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I'm a little bit confused when trying to choose between perfective and imperfective verbs in a sentence, however I do understand the rules for their usage in theory. Sometimes I come across sentences where my perception of aspect doesn't correspond to what's written.

I have some very simple examples for which I need a clear explanation as to why one particular aspect was chosen over another.

Example 1:"я видел его вчера" vs "я увидел его вчера"

  1. What's the difference in a context, for example, where I'm talking to my friend and telling him that I saw somebody else yesterday? Which one do I use — the perfective or the imperfective? I often see Russians use the imperfective: - я видел его вчера" — a context where I think the perfective - я увидел его вчера" is more suitable.
  2. Which one can be used to translate "I saw him yesterday" into English?
  3. "Я увидел его вчера" may be correct because it refers to a completed action in the past, while "я видел его вчера" may be also correct since I'm describing an action also in the past. (I'm very confused).

Example 2:"он звонил мне вчера" vs "он позвонил мне вчера" - The same three questions as above.

Example 3:"ты купил молоко?" Vs "ты покупал молоко?"

  1. In a context where somebody asks another if they bought milk, which phrase is more accurate?
  2. What does each of the above two phrases mean? Is it like "did you buy milk?" and "Have you bought milk?"

Example 4: "я уверен мы встретились раньше" Vs "я уверен мы встречались раньше" - Which is more suitable?

Example 5: "они видели этот фильм 6 раз" - why did we not use "увидели"?

Example 6: "в последнее время я о ней не слышал" - why did we not use "услышал"?

Thanks

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  • Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Jan 9 at 7:49
  • @misha Could you tell us whether English is your native tongue?
    – Eugene
    Jan 9 at 14:05
  • I daresay it isn’t 😉
    – CocoPop
    Jan 9 at 15:24
  • 1
    On the face of it, the OP's (and yours) question may come across as simple as ABC. But in reality it brings on a catchy task extremely difficult to implement. The peculiar feature of the problem in question hinges on its utmost many-sidedness.
    – Eugene
    Jan 9 at 18:28
  • 1
    @CocoPop Thanks a load of lots! Extremely interesting implication! I will take it on board.
    – Eugene
    Jan 11 at 15:47

4 Answers 4

5

Generally, perfective forms are used for singular, novel events, while imperfective forms are used for events that might have occurred repeatedly.

  1. "я видел его вчера" - "I saw him yesterday". "я увидел его вчера" - "I was successful (or lucky) in seeing him yesterday";

  2. "он звонил мне вчера" - "He called me yesterday" (just as usual). "он позвонил мне вчера" - "He called me yesterday" (there was something special about this call).

  3. "ты купил молоко?" - "Did you buy milk?". "ты покупал молоко?" - "Did you really buy milk?" (Ex. milk wasn't in the shopping bag, but was in the receipt).

  4. "я уверен мы встретились раньше" - "I'm sure we've met before" (and that should have been one memorable encounter). "я уверен мы встречались раньше" - "I'm sure we've met before" (but I understand if you have no recollection).

  5. "они видели этот фильм 6 раз" - "They've seen this movie 6 times". "увидели", on the other hand, cannot be used here because it implies novelty.

  6. "в последнее время я о ней не слышал" - "I haven't heard about her lately" (but I have heard about here before). "услышал" can not be used before it implies novelty.

5

As a rule of thumb, the perfective form refers to a completed action, while imperfective form implies that the action was in progress (and not necessarily finished). However, in real life there are a lot of nuances :-). Let's just look at your particular examples:

Example 1:"я видел его вчера" vs "я увидел его вчера" The above-referenced rule of thumb doesn't apply here because the verb видеть already implies successful completion. You can't (пытаться) видеть, видеть, видеть, and finally увидеть. To indicate attempts, there's another verb - смотреть. So, in practice we use видеть instead of увидеть. Still, увидеть refers to the particular moment when it happened, and it changes your status at that moment — before, you didn't know something and afterwards, you know it. Like "я увидел его вчера с моей женой" vs "я видел его вчера с моей женой" - the latter is more neutral, whereas the former may imply that it was a discovery for you :-)

Example 2:"он звонил мне вчера" vs "он позвонил мне вчера" Here the above rule of thumb is applicable - звонил may mean that he made my phone ring, but I didn't pick up the phone. So he called, perhaps several times, but with no success. In practice, when we say "он звонил мне вчера", we may mean that we actually talked (it wasn't necessarily an unsuccessful attempt), we just don't emphasize the success of the operation. For example, он звонил мне вчера, и мы хорошо поговорили. Here, звонил is used instead of позвонил because the distinction isn't so important; what's important in that statement is that вы хорошо поговорили. If somebody who hasn't called you for ages called you and you want to emphasize that you talked to them and it had an immediate effect on you (the fact that they called), you would say позвонил. For example, Президент компании позвонил мне и поблагодарил.

Example 3:"ты купил молоко?" vs "ты покупал молоко?" Here the above rule of thumb works perfectly: покупал - means "was in process of buying," but maybe refused to complete the purchase in the end. Купил молоко - definitely means that some amount of milk changed the owner as a result of the transaction.

Example 4: "я уверен мы встретились раньше" Vs "я уверен мы встречались раньше" As far as I'm concerned, "мы встречались раньше" is simply the more idiomatic way to say this. People get used to saying "мы встречались раньше". Only non-native speakers will commonly say "мы встретились раньше" in this meaning, as in your example, i.e. when you have a feeling of knowing somebody's face. However, you can use that form in other contexts, for example: Вы встретились с ним 25 февраля? Нет, мы встретились раньше.

Example 5: "они видели этот фильм 6 раз" - why did we not use "увидели"? Because, as already mentioned in another answer, увидели assumes some novelty. Увидели means that it was a discovery of some sort (it changed your state of mind). You can't discover the same thing six times.

One more thing worth mentioning here: In Russian, prefixes are used to create the perfective form of a verb, but these prefixes (aside from putting the verb in the perfective aspect) may add some additional meaning or connotation. For example, if you use the phrase "они смотрели этот фильм 6 раз" and "они посмотрели этот фильм 6 раз" - here both phrases are possible. "Посмотрели" is the perfective form, but it doesn't imply "discovery" as is the case with "увидели".

Example 6: "в последнее время я о ней не слышал" - why did we not use "услышал"? Here, it's also almost idiomatic (as in the case of "встречались раньше"). Here, a general feeling is discussed: "I don't remember getting any news about her recently".

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  • Thanks for the prefixes mention. While "у-" implies novelty, "по-" usually not.
    – Alexander
    Jan 11 at 18:30
  • @farfareast Thanks for your answer.It has almost cleared everything to me :-). I would like to know if you could recommend sources (maybe books or sites) that focus on such kind of interpretations other than the classic academic theories and rules. Thank you again.
    – misha
    Jan 11 at 21:29
  • @misha No worries, glad to help :-). As per sources, I do not know of any good books explaining it in details. We learn it in constant conversation in childhood with parents and copying from peers. You can try to use some language learning exchange sites like conversationexchange.com - or analogous where you teach a person conversational English, for example, and other person teaches you Russian, so it is free for both of you.
    – farfareast
    Jan 13 at 14:22
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This part of Russian is one of the most problematic for foreign learners. (It's comparable to English articles, which are generally hard to explain.)

There's a class of actions which are hard to attribute completeness to. For "buy" it's clear: it's just "have bought". But what about "see", "think", "consider", "feel"? What does it mean to do the complete and finished act of "seeing"? Humans see all the time — you can't just stop seeing (unless you die — not a situation that comes up in everyday conversation). But Russian manages to assign a meaning even to this class of actions.

  • «я видел его вчера» vs «я увидел его вчера»

"I saw him yesterday" (at least once) vs "I saw him yesterday" (for the first time/completely, in full)

«Я увидел его вчера» doesn't bring a lot of extra meaning compared to the first variant, but the emphasis is important. The speaker describes the moment when they finished recognizing "him" after seeing "him". Why did the speaker decide to be so oddly specific? Maybe it was the first time seeing "him" (ever or after some time), or maybe they saw something in "him" that they hadn't noticed before, and the speaker thought it warranted stating that seeing "him" was complete this time around.

  • «он звонил мне вчера» vs «он позвонил мне вчера»

"He called me yesterday" (once or even many times) vs "He gave me a call yesterday" (a single finished action in the past).

  • «ты купил молоко?» vs «ты покупал молоко?»

"Have you bought milk?" vs "Did you buy milk?" (once or even many times)

Imagine this exchange:

— Дорогой, ты купил молоко?
— Нет.
— Но ты его покупал?
— Да.
— А где же оно?
— Оно разлилось по дороге [домой]. (I spilled it on the way home.)

  • «я уверен мы встретились раньше» vs «я уверен мы встречались раньше»

"I'm sure we met before" (when discussing the exact moment when one particular meeting took place) vs "I'm sure we've met before" (once or many times)

  • «они видели этот фильм 6 раз»

"They saw this movie six times." (Counting implies that fully, but we can't say for sure here... Maybe they saw six different pieces of it at different times.)

Note that it's not "watched" (смотрели).

«Увидели» is of course possible, but the meaning would be a bit weird. It's as if there were many movies shown and they recognized that movie 6 times.

  • «в последнее время я о ней не слышал»

«Не слышать о ком-то» is a fixed phrase. It means "not hear news of someone". Again, you can use «услышал», but you'll have to construct an exceedingly unlikely situation where this would make any sense. The first response you'll get from a native speaker will be «Чего о ней не услышал?»

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The responses already provided do a good job of explaining everything for the most part, but there's another nuance expressed by the perfective forms in your examples - they imply a follow-up. If I mention someone and you interject with "я видел его вчера", I'd take that as a cue to ask you about this encounter. However, if you instead say "я увидел его вчера", it signals that your statement is, somewhat ironically, not complete and you would like to continue. Similarly, "он позвонил мне вчера" would hint at the fact that you have additional information that you don't want to divulge until later in the conversation, whereas "он звонил мне вчера" could be used either way.

So if you use a perfective form there with no additional information, saying literally just that, it would probably result in a bit of an awkward silence. It's not a particularly strong conversation marker, though, and it's still grammatical to ignore the difference in many cases.

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