Russian/Grammar/Verbs

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This page discusses the nature of verbs in Russian, as well as the basics of how to use them in the present tense. For more advanced concepts, see the pages on verbal aspect, the past tense, the future tense, and verbal participles.

Идти (eed-TEE) — to walk

The Nature of Verbs[edit]

In English, there are several ways to say that different people are doing some action, such as studying: "I study", "we study", "you study", "he/she/it studies", and "they study". However, notice that third-person singular pronouns (he, she, and it) change 'study' into 'studies'. When verbs change, this is called 'conjugation'. English has a simple two-form verb conjugation ('study' and 'studies'), which is the origin of the term: conjugate comes from the Latin conjugare, meaning 'yoked together', because English verbs come in these pairs. Similarly, 'conjugal', meaning yoked together in marriage, comes from this same root.

Like English verbs, Russian verbs also conjugate according to who is doing the verb: when on its own the default infinitive form corresponds to the English 'to' ('to see', 'to walk', etc), and this infinitive can conjugate for each of the six personal pronouns - я ('I'), мы ('we'), ты ('you', informal), вы ('you', plural/polite), он/она/оно ('he/she/it'), and они ('they'). Notice that although the third-person singular pronoun has three forms for each gender, there is still only one third-person singular form of a verb, just as in English. The other thing to note is that Russian has two words for 'you' like French and German, but unlike English. Briefly, ты is used informally for a single person who you know well, while вы is used for groups of people, or for an individual person to whom you want to show respect.

You (informal) are speaking - Ты говоришь - ti ga-vuh-REESH
You (formal/plural) are speaking - Вы говорите - vi ga-vuh-REET-ye

The rules for conjugating Russian verbs come in two main patterns: the 'first' or 'type 1' conjugation, and the 'second' or 'type 2' conjugation. All verbs have an infinitive form, which is listed in dictionaries, and this virtually always ends in -ть (e.g., говорить, 'to speak', работать, 'to work').

How to place emphasis[edit]

In Russian, basic sentences with verbs are constructed with the verb's subject (the thing doing the verbing), the verb's object (the thing being verbed), and the verb itself. English uses a specific word order to denote the subject and object of a verb: 'cats like dogs' and 'dogs like cats' are the same words but repressed to change who's doing what. Russian, however, uses a case system to denote what's the object and what's the subject - that is, the words change their endings depending on what they're doing in a sentence. This means that word order can instead be used to emphasise parts of a sentence; specifically, the word placed at the end of a sentence is the one emphasised. In practice, Russian usually say "Subject object verb", such as "I her like". Other word orders place emphasis on other words: "I like her" emphasises that it is her I like, while "Her like I" emphasises that is is me who likes her.

Because verbs take on different forms for different pronouns, Russians often omit the noun or pronoun altogether if it's obvious who the speaker is:

Are you speaking? - Вы говори́те? - vi ga-vuh-REE-tye?
Yes, I'm speaking - Да, говорю́. - da, ga-vuh-RYOO

This can also be done for the future tense, but not the past tense, for reasons that will be obvious once you learn those tenses. Finally, note that objects like 'plane' or 'boat' call for the third-person form of a verb: 'He is flying' and 'The plane is flying' both use the third-person singular form лета́ет.

Questions and negation[edit]

To form a question in Russian, simply place an higher intonation on stress of the verb. This is different to English, which often reorders sentences ('You are riding.' - 'Are you riding?') or adds auxiliary words ('You ride' - 'Do you ride?'), with a higher intonation on the end of the sentence. The use of pronouns in asking questions ('He is riding' - 'Who is riding?'; 'You are going here' - 'You are going where?') is detailed more thoroughly on the page on interrogative pronouns.

To negate a verb, simply add не (nye) before the verb:

Are you speaking? - Вы говори́те? - vi ga-vuh-REE-tye?
Yes, I'm speaking - Да, говорю́ - da, ga-vuh-RYOO
No, I'm not speaking - Нет, не говорю́ - nyet, nye ga-vuh-RYOO
He's not a student - Он не студент - on nye stoo-DYENT - as быть is omitted in the present tense, that не is used on it's own
Boris isn't coming - Борис не приходит - borees nye pree-KHO-deet

The phrase У меня есть + nom means 'I have...' (literally, 'by me exists...'), using the infinitive of the verb есть to mean 'exists'. To negate this and say 'I don't have...', we replace есть with нет, and place the following object in the genitive case. Нет is a contraction of не есть, and has a different meaning to нет as in 'no'. The use of this phrase, it's negation, and forming the genitive case in general, are discussed further on the genitive page.

The Infinitive[edit]

As discussed above, verbs by default are in their infinitive form, meaning they haven't been conjugated yet. In English, this correspond to the 'to...' form of a verb; in the sentence, "I want to live in Moscow", 'to live' is the infinitive of that verb. Just like in English, dictionaries give verbs in their infinitive, unconjugated form. The infinitive almost always ends in -ть, and conjugating a verb is as simple as removing this -ть and adding the appropriate ending.

What do you want to do? - Что вы хотите делать? - shto vi kho-TEE-tye - делать is the infinitive of the verb 'to do'

The Present tense[edit]

The present tense is used much like in English, with a few important exceptions. First, Russians omit the verb 'to be' in the present tense: "She is nice" in Russian is Она симпатичная, with no word for 'is'. A long hyphen or dash is used to equate two nouns together, where the word 'is' or 'are' is used in English: "They are students" is Они – студенты. Second, as discussed more in the page on the future tense, there are times when Russians use the present tense when English wouldn't, such as reporting a story.

Second, there is the concept of verbal aspect: simply put, all verbs in Russian have two words, the imperfective and the perfective. For instance, 'to speak' is говорить and сказать. Which you use is discussed more thoroughly on the specific page, but for our purposed we just need to know that the present tense can only be formed using the imperfective word. So to say "I am speaking", you use the imperfective говорить, not the perfective сказать. So, unless otherwise stated, the rest of this page will use imperfective verbs.

So, to form the present tense, you simply take the imperfective aspect of the verb and add the appropriate endings. Verbs in Russian conjugate in one of two ways.

First conjugation[edit]

These verbs usually end in -ать, though there are enough exceptions that it's probably best to simply learn the conjugation of a new verb. Eventually, you will be able to 'predict' how verbs conjugate. To conjugate these verbs, remove the -ть, and add the appropriate ending:

Я, I Мы, we Ты, you (informal) Вы, you (formal) Он/она/оно Они, they
-ем -ешь -ете -ет -ют

Remember, these six forms are for each personal pronoun ('I', 'we', etc). If you want to refer to something else, such as "The plane flies" or "The boat sails", remember that 'plane' and 'boat' are in the third-person, so would take the он ending of -ет.

Let's look at how you conjugate читать, 'to read':

Singular Plural
First person Я читаю
I am reading
I read
Мы читаем
We are reading
We read
Second person Ты читаешь
You are reading
You read
Вы читаете
You are reading
You read
Third person Он/она/оно читает
He/she/it is reading
He/she/it reads
Они читают
They are reading
They read

Notice that conjugating verbs forms the present tense, and a Russian present tense verb can be translated as either the simple present tense ('I read') or the continuous present tense ('I am reading') in English.

Second conjugation[edit]

Second conjugation verbs usually end in -ить. Like other verbs, to conjugate them, simply remove the -ть and add the appropriate ending. These endings are similar to first-conjugation verbs, though with a change in vowel:

First Person Second Person Third Person
Я, I Мы, we Ты, you (informal) Вы, you (formal) Он/она/оно Они, they
First conjugation -ем -ешь -ете -ет -ют
Second conjugation -им -ишь -ите -ит -ят

Let's look at how you conjugate говори́ть, 'to speak':

Singular Plural
First person Я говорю́
I am speaking
I speak
Мы говори́м
We are speaking
We speak
Second person Ты говори́шь
You are speaking
You speak
Вы говори́те
You are speaking
You speak
Third person Он/она/оно говори́т
He/she/it is speaking
He/she/it speaks
Они говоря́т
They are speaking
They speak

Exceptions[edit]

Like all things in Russian, there are exceptions to the above rules:

  • Seven verbs with the infinitive ending –еть, and three which end in -ать, take the second conjugation: видеть ('to see'), вертеть ('to twirl'), обидеть ('to offend'), зависеть ('to depend'), ненавидеть ('to hate'), терпеть ('to tolerate'), смотреть ('to watch'), слышать ('to hear'), дышать ('to breathe'), and держать ('to keep').
  • Two verbs with the infinitive ending –еть take the first conjugation endings: брить ('to shave') and стелить ('to lay').
  • The verb гнать ('to drive') takes the second conjugation endings - However, verbs of motion are quite complex, and will be discussed in their own page.

The Past and Future tenses[edit]

Now that we've covered the present tense, there are two other tenses that can be used in Russian: the past tense and the future tense. These are detailed more thoroughly on their own pages, but in brief, they are formed as follows:

  • To form the PAST TENSE of a verb, remove -ть and add (-ла if the subject is feminine, -ло if neuter, -ли if plural). This rule applies to both aspects of a verb. So, "I was speaking" (imperfective) is я говорил, while "I spoke" (perfective) is я сказал.
  • To form the FUTURE TENSE of verbs, choose your aspect. If you're using the perfective aspect to form the future, simply conjugate it as you would the imperfective aspect, and this creates the future tense. If you're using the imperfective aspect to form the future, conjugate the verb 'to be', быть, and add the infinitive of the imperfective. So, "I will speak" (perfective) is я скажу, while "I will be speaking" (imperfective) is я буду говорить.