I received the following question from a person who was not specific as to whether they knew me from YT or some other source:
I have a question. Seeing you are a native speaker of English and a Slavic languages expert, I reckon you can answer this better than most!
What, in a nutshell, is verbal aspect all about? I know the grammar book stuff about “completed actions”, etc. It doesn’t cut it for me! What I need are some solid English equivalents. For example, when a Russian says (using future perfective aspect) “I will visit the museum tomorrow”, would we say: “I will have visited the museum (by) tomorrow”? Or is it more a sense of: “I will DO A VISIT to the museum tomorrow”? (Or is it something else entirely?)
And as regards the past perfective, what’s the deal if you want to say: “Tsar So-and-so built this palace in 1820”? Should that be perfective or imperfective? Or is there a choice? If so, what’s the difference?
I really want to learn some Russian but this stuff is doing my head in! (Cases are one thing – at least there is a clear logic there!) Any simple low-down help would be greatly appreciated.
Verbal aspect is about whether the FOCUS of an utterance is concerned with whether the action of the verb is now over and done with or not, or, in the case where the verb describes a state like lying or standing, whether this state has changed or not.
If the answer is yes, then the perfective aspect is used, and in all other cases the imperfective aspect is used.
In other words, if a person is making a point that some is done and dusted or will be done to completion, or using an imperative to tell someone to do something on one occasion rather than to always do it or keep on doing it indefinitely, they will use the perfective aspect.
When we are talking about the past, we can see a broad comparison to tenses in English or French. A past continuous will nearly always need the imperfective one of the pair in the past. When it comes to the future most West European languages cover the aspect issue by adverbs or by context, whereas the difference in Russian between “Ya sdelaiu” and “Ya budu delat'” is very obvious.
When using the imperfective member of the pair in the future, it doesn’t mean he is saying he will never ever finish doing whatever it is. He is merely not focusing on completing it. It’s an “I’ll do it/I’ll be doing it or I’ll keep doing it” idea while the perfectoive is “I’ll get it done”. The focus is on a completed action or series of actions with a finish, which will be reached.
This is why it is not really the same as tense, but has a big crossover to Germanic and Romance ideas of tenses. When you come to Chinese you’ll see that verbs similarly rely on aspect markers like “le” to do something far more similar to Slavic in a sense than what is done in West European languages
Now, once you understand that it is about focus, you can see that the visit to the museum tomorrow focusses on one visit which will happen and then it is over, and so it is better to use the perfective. This shows that you’re going to make the effort to do it. If you were talking about visiting lots of museums and things over the course of like a month, it’s obvious that the month will one day come to an end, but you are focusing not on that, rather on how you will be spending time over a larger period. It is better to use the imperfective future with budu and the imperfective member of the pair. However, if you wanted to change the focus to say over the coming month I will managed to visit all the museums in a given place, again this has a focusable end and you would be quite right to use future perfective.
In other words, you are doing precisely the same things, but you are focusing on them differently in the utterance.
In the case of “Tsar postroyil dvorets” again normally you will hear the perfective. It was done and completed. However, if you wanted to say the same thing and take the focus completely off the completion of the building that year and emphasis the fact that the building was going on in that year, focusing really more on the content of the year than the completion of the building, you might justifiably use an imperfective aspect.
A supermarket which is newly opened might be closed today. Where the focus is depends how you play out the aspectival pair. You focus on the fact that today you cannot get in, so that’s where you put the perfective aspect. You are not focusing so much on the fact that they opened it recently, after all, it’s closed today, so if you used the imperfective instead of the logical perfective there it wouldn’t stand out. All you did was take the focus off that verb with regard to its completeness. The current state is closed, that state has implied a change of state, that definitely has to be perfective whatever you do with the first verb.