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This is the opening line in a dialog from a Russian course:

  • Я заказывал у вас номер по телефону.

Why is the imperfective заказывал used here instead of заказал if the speaker completed the booking in the past? I would have expected я заказал у вас номер assuming that the speaker did in fact book a room previously. Am I missing something?

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Compare the phrases "я заказал вам номер" and "я заказывал вам номер". The first one is about the very fact of booking, and the speaker is informing someone that this job is done. When someoone is using the form "заказывал," the emphasis is not on the booking itself - it's just a phrase that's used as a link to what follows next, as in:

Я заказывал вам номер, но вы по прилёте лучше позвоните и уточните.

So imagine that your sentence has a second part, such as:

  • Я заказывал у вас номер [и вот теперь я хочу заселиться].
  • Мы заказывали у вас столик [и вот мы пришли].

There's nothing stopping you from using the perfective form in such cases, but the de-facto imperfective is also used.

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  • - Здравствуйте! - Добрый день! - Я заказывал у вас номер по телефону. - Ваша фамилия и когда вы заказывали? - Моя фамилия Петерсон. А заказывал я примерно месяц назад. - Точную дату не помните? - Нет, пожалуй, нет. - Хорошо, будем искать… – CocoPop Mar 4 '20 at 17:02
  • @CocoPop - yep, something like that, "я заказал" here would sound slightly off for a native speaker. – shabunc Mar 4 '20 at 17:03
  • That's the entire dialog. He uses заказывал again to specify that he did it a month earlier, which to me, basically SCREAMS to be perfective. For some reason, I'm having trouble understanding your explanation. – CocoPop Mar 4 '20 at 17:03
  • Oh! I think I get it... he's using the imperfective statement to preface what he's actually going to ask about eventually? – CocoPop Mar 4 '20 at 17:05
  • @CocoPop - when Peterson called by phone he didn't wanted to inform that he booked the table - he used it as a starting point for the conversation. Imagine Peterson saying to his wife "Я заказал кстати столик в итальянском ресторане" - here the accent is on the fact of booking. – shabunc Mar 4 '20 at 17:05
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There are 2 possible options:

1) Imperfective form highlights that the transaction is incomplete, in a polite manner. One might have ordered something, but the order has not been fulfilled yet. Using perfective for incomplete transaction "Я заказал у вас номер по телефону" may be seen as a prelude to a bitter complaint. This politeness is useful when talking to a transaction counterpart. When talking to a third party, perfective form is the norm.

2) Imprefective form indicates repeated action in the past. "Я заказывал у вас номер по телефону" - I booked a room many times in the past.

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  • Thank you for your explanation. Let's say I applied this to another situation. ¿Would the following be acceptable: Месяц назад я ОПЛАЧИВАЛ годовую подписку к вашему ресурсу по изучению японского языка, но после несколько попыток его употреблять, мне стало ясно, что он слишком сложное для меня и сейчас я не знаю, как быть дальше. – CocoPop Mar 6 '20 at 14:12
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    @CocoPop not quite so in this example. Here the payment transaction is complete (and there's no argument about it) - subscription seems to be working. So perfective verbs ("ОПЛАТИЛ", "ПОДПИСАЛСЯ") are fine here. – Alexander Mar 6 '20 at 17:13
  • thank you 🙏 so it’s assumed tthat in myoriginal example, the speaker wasn’t sure that his reservation was properly taken or didn’t go through? – CocoPop Mar 7 '20 at 19:24
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    @CocoPop yes, either because speaker isn't sure, or wants to give the other party a benefit of doubt. – Alexander Mar 7 '20 at 23:59
  • Ok! so he means something like я вроде бы заказывал.... – CocoPop Mar 8 '20 at 14:45
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This has always been one of the trickiest nuances of aspect to me. If you haven't already seen it, look for section 258 of Terence Wade's "Comprehensive Russian Grammar," on using the imperfective for "statement of fact" – when there is no emphasis on result, little or no particular context (at least not yet, in your example): a "contextual vacuum," as Wade puts it. I was able to find the relevant pages at books.google.com.

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  • Wade is indeed a great help in this matter. In Sec. 257 he deals with straightforward use of aspects in the past tense, before devoting two pages to "statement of fact" usage. [Although I still struggle to see the fine distinctions he draws.] – xris Mar 15 '20 at 22:20
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The asker is unsure whether the booking is still valid.

Maybe he came too late or he is unsure if the booking was properly registered or he did not properly pay etc.

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