VERBS: tenses and aspects

Я пишу письмо. I am writing a letter. Вчера я написал письмо. Yesterday I wrote a letter.


The Russian verb has three tenses and two aspects: imperfective and perfective. The aspects are used to define the mode of the action expressed by the verb.

  • For actions that are actually taking place, that are repeated or continuous, or for permanent states, with no indication of the start or end of the action: use the imperfective aspect.
  • For a single action, an action which is complete or which is considered to be limited or which has a clear result: use the perfective aspect.

Russian verbs therefore are in aspect pairs, with each of the aspects having its own nuance. Most verbs have two aspects: imperfective and perfective.


отдыхать (to rest) – Я отдыхал два дня. I was resting for two days, (continuous action)
звонить (to call) – В сентябре я звонила во Францию раз в неделю. In September I called France once a week, (repeated action)


отдохнуть (to rest) – Я хорошо отдохнул. I’ve had a good rest, (result)
позвонить (to call) – Вчера я позвонила в Париж. Yesterday I called Paris. (single action)

Perfective verbs are used only to form past and future tenses, whereas imperfective verbs are used to form present, future and past tenses.

учить (imperfective)

present: учу ( I am learning)
future: буду учить (/ shall be learning)
past: учил, учила, учили (/ was learning…)

выучить (perfective)

present: –
future: выучу (/ shall learn)
past: выучил (/ have learnt)


  • If in an aspect pair (imperfective / perfective), only one of the two forms includes a prefix, this form is the perfective:

imperfective → perfective

читать → прочитать (toread)
мочь → смочь (to be able to)

imperfective → perfective

учить → выучить (to study/to learn)
писать → написать (to write)

Exception: покупать → купить (to buy) etc…

  • If both infinitives of an aspect pair end in -АТЬ or in -ЯТЬ, the shorter of the two infinitives is the perfective:

imperfective → perfective

рассказывать → рассказать (to tell)

imperfective → perfective

понимать → понять (to understand)

  • If the aspect pair has one infinitive ending in -ЕТЬ, -ИТЬ or -НУТЬ and the other in -АТЬ or in -ЯТЬ then the former is perfective and the latter is imperfective:

imperfective → perfective

отдыхать → отдохнуть (to rest)
повторять → повторить (to repeat)

imperfective → perfective

умирать → умереть (to die)
приглашать → пригласить (to invite)