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In Вокзал by Boris Pasternak, we have this verse:

Начать — не исчислить заслуг.

After начать, I'd expect an infinitive or a noun. I tried to guess what this means and I was wondering whether исчислять was implied here. I mean if we should infer "Начать исчислять - не исчислить заслуг" (i.e., there are so many merits to list that we're hard put to complete the list). If so, is the construction начать - не + perfective infinitive common? Otherwise, how should I interpret this verse?

3 Answers 3

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If so, is the construction начать - не + perfective infinitive common?

I wouldn't say this is specific to "начать — не" and not even specific to verbs. It's a simple cause-effect sentence ("если начать, то не исчислить..."), just "если" and "то" are omitted. Omitting them is quite common; they can be omitted almost anywhere if the context implies the if-then structure:

Начать — не исчислить заслуг. ( = Если начать, то не исчислить заслуг.)

Налево пойдешь — коня потеряешь. ( = Если налево пойдешь, то коня потеряешь.)

Не добуду куропатку — беспременно быть войне. ( = Если не добуду куропатку, то беспременно быть войне.)

Красный свет — дороги нет. ( = Если красный свет [горит на светофоре], то дороги нет.)

It can also be used in other cause-effect sentences, even when directly adding "если-то" would not be grammatically correct:

Купи два — получи третий бесплатно! ( Not *Если купи два, то получи третий бесплатно, this isn't grammatically correct but also cause-effect.)


And yes, your sentence also omits "исчислять" in the first part (Если начать исчислять, то не исчислить заслуг), but this is also quite common when a particular word can be inferred from the context. Compare:

Налево пойдешь — коня потеряешь. Направо — живу не бывать.

In the latter sentence, also "пойдешь".

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  • Thank you very much! In contrast with Pasternak's verse, I'd have no problem at all with your example : "Налево пойдешь — коня потеряешь. Направо — живу не бывать.". I see two differences here : 1) in the example, we have twice exactly the same word (пойдешь) while исчислить /= исчислять. 2) In contrast with Pasternak's verse, the word that is omitted has already been used, I mean a more similar situation would be : "Налево — коня потеряешь. Направо пойдешь — живу не бывать." and this sounds weird to me and, perhaps, to a Russian native speaker too?
    – Bruno
    Commented Jan 9 at 3:42
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This construct is an ad-hoc invention of Pasternak's. It's not an established idiom, nor is it standard Russian grammar.

Another example of grammar violation is the word бывало in the second stanza, which is not accompanied by an imperfective verb in the past.

The rest of the poem looks grammatical, but expressions like хлопьями цапать, вся жизнь моя — в шарфе, намордники гарпий are all used in highly metaphorical senses. At least for me, they don't trigger any associations I could relate to.

This poem is densely packed with what is supposed to be metaphor (a little bit too densely for my taste). The expression you're asking about might make sense to someone in that context, but outside the context of this poem, it's plain out ungrammatical, not to mention meaningless.

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  • Thank you very much! I am surprised by your comment about "the verb бывало": it seems to me that, here, it should not be considered as a verb but as a вводное слово (that is: it is бывало I and not бывало II of ru.wiktionary.org/wiki/бывало). Now, in maldura.unipd.it/glagvid/docs/Abstract_DEF.pdf we read "Формально у бывало есть 4 возможности на сочетаемость: 1) бывало + НСВ в прошедшем; 2) бывало + НСВ в непрошедшем; 3) бывало + СВ в непрошедшем; 4) бывало + СВ в прошедшем." (but I don't know the differences between the four possibilities).
    – Bruno
    Commented Jan 11 at 5:17
  • @Bruno: it was a typo, thank you for noticing. The article means that, theoretically, there are four possible combinations of the two aspects and two tenses, and goes on to explore which of these combinations can be used with бывало. It can indeed be used with what technically is the perfective in its non-past form (what people usually call the future), but only when the verbs describe habitual actions in the past: крикну — а в ответ тишина. In the poem, however, there's no verb at all that бывало in the second stanza could modify, not without stretching grammar rules too thin.
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jan 11 at 5:58
  • "In the poem, however, there's no verb at all that бывало in the second stanza could modify, not without stretching grammar rules too thin." I would say that we are in case 2) бывало + НСВ в непрошедшем because we have implicitly быть at the present (the -) and пышут. But, actually, before reading this poem and looking for this article, I only knew cases 1) бывало + НСВ в прошедшем and 3) бывало + СВ в непрошедшем (but my Russian is very weak).
    – Bruno
    Commented Jan 11 at 6:36
  • @Bruno: applying бывало to implicit verbs, or to пышут is exactly what I'm calling "stretching grammar rules too thin". I'm not saying it's impossible, especially in poetry, I'm saying people usually don't talk this way.
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jan 11 at 7:58
  • @Bruno: as a side note, judging by the questions you've been asking here about finer nuances of Russian, your Russian is anything but "very weak".
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jan 11 at 8:00
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there are so many merits to list that we're far from completing the list

Right.

However, I think that implied verb here is "стоить": "Стоит начать - и не исчислишь заслуг", which means "If you start/once you've started - you won't count all the merits", with the implied conclusion: "so I won't even bother starting". This way you don't have to repeat the main verb.

The verb "стоить" conveys the meaning that action 1 inevitably causes thing 2, which in this case means that once you've started counting the merits, you certainly won't count them all.

is the construction начать - не + perfective infinitive common?

In the sense of an "overwhelming amount of something that can't be processed"? Not really, in my opinion. And you can use a second-person verb form instead of the infinitive — sometimes it sounds more natural.

There's another idiomatic way to convey that meaning, which seems more common:

"X - не переX" where X stands for a verb.

  • "Считать - не пересчитать" - about countless merits (or anything else that can be counted).
  • "Смотреть - не пересмотреть" - about huge collection of movies.
  • "Жечь - не пережечь" - about huge pile of firewood.
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  • Thank you very much but I am a bit confused. 1) "This way you don't have to repeat the main verb.": I don't really understand what you mean here - what is "the main verb"? 2) "so I won't even bother starting": the fact that there are so many merits to list that we will never list all of them does not imply that we don't begin to list them (и т. д. is used for that) and it seems to me that the previous verse Испытанный друг и указчик was the beginning of this list of merits.
    – Bruno
    Commented Jan 8 at 4:12

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