Info and tips on Russian verb conjugation


Russian verb conjugation

Russian verbs conjugation is called “спряжение”. All forms of the Russian verb, except the infinitive and gerund, change by number (singular or plural), but only singular forms of the past tense verbs change by gender.

The verbs have two possible stems, used to form different tenses.

  • Infinitive (infinitive-preterite) stem: from which the past tense, the future imperfective, past participles and most perfective gerunds are formed.
  • Present-future stem: from which the present tense, the future perfective, the imperative, present participles, imperfective gerunds and some perfective gerunds are formed.
In some verbs the two stems coincide, in others they differ.

The present-future stem of a verb is derived by removing the last two letters of the third-person plural of the verb:

  • понимать (“to understand”, infinitive) -> понима-ют (third person plural) -> понима- (present-future stem)
  • говорить (“to talk”, infinitive) -> говор-ят (third person plural) -> говор- (present-future stem)
  • сказать (“to tell”, infinitive) -> скаж-ут (third person plural) -> скаж- (present-future stem)

The grammatical term "person" refers to those who take part in speech either directly or indirectly. In Russian, verb endings indicate person and number of the verb.

The first person verbs designate that the action is being performed by a speaker, as in:

  • В свободное время я читаю книги, общаюсь с друзьями, слушаю музыку, или просто лежу на диване.
Here the verbs читаю (“I read”), общаюсь ( “I converse”), слушаю (“I listen”), and лежу ( “I lie”) mean that the person who is speaking performs the actions.

The second person verbs designate that the action is being performed by a collocutor.

Ты, волна моя, волна!
Ты пуглива и вольна;
Плещешь ты, куда захочешь,
Ты морские камни точишь,
Топишь берег ты земли,
Подымаешь корабли -
Не губи ты нашу душу:
Выплесни ты нас на сушу!

In this excerpt from a poem by Pushkin, the verbs плещешь ("you slpash”), точишь, топишь (“sink”), подымаешь (“raise”), губи (“ruin”), and выплесни (“splash out”) are used to show that the actions are performed by the wave.

The third person designates that the action is being performed by someone or something that is being talked about, i.e. by an indirect participant of speech. For example,

Черёмуха душистая, развесившись, стоит,
А зелень золотистая на солнышке горит.

Here стоит (“it stands”) and горит (“burn”) refer to the object which is spoken about, namely черёмуха (“the cherry tree”).

Aspect / Вид

The Russian verb system is dominated by the concept of aspect. An impressive variety of verbs and their conjugation models can be partly explained by the specifics of the perfective aspect formation: a verb in an imperfective aspect can be supplemented with prefixes с-, со-, про-, по-, о-, об-, etc. (делатьсделать) and suffixes -ну- and -и- (исчезатьисчезнуть, бросатьбросить). Also perfective aspect of a verb can be produced by changing the accent of the word (отреза́тьотре́зать). As a result of the above mentioned processes an additional word with a separate conjugation model can be distinguished.

Both aspects are used in the past and future, the imperative and the infinitive. However, only the imperfective is used in the present tense. The fundamental distinction between the aspects is that the imperfective:

  • focuses on an action in progress: Он пил/пьёт/будет пить молоко – “He was, is, will be drinking milk”
  • denotes frequency of occurrence: Он часто пил, пьёт, будет пить молоко – “He often drank, drinks, will drink milk”

The perfective, by contrast,

  • emphasizes successful completion and result: Я выпил молоко – “I have drunk the milk”, Я выпью молоко – “I shall drink the milk”
  • often denotes the culmination of a process: Она приготовила ужин - “She cooked dinner”
    In this example the culmination of the action, expressed by the perfective “приготовила”, will have been preceded by a process of indeterminate length (она готовила ужин ‘she was cooking dinner’), the completion of which is denoted by the perfective.

The aspects may also distinguish attempted action (imperfective) from successfully completed action (perfective).

  • Он уговаривал (impf.) меня остаться – “He tried to persuade me to stay”
  • Он уговорил (pf.) меня остаться – “He persuaded me to stay”

Some verbs have an imperfective form only:

  • господствовать ‘to dominate’
  • зависеть ‘to depend’
  • изобиловать ‘to abound’
  • наблюдать ‘to observe’
  • находиться ‘to be situated’
  • нуждаться ‘to need’ and etc.

Mood / Наклонение

Indicative mood / изъявительное наклонение

The indicative mood is used to talk about actions which occured in past, occur presently, and will occur in future. For example,

  • Школьник учит уроки. – “The schoolboy is learning his lessons”.
  • Школьник учил уроки. – “The schoolboy was learning his lessons”.
  • Школьник будет учить уроки. – “The schoolboy will be learning his lessons”.

Subjunctive mood / сослагательное наклонение

Verbs of subjunctive mood designate actions which one wants to happen, or just possible ones, under certain circumstances. A sentence containing subjunctive verbs shows that an action has not happen, but it could have happened if certain circumstances took place. Look at an example:

  • Я бы пошёл в кино, если бы у меня был билет. - “I would have gone to the movie, if I had had a ticket”.

Adding the particle "бы" after a past tense verb form (or at any other place in a sentence containing a verb in past tense) forms the subjunctive mood of a verb. The verbs of subjunctive mood change in number:

  • двигался бы - singular
  • двигались бы – plural

At the same time, singular verbs change in gender.

  • он двигался бы - he would have moved
  • она двигалась бы - she would have moved
  • оно двигалось бы - it would have moved

Imperative mood / повелительное наклонение

The verbs of imperative mood designate inducement to an action, order, appeal, advice or wish.

  • Не ходи туда. – “Don't go there”.
  • Пожалуйста, спойте нам песню. – “Please, sing us a song”.

The verbs of imperative mood change in number (учись - учитесь; читай - читайте). Adding the suffix -и to the base of a future-tense verb forms the singular imperative verb.

  • изогнут --> изогни
  • войдут --> войди

Adding the ending -те to the singular imperative verb form forms the plural imperative verb.

  • войди --> войдите
  • изогни --> изогните

The imperative mood can also be formed with the help of particles пусть, пускай, да.

  • Пускай идут побыстрее. – “Let them go quicker”.
  • Пусть он меня отпустит. – “Let him set me free”.
  • Да скажи ты ей где лежит книга. – “Well, tell her where the book is”.

Tense / Время

Present tense / Настоящее время

Russian verbs have six forms in the present tense: 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person, all of which can be singular or plural. The verb ending tells us the point of view (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) and the number (singular/plural) of the verb.

There are also impersonal verbs which only have 3rd person forms, for example:

Verbs in the present tense are used to describe habitual or ongoing actions or to make a simple statement of fact.

  • Она сейчас играет - She is playing;
  • Они всегда ходят вместе - They always go together.
When compared to English, the numerous variations like "I am working", "I do work" and "I have been working" do not exist in Russian. Instead, there is only one form similar to the English simple present tense (Subject + Main verb) - я работаю.

Past tense / Прошедшее время

The Russian past tense is used to talk about actions and situations which took place at any point in the past. There is only one past tense form in Russian compared to numerous forms in English. The past tense indicates the gender of the subject in the singular. In the plural the gender is not indicated.

To form the past tense of most Russian verbs remove the ending -ть from infinitive and add -л (for masculine), -ла (for feminine), -ло (for neuter) and -ли (for all plural).

  • When the pronoun "я" is the subject, the verb agrees with the gender of the person, so a boy/man will say: я ходил; a girl/woman will say: я ходила.
  • When the pronoun "ты" is the subject, the verb agrees with the gender of the person addressed as "ты".
  • When the pronoun "мы" or "вы" is the subject, the verb must be plural, even if "вы" is used to address a single person on polite terms.

Future tense / Будущее время

The meaning of the future tense form depends on whether the verb is imperfective or perfective.

The imperfective future is formed with an auxiliary verb "быть". Future tense forms of imperfective verbs are generally used:

  • To name an action that will take place in future, with no consideration on its completion. Мы будем делать это упражнение. - We will work on this exercise.
  • To denote an action in progress that will take place at some moment in the future. В это время я буду смотреть телевизор. - I will be watching TV at that moment.
  • To denote repeated actions in the future. Я буду отправлять ей письма каждый день. - I will send her letters every day.

Future tense forms of perfective verbs are generally used:

  • To name an action that will take place in the future with special emphasis on its completion, result or limit. Мы сделаем это задание. - We will complete this task.
  • To denote momentary actions in the future. После этого я отправлю ей письмо. - After that, I will sent her a letter.

Conjugation types / Типы спряжения

Each Russian verb conjugates in accordance with one of two patterns: the first (or -е-) conjugation and the second (or -и-/-я-) conjugation. The following endings are added to the present-future stems of verbs:

First conjugation endings Second conjugation endings

Some notes:

  1. In first-conjugation verbs “у” replaces “ю” after a consonant (except after “л” and “р” in certain verbs, for example, verbs in “-оть”, слать – “to send” and “стлать” - “to spread).
  2. “ё” replaces “е” under stress.
  3. “у” and “а” replace “ю” and “я” respectively after “ж”, “ч”, “ш” or “щ”.

First conjugation type includes verbs that end on –еть, –ать, –ять, –оть, –уть, –ють, –ть, -ти (греметь, знать, стоять, колоть, идти etc.) as well as several exceptions on –ить: зиждиться, стелить, брить.

First-conjugation verbs subdivide into:

  • Those with stems ending in vowels. First-conjugation verbs with vowel stems comprise most verbs of the first conjugation in -ать/-ять (including all verbs in -авать, -евать,-ивать, -овать, -увать, -ывать), many in -еть and some in -ить,-уть, -ыть.
    голосовать (“to vote”)бить (“to strike”)мыть (“to wash”)
    я голосуюя бьюя мою
    ты голосуешьты бьёшьты моешь
    он голосуетон бьётон моет
    мы голосуеммы бьёммы моем
    вы голосуетевы бьётевы моете
    они голосуютони бьютони моют
  • Those with stems ending in consonants. Their present-future and infinitive stems may coincide: гнуть ‘to bend’ - гну, гнёшь, рвать ‘to tear’ - рву, рвёшь; or differ: брать ‘to take’ - беру, берёшь, жить ‘to live’ - живу, живёшь, взять ‘to take’ возьму, возьмёшь.
Second conjugation type includes verbs ending on –ить (говорить, любить, просить) and exceptions on –еть and –ать: видеть, обидеть, ненавидеть, зависеть, терпеть, смотреть, вертеть, дышать, слышать, гнать, держать. Second-conjugation verbs conjugate as follows:

Verbs in -ить Verbs in -еть Verbs in -ать Verbs in -ять
‘to speak’‘to look’‘to knock’‘to stand’
я говорюсмотрюстучустою
ты говоришьсмотришьстучишьстоишь
он говоритсмотритстучитстоит
мы говоримсмотримстучимстоим
вы говоритесмотритестучитестоите
они говорятсмотрятстучатстоят

A consistent feature of the second conjugation is the mutation of the consonant in the first-person singular of the present tense and future perfective of verbs in -ить and -еть. This is regular for all second conjugation verbs with stems ending in -б-, -в-, -д-, -з-, -с-, -т-, -ф- (verbs in -ить only), -м, -п- and -ст- (verbs in -ить and -еть). For example:

  • с : ш – просить (“to ask”) – я прошу, ты просишь…
  • т:ч – платить (“to pay”) – я плачу, ты платишь…..
  • п: пл – топить (“to heat”) – я топлю, ты топишь
  • б: ж – будить (“to awaken”) – я бужу, ты будишь
  • з:ж – возить (“to convey”) – я вожу, ты возишь

A number of verbs conform to none of the above patterns, or combine elements of both conjugations. They include: хотеть, бежать and чтить. In addition there are verbs with a special endings system: быть, есть and дать, they do not refer to any of the conjugation types.

‘to run’‘to eat’‘to want’‘to give’‘to honour’
я бегуемхочудамчту
ты бежишьешьхочешьдашьчтишь
он бежитестхочетдастчтит
мы бежимедимхотимдадимчтим
вы бежитеедитехотитедадитечтите
они бегутедятхотятдадутчтут/чтят

The verb быть uses a different stem for the past and future (and no stem in the present), but the individual forms are not irregular. The past tense forms are был, была, было, были and the negative past forms не был, не была, не было, не были. The conjugation in the future tense is regular: 1sg - буду, 2sg - будешь, 3sg - будет, 1pl - будем, 2pl - будете, 3pl - будут.

Reflexive Verbs / Возвратные глаголы

Reflexive verbs are formed by simply adding “ся” or “сь” to the regular verb. We add “сь” when the verb form ends in a vowel and “ся” when it ends in a consonant. For example: одевать (to dress) –> одеваться – (to dress oneself), but воспроизвести (to reproduce) –> воспроизвестись (to be reproduced).

Reflexive verbs can express several meanings.

First of all, there are truly reflexive verbs: the subject and the object refer to the same thing or person (the context in which one would use ‘-self’ in English). Compare the normal and reflexive forms below:

  • Я одеваю Анну - I am dressing Anna.
  • Я одеваюсь - I am dressing myself.

Quite similar to the use above is the reciprocal meaning. In English this use is normally translated as ‘each other’:

  • Мы встретились в кафе - We met (each other) at the café.
  • Мы поцеловались - We kissed (each other).

There are also intransitive verbs which by their very nature have no object. In Russian these verbs normally use the reflexive form. Here are some examples:

  • Улыбаться - to smile
  • Смеяться - to laugh
  • Надеяться - to hope, to wish

Some transitive verbs (like ‘open’, ‘close’, ‘begin’, ‘finish’, ‘continue’) can be used in an intransitive manner, and the reflexive form is used in that case:

  • Иван открыл дверь - Ivan opened the door.
  • Дверь открылась - The door opened (itself).

  • Иван начинает фильм - Ivan starts the film.
  • Фильм начинается - The film begins.

The same concept applies to verbs that are used to indicate a permanent state. Because the verb is used without an object it can take the reflexive form:

  • Собака кусается - The dog bites.

Russian speakers also commonly use reflexive verbs in impersonal speech to express feelings or desires: the person affected is in the dative case (or omitted), commonly “мне” (to me). You can often translate this to English as “I feel”, “I feel like”, “I like”, “I would like”. Certain verbs are naturally impersonal, others are used in this way to soften their meaning. Notice that using the impersonal form softens ‘I want’ to ‘I would like’.

  • Мне нравится Москва - I like Moscow.
  • Мне хочется в театр - I would like to go to the theatre.
  • Мне не сидится дома. - I don't like to stay home.