A teacher explained to me that for imperfective verbs of motion, the verb termed one-directional is present/past continuous in translation and should be chosen for use on that basis, not on a complicated understanding of directionalness.

Can anyone provide an explanation of verbs of motion imperfectives that does not use the word multi-/single-directional? If it is so simple as she says, I wonder why all this garbage about direction and return trips.

2 Answers 2


I too find the notion of direction very confusing. I'd rather think of what is described as multidirectionalness as a property or a capability. Only the "multidirectional" member of each pair of verbs of motion can be used with I can - я умею (or, more generally, to be able to - уметь). The logic then goes like this: I can do it => I tend to do it sometimes (habitually) => this motion tends to occur in various ways (and directions). Hence:

Сова умеет летать => сова летает => сова летает бесшумно
(The owl can fly => the owl flies => the owl flies quietly - indefinite tense)

As opposed to a motion which is happening here and now:
Сова летит на север (The owl is flying North - continuous tense)

Unfortunately there are situations where this notion of property/capability/habit does not help:

Сова летает над полем (туда-сюда) - the owl is flying over the field (back and fro)

Although Russian uses летать here, English still calls for Present Continuous because the motion is happening here and now. In such situations multidirectionalness seems to be your only guide. I would suggest to first think if the motion is described in English using a continuous tense. If the answer is yes then think if the motion is occurring in multiple directions. If the answer is still yes then you most certainly need the multidirectional (habitual) member of the verb pair.

And to make matters worse:

Now or habitually? - Habitually. (Multidirectional verb then? - No, wait for it) Does the sentence explicitly mention a single direction or route? - Yes! You need the unidirectional verb.

Зимой птицы летят на юг - In winter birds fly South.

  • I'd use улетают in that last example. Jan 7, 2015 at 17:12
  • @Nikolay Ershov: I agree. But can one not say something like Летом мы живём на даче, а зимой едем в Ниццу? I don't know if this is something akin to the modern abuse of Continuous in English. Do you think I should delete my final example to relieve the confusion?
    – Avi Gordon
    Jan 7, 2015 at 17:44
  • I'm generally against deleting things. There's nothing particularly wrong with птицы летят either; it's just that when a nuance like this directly concerns the question, I think it's better to keep one's examples as generic and idiomatically authentic as they get. Jan 7, 2015 at 18:03
  • Thanks, this seems to work. What I take from it (besides the rules) is that the multidirectional word would not be as often used in conversation. If I want to say "I went somewhere", I would use perfective. If I "was going" somewhere - unidirectional. Then only multidirectional for these relatively rare "habitual actions" and "people/owls/squirrels going literally in many directions. In sort, I will use perfective and unidirectional (in general) and rarely multidirectional. It is best, I think, to think of the latter as being the exception and the others as normal. Jan 12, 2015 at 16:33
  • @user1122069: Of course I cannot refer to any accurate statistics but ходил (vs шёл) does not strike me as being particularly rare or exceptional, nor the other verbs of motion do. E.g. I went to school - Я ходил(а) в школу. Где ты вчера был? - Я ходил в кино (and back home). Etc. Examples of everyday usage are numerous. That's possibly because situation describing one's temporary absence (i.e. the departure and the subsequent return) or habitual visiting some place (now or in the past) are quite frequent. If you have any examples that confuse you we could try and analyse them here.
    – Avi Gordon
    Jan 12, 2015 at 17:43

I agree with Avi Gordon. I usually explain to my students that single direction verbs are, to some degree, similar to Continuous tenses in English (something happening right away) and the so called multidirectional verbs (I don't like this term either) are for regular, recurrent actions, i.e. Indefinite tenses.

Although there are some situations, like Avi Gordon said, when the motion is occurring in multiple directions. In this situations, the only option is using multidirectional verbs.

Белка бежит по двору. A squirrel is running on my back yard (a squirrel is crossing my backyard). Белка бегает по двору. A squirrel is running on my back yard (back and forth, making cycles, etc).

So, single directional verbs are for motions that are happening now and, in the absence of a better term, targeted (pointed). And multidirectional verbs are for prolonged actions where there could be more than one target or no point/ purpose/ target at all.

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