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During my Russian classes and later, I never felt comfortable with the expressions "to take an exam" and "to pass an exam" as сдавать экзамен and сдать экзамен. It doesn't seem to me like taking an exam and passing it are honest aspectual pairs, but two very different ideas. The act of taking an exam has no definite implications that you will pass it, so why should taking the exam and passing be an aspectual pair? Do сдавать/сдать экзамен really refer to something that is not quite the same as taking or passing an exam, so the usual translations of these into English is missing some small point?

Some related questions on this theme:

1) If my exam ended a minute ago and I want to tell someone "I just took my exam", how is that expressed if I can't say я только что сдал экзамен, which apparently should mean "I just passed the exam", and that is not what I intended to say. Maybe the context is always supposed to make it clear whether сдавал экзамен refers to the past tense while the exam was happening or the past tense after the exam was over.

2) How can I say "I failed the exam" in a colloquial way other than with the phrase не сдать экзамен?

Is there a standard way to talk about taking an exam, in both aspects, without giving an indication one way or the other that you passed it or not?

If someone can indicate why taking and passing an exam really do seem like natural aspectual concepts, I'd be interested to hear about that too.

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First of all, сдавать\сдать экзамен is an aspectual pair, because it passes the test when in the context of praesens historicum ("настоящее историческое") сдать changes to сдавать:

Completed action in past:

В том же году он сдал экзамен и поступил на первый курс филфака МГУ.

In praesens historicum:

В этом же году он сдает экзамен и поступает на первый курс филфака МГУ.

Second, you are completely right when you say that сдавать экзамен doesn't mean the same as сдать экзамен. It doesn't mean "to be in the process of passing the exam" (as well as to take an exam does not mean it), it means "to try to pass it".

So, how can it be both an aspectual pair and two verb with different meaning? I guess the answer is that these are two different usages of the imperfect aspect form. The one in praesens historicum is used to signal that the story, although it happened in past, is presented by the speaker as if it was going on here and now. The usage about which you are asking means an attempt to achieve a result, an activity directed at the achievement of the result. Here is one more example of these two usages with the verb отбиваться — to fight off:

Он отчаянно отбивался от нападавших. He was desperately trying to fight off the attackers

Compare with praesens historicum:

И в этот момент он наконец-то отбивается от нападавших и убегает. At this moment he has finally fought off the attackers and ran away.

To answer your related questions:

If my exam ended a minute ago and I want to tell someone "I just took my exam"

You should use Я сдавал экзамен, the imperfect form in a past tense, as if you were answering the question "What have you been doing there?" or you can also say Я был на экзамене or У меня был экзамен, as if you were answering the question "What did you just do?" or "What happened with you there?"

How can I say "I failed the exam" in a colloquial way other than with the phrase не сдать экзамен?

People often say провалить экзамен (perfect aspect) — to fail an exam — or simple провалиться (на экзамене), but it usually requires context to be understood easily (for example, a question like "Ну что, сдал экзамен?").

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    Thanks for pointing out that сдать экзамен refers to the idea of passing the exam that doing the work on the exam (which is what "taking the exam" means). By the way, in my Russian class the instructor warned us not to translate "take an exam" literally as взять экзамен since that would sound like you're a thief. Late when I was in Russia I heard a native speaker use this phrase, although he admitted it was an Americanism. Is the term взять экзамен informally used, or does it really sound strange? – KCd Jul 4 '12 at 22:37
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    Not by those who have never studied in an English-speaking university. Those who have studied in such universities sometimes speak incorrectly. It is easier to say "взять экзамен", than "идти сдавать экзамен". Same with "взять курс" (take a course), "взять \ поймать автобус" (take \ catch a bus), etc. But it is not widely accepted and often it is just a slip of a tongue. Like you may use a foreign word if you're talking fast and you are slow to remember the word in your native language. – Olga Jul 4 '12 at 22:46
  • Actually, can you ask your Russian instructor if the idea about different usages of the same aspect is true. Because I actually have hard time coming up with more examples like сдавать\сдать отбиваться\отбиться. – Olga Jul 4 '12 at 23:35
  • If I gave the impression that I am currently taking a class, then it was not intended. My Russian classes ended about 10 years ago. Maybe you can post your question here as a new question, requesting further examples of the type you seek. – KCd Jul 5 '12 at 0:26
  • Great, as always! – Quassnoi Jul 5 '12 at 21:43
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If my exam ended a minute ago and I want to tell someone "I just took my exam", how is that expressed

Я только что закончил сдавать экзамен.

How can I say "I failed the exam" in a colloquial way other than with the phrase не сдать экзамен?

Я провалил экзамен.

  • "Я только что закончил сдавать экзамен." - так никто не говорит. – hazzik Jul 19 '12 at 11:34
  • Colloquial variant of "I just took my exam" would probably be simpler: 1)Я только что с экзамена. Other variants: 2)Я сейчас сдавал(а) экзамен. 3)У меня сейчас был экзамен. I would have used the first form, if someone asked me "Where have you been?" (Где ты был(а)?) and the third form if the question was "What's up?" (Как дела?) but that's just my personal preference. – Ashalynd Nov 13 '12 at 19:35

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