Russian Language Grammar

    Past Tense

Formation of the Past Tense

The past tense is characterized by gender and number. There is no dis­tinction regarding person.

Regular Formation

Most verbs form their past tense by dropping the suffix -ть of the infinitive, and adding:

-л 

for the masculine

-ла 

for the feminine

-ло 

for the neuter

-ли 

for the plural

Example:

писа-ть

Masculine 

Я (ты, он) писал

Feminine 

Я (ты, она) писала

Neuter 

Оно писало

Plural 

Мы (вы, они) писали

Many verbs which form their present tense irregularly are regular in the past:

INFINITIVE 

PRESENT 

PAST 

писать    (to write)

пишу

писал

жить    (to live)

живу

жил

брать   (to take)

беру

брал

петь    (to sing)

пою

пел

Irregular Formation

The irregularities are limited to a few classes:

1.   Verbs in -ти, -сть, or -зть either have an л in the past masculine, or do not:

(a)   They do, if the stem of the present (the future, for perfective verbs) ends in д or т.

Examples:

INFINITIVE 

PRESENT 

PAST 

вести  (to lead)

вед-у

вёл, вела, вело, вели

мести  (to sweep)

мeт-у

мёл, мела, мело, мели

класть  (to put)

клад-у

клал, клала, клало, клали

(b)   They do not, if the stem of the present (the future, for perfective verbs) does not end in д or т.

INFINITIVE 

PRESENT 

PAST 

нести    (to carry)

нес-у

нёс, несла, несло, несли

лезть     (to climb)

лез-у

лез, лезла, лезло, лезли

2.   The past tense of verbs in -чь ends in -г or -к in the masculine, depending on the stem of the present.

INFINITIVE 

PRESENT 

PAST 

печь    (to bake)

пек-у

пёк, пекла, пекло, пекли

мочь   (to be able)

мог-у

мог, могла, могло, могли

Note:   The verb жечь (to burn) drops the -е in the feminine, neuter, and plural, in the past:   жёг, жгла, жгло, жгли.

3.   Verbs ending in -ереть in the infinitive drop -еть in the past:

тереть   (to rub)

тёр, тёрла, тёрло, тёрли

умереть    (to die)

умер, умерла, умерло, умерли

 4.   Verbs in -нуть

(a)   As a general rule, the verbs ending in -нуть, in the perfective infinitive only, keep -ну in the past, that is, they form their past regularly :

Infinitive

IMPERFECTIVE 

PERFECTIVE 

PAST 

кричать    (to cry)

крикнуть

крикнул, -ла, -ло,-ли

толкать     (to push)

толкнуть

толкнул, -ла, -ло, -ли

 Exceptions:

IMPERFECTIVE 

PERFECTIVE 

 

PAST 

воздвигать

воздвигнуть

to set up, to erect

воздвиг, -ла, -ло, -ли

достигать

достигнуть

to attain, to reach

достиг, -ла, -ло, -ли

исчезать

исчезнуть

to disappear

исчез, -ла, -ло, -ли

отвергать

отвергнуть

to reject

отверг, -ла, -ло, -ли

привыкать

привыкнуть

to get used to

привык, -ла, ло, -ли

проникать

проникнуть

to penetrate

проник, -ла, -ло, -ли

умолкать

умолкнуть

to become silent

умолк, -ла, -ло, -ли

and a few others, including verbs of the same root as those above: свергать, свергнуть – to overthrow; отвыкать, отвыкнуть – to lose the habit.

(b)   Verbs which end in -нуть both in the imperfective and perfective, discard -ну in the past.  For example:

Imperfective

Perfective 

INFINITIVE 

PAST 

INFINITIVE 

PAST 

мокнуть  (to get wet)

мок, -ла, -ло, -ли

промокнуть

промок, -ла, -ло, -ли

мёрзнуть  (to freeze)

мёрз, -ла, -ло, -ли

замёрзнуть

замёрз, -ла, -ло, -ли

Exceptions:

Imperfective

Perfective 

INFINITIVE 

PAST 

INFINITIVE 

PAST 

гнуть  (to bend)

гнул, -ла, -ло, -ли

согнуть

согнул, -ла, -ло,-ли

тянуть  (to pull)

тянул, -ла, -ло, -ли

вытянуть

вытянул, -ла, -ло, -ли

5.   In the following verbs the stem of the past has a -б.

грести  (to row):

грёб, -ла, -ло, -ли

скрести  (to scrape, to scrub):

скрёб, -ла, -ло, -ли

ушибить  (to bruise, to hurt):

ушиб,-ла,-ло,-ли

ошибиться  (to make a mistake):

ошибся, -лась, -лось, -лись

6.   The past tense of расти (to grow) is:   рос, росла, росло, росли.

7.   The past tense of идти (to go on foot) is:   шёл, шла, шло, шли.

Note:  The above applies to verbs of the same root, such as зарасти – to be overgrown (with);   дойти – to go as far as;   уйти – to go away.

Usage of the Past Tense: Imperfective and Perfective

The use of the proper aspect is determined not only by the basic rules. Often, style or fine shades of meaning play a role. It should be kept in mind that the many deviations from normal usage, which are discussed below, are not cut-and-dried rules. Thus, if a Russian will often say "Он просил вас прийти" ("Не asked you to come") or "Я сегодня завтракал в ресторане" ("Today I had lunch at a restaurant"), a student (in case of doubt) may well abide by the basic rules and say: "Он попросил вас прийти," "Я сегодня позавтракал в ресторане."

1.   The Perfective aspect is sometimes used in the past tense, when one may have expected the Imperfective. This happens when referring to the repetition of identical actions, especially with sentences containing the word раз:

Он несколько раз опоздал на урок.

Не was late several times for the lesson.

Она два раза перечитала его письмо.

She read his letter over twice.

But, without the word "раз":

Он всегда опаздывал на урок.

Не was always late for the lesson.

Она часто перечитывала его письмо.

She often read his letter over.

2. The usage of the Imperfective instead of the expected Perfective is more frequent. This may occur:

(a)   When there is a shade of difference in the meaning of the two aspects, such as in: бежать (imperf.) – to run, to flee; побежать (perf.) – to run; видеть  (imperf.) – to  see;  увидеть (perf.) – to  see, to  notice;  хотеть (imperf.) – to wish, захотеть (perf.) – to feel like (suddenly);   слышать (imperf.) – to hear, to learn;  услышать (perf.) – to hear.

Они бежали с поля битвы.

They fled from the battlefield.

Я видел его сегодня на улице.

I saw him today on the street.

Он хотел прийти в пять.

He wanted to come at five.

Я слышал, что они вернулись.

I heard that they have come back.

(b)   With some verbs which intrinsically do not contain the idea of completion, and where the distinction between the imperfective and perfective is not sharp. These verbs frequently have the prefix пo- in the perfective, and imply a duration of an action; for instance: (по-)гулять – to walk; (пo-)спать – to sleep; (пo-)сидеть – to sit; (пo-)стоять – to stand; (по-, про-)жить – to live; (подо-)ждать – to wait; (про-)служить – to serve, to be employed;  (по-)работать – to work.

Also, with a few others, pertaining to eating or drinking, where the idea of completion is not stressed: (по-)завтракать – to have lunch (breakfast); (по-)обедать – to have dinner; (по-)ужинать – to have supper; (вы-)пить  – to drink, etc.

Examples:

Сегодня мы гуляли в парке.

Today we walked in the park.

Вы хорошо спали?

Did you sleep well?

Я ждал его минут десять.

I waited for him for about ten minutes.

Вы уже завтракали?

Have you had lunch already?

Я ужинал в русском ресторане.

I had dinner at a Russian restaurant.

Сегодня мы пили кофе без мо­лока.

Today we had coffee without milk.

(c)   With verbs pertaining to communications between people, such as: (на-)писать – to write; (по-)звонить – to ring; отвечать (ответить) – to answer; говорить (сказать) – to say; (по-)жаловаться – to complain; встречать (встретить) – to meet; докладывать (доложить) – to report; (по-)просить – to ask (for)

Я ему писал насчёт этого.

I wrote him about it.

Мне кто-нибудь звонил?

Did anybody telephone me?

– Да, – отвечал он…

‘Yes’, he replied (often in literature)

Он говорил, что он скоро уез­жает.

He said that he was leaving soon.

Он жаловался на меня дирек­тору.

He complained to the director about me.

Вы их встречали на вокзале?

Did you meet them at the station?

Сегодня Иванов докладывал.

Today Ivanov gave a report.

Он просил вас прийти утром.

He asked you to come in the morning.

Also, with the verb читать (про-).

Вы читали газету?

Have you read the paper?

      These expressions are not as precise, as completed, compared to the more "business-like" below:

Я написал ему про это.

I have written him about it.

Почему вы не позвонили сразу?

Why didn't you call right away?

Он не ответил на письмо.

He did not answer the letter.

Она прочитала письмо.

She read the letter (through).

(d)   With negated verbs. These verbs have anyway a tendency toward the imperfective, but this is especially true for the verbs of group (b) above. Here, the imperfective would be used more frequently – even if not always (as with ждать, подождать):

Мы сегодня не гуляли.

We did not walk today.

Она не спала.

She did not sleep.

Он не работал в субботу.

He did not work on Saturday.

Я долго не ждал.

I did not wait for long.

Почему вы не подождали меня?

Why didn’t you wait for me?

With many other negated verbs, both aspects are used:

Я не брал ваших денег.

I did not take your money. (imperf.)

Он ничего не купил.

He did not buy anything. (perf.)

The difference in the usage of one aspect or the other may be illustrated by the following examples:

Я ему ничего не говорил.

I didn’t tell him anything. (could imply "it so happened")

Я ему ничего не сказал.

I did not tell him anything. (could imply "intentionally")

Я их не приглашал, а они пришли.

I didn't invite them but they came.

Я их не пригласил.

I did not invite them (intentionally).

Нет, он не приходил сегодня.

No, he didn't come today (he didn't visit us, didn't show up).

Она ему позвонила, но он не пришёл.

She telephoned him but he didn't come.