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Most verbs distinguish between the imperfect and perfect aspect (писать/написать), but with verbs of motion the imperfect verbs distinguish between undirected and directed motion (плавать/плыть).

With писать I can distinguish between:

  • Я писал письма (каждый день)
  • Я написал письма (вчера)

How do I make a similar distinction between

  • Я плавал в реке (каждый день)
  • Я плавал(?) в реке (вчера)
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I think, a lot of confusion might arise depending on the context of such sentences, because you also need to know WHY you use perfective or imperfective for a particular statement.

The core difference is that "writing" is often perceived as an action leading to a natural result of something being written. Do "walking", "swimming", "carrying" have any natural result? They don't—at least, there are many important situations where they do not seem to. On the other hand, such activities may have a beginning and an ending, which serves as a suitable "limitation" that a perfective verb needs.

If the action has a particular result, of course, use a perfective that states the desired outcome. The major problem is, you have to choose aspect even when it is not that easy to find a measurable result.

regular action / name of action

Use imperfective verbs. For verbs of motion, use imperfective multidirectional verbs. If one repeated link of a repeated trip is specifically decribed, one-way verb can also be used.

  • Я часто писал письма.
  • Я часто плавал.
  • Я не умею писать/плавать.

action in progress; simultaneous actions

Use imperfectives. For verbs of motion, use one-way verb for motion with a goal and multi-directional verb for a complicated motion that is not directed anywhere in particular:

  • Я пишу письмо.
  • Я писал письмо, поэтому не заметил, как она пришла. = I was writing a letter, that's why I didn't notice her coming.
  • Я шёл домой. = I was going home.
  • Я ходил по офису. = I was walking around the office.
  • Я плавал в озере. = I was swimming in the lake.
  • Я плыл к лесу. = I was swimming towards the forest.

sequence of actions in the past

Use perfectives. If your action reaches some "result", you should obviously use the perfective you need. However, some activities ("sleep", "have a walk") do not have any particular result. Russian often has по-prefixed perfective verbs for them, so that you can describe "doing that action for some time" and arrange them in a sequence:

по-prefixed perfectives formed from one-way verbs of motion mean the onset of an action.

по-prefixed perfectives formed from multidirectional verbs of motion mean doing action for some time. Note that "походить" is not the default "walking around" verb—you may use it, but you can use "погулять" just as well.

  • Я вчера написал письмо.
  • Я вчера поплавал, а потом приготовил обед.
  • Мы погуляли до вечера и пошли домой. →note, that "пошли", being formed from a one-way verb, means just going back ("heading") home after a walk. And not walking for some time.
  • Ты уже побегала?
  • Мама вчера уехала в Петербург. → a result of action is "departing", hence the more specific "у-" prefix.
  • Куда поехал директор? = Where did the director go? → again, note how one-way perfective is different

reference to a fact

Now, rather than recalling "stories" from the past you make a random reference to a past action. It is important that it happened at all, but the exact moment is irrelevant to your message.

Use imperfective verbs. For verbs of motion, use multidirectional verbs.

  • Ты когда-нибудь писал статьи? = Have you ever written acrticles?
  • Я там уже плавал. = I already swam there. (i.e. I'm familiar with that experience)
  • Я ещё не бегал. = I haven't run yet.

Note that imperfective verbs may have a logical consequence that overlaps with the "result":

  • Он уже читал эту книгу. = He already read that book.

It is easier with verbs of motion. At least, after visiting some place you always have to return "home", so you'd want a multidirectional verb. With other verbs it remains an important point of confusion for learners.

"What did you do yesterday?"

This is pretty obvious, but still: use imperfectives and multidirectional verbs (for round trips or aimless motion) to describe actions that "fill" some time frame in question. This is the case when you answer the questions about what you were busy with.

  • Я вчера бегал.
  • Я вчера писал письма.
  • Я вчера плавал в реке.
  • Я вчера ходил в кино.
  • Я вчера только спал и ел.
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  • This answer is a textbook in itself. Thank you, you answered the question AND cleared up a lot of my own questions regarding other matters of aspect. – CocoPop Apr 26 '15 at 14:01
  • Very beautiful explanation. – oz1cz Apr 27 '15 at 8:10
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A prefix, usually по-, should be added to the undirected motion verb to make it perfective: плавать - поплавать, летатать - полетать, кататься - покататься, etc. So, your last sentence should be

Я поплавал в реке вчера.

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  • Thank you. Can the по- prefix also be used to distinguish between imperfect and perfect forms of the directed verbs? – oz1cz Apr 22 '15 at 7:22
  • Yes, it can: писал - пописал (in both meanings))), шёл - пошёл, стоял - постоял, etc. This prefix has no particular meaning, like the English prefix be- (come - become), it used just to form perfective verbs. – Yellow Sky Apr 22 '15 at 7:28
  • @oz1cz With the directed ones, по- signifies the beginning of the motion, and can't be used as the simple "perfectiviser" it is to undirected verbs. Generally the perfective prefix of a motion verb also tells something about the result or purpose of the motion: по- for setting out, при- for arrival, до- for more generally getting to a certain point or arriving in spite of obstacles, у- for leaving, за- for "dropping by" or crossing some manner of boundary. (@YellowSky: neither писать nor стоять are directed motion verbs, and be- does in fact have a distinct set of meanings.) – Nikolay Ershov Apr 22 '15 at 7:44
  • @NikolayErshov — I wrote about be- that it has no particular meaning. – Yellow Sky Apr 22 '15 at 9:37
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    @NikolayErshov With плавал, по- means "for a while, a little" as opposed to perfective beginning of motion with плыл. – jwalker Apr 22 '15 at 16:03
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Note that here Russian is very much like English. "Я плавал" - "I swam"; "Я поплавал" - "I have swum". And as in English people tend to say "Я плавал"/"I swam" more often even when "I have swum" is OK too.

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You can solve the problem by yourself, try the ruscorpora.ru

Let us suppose that our aim is to find something across all Russian morphological forms for the verb плавать. For many verbs, the perfective is inflected exactly like its imperfective partner, but with a prepositional prefix про-, по-, раз-, etc. So we put in the Lexico-grammatical search form *плавать. From the 'Gramm. features' we shall select 'past, perfective'. (help)

The response to the query contains the following:
Поплавав
проплавала
поплавал
сплавал
отплавала
...

By specifying our query with the second word Я, we build the construction
WORD1 [distance between words] WORD2, where WORD1=Я, WORD2=*плавать.

Response to the query

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