A Question about the Russian Future by Shannon


One viewer on the youtube channel, a lady called Shannon, wrote to me the following question:


Could you please tell me the English equivalent for the Russian simple and compound future tense.

I think I’ve understood both past tenses, but the future tense is something I’m still struggling to get my head around.


The problem is that they are not really tenses, they are aspects of a single future tense.

Now in English we have aspects, but we don’t always use a verb to show the aspects, sometimes we use other words in the sentence.

Let’s take the example of “yest’/s’yest”. If I say in Russian “Ya s’yem ves’ …” then the expected word afterwards might be “tort” – I will eat the whole cake.

If a Russian says “Ya budu yest’ ves’…” then the rest of the sentence that suggests itself is “den’ ” – I will eat all day.

In this case in English if you can replace “eat” with “eat up” then you know that it’s a perfective aspect. In English it’s not incorrect to say “I will eat the whole cake”, or you can also stress the perfective nature of that action (although it won’t have a very perfecting effect on the figure) by saying “I will eat the cake up”.

Contrast that with the second sentence. “I will eat all day”. You can’t say “I will eat up all day”, it becomes meaningless. You can, of course say something like “All day long tomorrow, I’ll be eating up my fussy children’s left-overs” – in Russian this repetitive future performance of a perfective action would call for bringing in the iterative suffix. “Budu doyedyvat’ “sounds a little clumsy but would give that kind of meaning. The “yv” part of that verb being the iterative suffix.

So in the case of a sentence where in English we could use a simple verb or a phrasal verb, especially a phrasal verb where the sense involves finishing something (eat up, do in, beat up, bring in, etc) we can get a good idea of whether to use a perfective or imperfective future aspect in Russian by asking us where the phrasal verb is just as good if not better than the simple verb, as in the above “eat the cake up”

What about cases where you don’t have a phrasal verb indicating completion to hand? Well, sometimes there are aspectival pairs in English that we don’t even realise are aspectival pairs because this is almost subliminal in our language and not explicit as in Slavonic. So I could give you two sentences:

1. I will fish all day tomorrow

2. I will catch many fish tomorrow.

Which is future imperfective? That’s right, the first. Budu lovit ryby ves’ den’ zavtra. The second is perfective. Tomorrow I will not just fish I will catch many fish. Poymu mnogo ryb, zavtra.

how about this one:

1. He will speak to me about the changes this afternoon.

2. He will tell me about the changes this afternoon.

In which of these am I expressing subliminally that I’m not necessarily expecting complete information? That’s right, the first. In the second, I expect the transmission of complete facts, not just blah-blah. So speak and tell are an aspectival pair.

And sure enough, you find the same in govorit’/skazat’ in Russian. You never hear “on budet skazat” – the closest is if you make it iterative “on budet skazyvat mne raznye veshchi” He will be telling me various things. He will, in other word, repeatedly perform the perfective action of transferring orally various complete pieces of information. He will speak to me about the changes – on budet govorit’ so mnoy o peremenakh means that I’m focussing menatlly on the fact that he is going through the motions of informing me, regardless of whether any actual units of meaningful information, any ‘whole story’ is transferred to me in the process. “On skazhet mne o peremenakh posle obeda” on the other hand means that I’m expecting to hear the whole caboodle from him after lunch.

One of the best ways to understand this is by looking at what we mean in English when we differentiate “until” and “by”. Most languages have a single word for this pair, and in Slavic it’s aspect which gives away which one is needed. Russians and Poles say “do”, German’s have “bis”, but we have two words and we can’t understand why foreigners are always muddling up “until” and “by”.

So you’ll hear Slavs saying “I need you to write the report until Thursday”. At this, you might say “what happens after that, then, does someone else take over?” This sentence in English contains no markers that getting it done before then is required – on the contrary the marker in “until” rather means just keep on going up to a certain time point, and finishing doesn’t enter into it.

So Thursday comes and you are asked for the report, and you hand in a huge 100 page opus and immediately the boss asks “Where’s the Executive Summary?” And so you say “There’s no Executive Summary – how can there be one if the report isn’t finished?” “But I asked you to write the report until Thursday!” “I did! I was writing it all the time, only taking short breaks for food and sleep. That’s why the thing is 100 pages long. but you didn’t tell me it had to be done BY Thursday!”

The boss doesn’t understand this, as to him “until” and “by” are synonyms and not markers of aspect, and promptly sacks the Employee for over-correct use of English.

So you can see from this example that if he had really meant “until”, in Russian he would have used a future imperfective. “Budete pisat’ …” For the meaning “by” he would have used a Russian future perfective “Napishite”.

I hope that helps you get a grip on the idea. If it has, then that is a milestone on your journey towards knowing Russian.

About David J. James

52 year old accountant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written discussion. Conservative Christian, married to an angel, we have three kids, and live in Warsaw, Poland. I can help you with company set-up, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, audit and due diligence all over Poland and the region.

Posted on 08/02/2011, in Answers to your questions, Blog only, Default or Miscellaneous, Huliganov's Russian Course, Languages and Linguistics, Mówię po polsku!, Postaday2011, Russia, With Another Person and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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