongly preferred to ''решил пойти купить кушать,'' for the same reason.

Now let's consider this: ''Есть больше нечего.'' It sounds natural. The idea is expressed purely in terms of global, process-oriented thinking. If you now replace ''есть'' by ''поесть'', it will sound unnatural, because ''больше'' is related to a process (namely, the process of gradually consuming food), while ''поесть'' is a result-oriented word and denotes an isolated action. In some rare contexts, however, ''поесть больше нечего'' sounds okay (e.g., the person ''поел'' a few times and asks whether there is something to ''поесть'' again).

Note that mixed forms (i.e. combinations of perfective and imperfective verbs) are okay to use if the context and the intended meaning require it.

I can even give you an example where ''ничего не осталось есть'' sounds fine: ''Пожар уничтожил запасы хлеба, и жителям ничего не осталось есть.'' (''The fire annihilated the reserves of bread, so the population was left with nothing to eat''). Here it is emphasised that the population was left with nothing to eat globally, not just to have a meal right now. This is why ''ничего не осталось есть'' sounds natural in this context, as opposed to the context with the fridge.

To conclude, the word choice is dictated by the context, the intended meaning, and the way how the words and their combinations are perceived by the Russian-speaking mind.


There is an expression

Есть что-нибудь поесть?

Is there anythign to eat?

As "есть что-нибудь есть" would sound like "Ну как Ока?" (try to pronounce quickly), the answer comes itself.

The first есть is the singular Present form of the verb быть (to be). And it is homophonous to the Infinitive есть to eat.

Ничего не осталось есть sounds really weird, because есть is durative, and we mean just enough food to take a meal. No durative verb is required here. And it is not quite clear, which есть stands here. But sounds like a mistake. Всё, что осталось, у нас есть, а чего не осталось, того нету.

Есть хочется relates to the process of eating, it describes hunger. Есть нечего is actually the same.

It is possible to say "а поесть-то и нечего", but it's not for your exam, I suppose.


With делать, the imperfective means there are multiple things that potentially could be done over a span of time, but aren't an option, as in: "there is nothing left to do (out of many things I could think of)".

In Polish, you could use perfective here as well, which would imply either that 1. completing the action would be a prerequisite to solve the situation, or 2. There is the solution to the problem (I am not sure if it translates into Russian here).

With поесть, the perfective specifies a singular instance, as in: "is there anything in the fridge for me to take a bite?" This question doesn't assume that the fridge will nourish you for a month, but that you are only thinking about eating something now.

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