I'm quite familiar with the use and meaning of the aspects in an affirmative past scenario. However I've noticed that they don't always correspond in a negative past scenario - where you'd expect a perfective form, you find не + imperfective. My reasoning is that there must be something beyond the concept of completion that determines the choice of aspect in past negation, i.e. the speakers volition, a general vs categorical negation, etc.

In the following dialogue, ¿what would be the interpretation of B's answers, i.e. how do they differ from one another (if at all) semantically:

А: Где Андрей хочет провести отпуск?

Б: Я не спросил его.

Б: Я не спрашивал его.

Б: Я не стал его спрашивать.


5 Answers 5


One very important use of the imperfective aspect is expressing the fact that took or did not take place, while the time of its occurence is irrelevant (even if technically it did happen at some specific point in time). Typically called "общефактическое значение" in Russian.

When answering questions or introducing statements, this use of imperfective contrasts to the perfective answer, which may imply that the situation was supposed to take place. Then, you are describing how it went on. In your case the contrast is even more noticeable: "спрашивать/спросить" is, in principle, an action that can hardly end in failure. Thus, the difference in result is negligible (if you engaged in "asking", you are pretty sure to have finished your question). The context, however, will force you choose one or the other aspect.

А: Где Андрей хочет провести отпуск?

Б: Я не спросил его. → Didn't ask when I was supposed to/had a chance etc.

Б: Я не спрашивал его. → Never asked (maybe didn't even think until you mentioned it)

Б: Я не стал его спрашивать. → Didn't ask him (decided not to, even though I considered the possibility).

The concept of "completion" or "result" is not a particularly good explanation of perfective aspect since it only works well for native speakers (who do not need much explanation anyway). The difference is more along the lines of perfective being a "limited" action that is perceived as a point in time without much inner structure, a "simple" action that is characterized by some point in time, with some "change of state" linked to that point.

  • maybe u could call it "atomic action", the "black box" unit that is not to be divided inside it. Personally I intuitively define it as "focused" verb vs blurry vague generic verbs
    – Arioch
    Sep 28, 2017 at 9:28

Many grammar books state that, if no action occurs, use the imperfective, and if one uses the perfective it means Failure to do X, (when it was expected).

Я не звонил няшке моей. (I didn't phone her; nothing happened; i wasn't even thinking about her).

Я не позвонил няшке моей. (I didn't phone her; but I should have; she's at the gym; she wanted a ride home).

  • A possibly helpful addendum is that я не звонил sort of softly implies никогда, similar to the past/present indefinite in English. But я не позвонил is (similarly to inverted я позвонил) a sort of present perfect (even though I have am not really sure it is comparable) "I have (not) called her this time_/_yet_/_because I was busy." It is about this particular session, "I surely have called her before, but this time I forgot." Jan 6, 2018 at 22:09

"Я не спросил его." I didn't ask (and won't have a chance to ask any more).

"Я не спрашивал его." I didn't ask (but may still ask).

"Я не стал его спрашивать." I chose not to ask.

  • 3
    Does the first example really mean that I won't have the chance to ask him anymore? "Я не спросил его, забыл, завтра спрошу".
    – Vilmar
    Jan 30, 2015 at 14:23
  • 2
    I's say example 1 means "I didn't ask him when I had a chance", there's nothing about that there won't be any more chance to ask.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 30, 2015 at 14:25

Both affirmative and negative scenarios for the first two cases seem to use the same aspect:

  1. Perfective aspect

"Я спросил его." - "I have asked him"

"Я не спросил его." - "I have not asked him"

  1. Imperfective aspect

"Я спрашивал его." - "I asked him"

"Я не спрашивал его." - "I didn't ask him"

The two cases above are described here: http://masterrussian.com/verbs/sprashivat_sprosit.htm

  1. Using complex predicate "стал" + infinitive verb. There is a difference between affirmative and negative cases here.

"Я стал его спрашивать." - "I started asking him." [beginning of a phase]

"Я не стал его спрашивать." - "I didn't try asking him." [didn't happen at all]

  • You may want to review your item 2...
    – Avi Gordon
    Jan 30, 2015 at 14:54
  • @AviGordon could you please explain your concern about #2?
    – Vitaly
    Jan 30, 2015 at 15:13
  • Both sentences in #2 are negative, you probably meant to have the first sentence affirmative, didn't you?
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 30, 2015 at 15:28
  • Cannot "Я спрашивал его." mean "I asked him many times"? Imperfective aspect is neutral to the continuous vs. simple distinction.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 30, 2015 at 15:35
  • @YellowSky I think, additionally, "Я спрашивал его." can also be translated as "I've been asking him."
    – Vitaly
    Jan 30, 2015 at 15:43

OK. I am NOT an expert speaker. However, I have noticed this a bit for negatives:

  • If the thing comes with a SINGULAR/SINGLE-INSTANCE (maybe I want to say "semelfactive") direct object or other precisor, it may well get a perfective in the past.

  • Otherwise, the default is imperfective.

  • And Russians are adept at dodging this question entirely by putting it in the present.

Examples (all from real Russian):

Ты не ответила на них ни слова.

Ты не отвечал на телефонные звонки.

Пишу тебе уже десятое письмо, а ты не отвечаешь

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