What Everybody Ought to Know About Russian Verb Conjugation
Believe it or not, Russian verb conjugation isn’t as complicated as you’d think.
Sure, the case system can be challenging, but look at the big picture. Consider that conjugation in some other languages (*cough* French *cough*) is way more of a thing than in Russian.
Not only that, but there are plenty of easy and fun ways that you can practice Russian verb conjugation until it sticks.
In this post, we’ll go over the basics of Russian conjugation, and we’ll also take a quick look at resources and Russian verbs in general.
- Resources for Practicing Russian Verb Conjugation
- Prime Aspect: Russian Perfective vs. Imperfective Verbs
- It’s a Whole Mood: Forming the Russian Indicative
- Just Do It: Forming the Russian Imperative
- Would Too! Forming the Russian Conditional
- Where to Go from Here
Resources for Practicing Russian Verb Conjugation
Once you get started with Russian verbs, you’ll want to have the means to hone your skills. Here are a few resources that should help.
- Cooljugator Cool Russian Verb Conjugator. This neat little resource is much more than a simple conjugator. In addition to conjugation tables, it also includes example sentences for each verb. You can explore the most common verbs from the above link or search for your own. Since the tables are set up vertically, it’s easy to quiz yourself as you scroll down.
- FluentU. It’s important to understand that verbs are a lot more than their conjugations. In this post, however, we’re going to focus heavily on the mechanics of conjugation in order to zip through more material faster. This will help you get to the point where you can start recognizing, forming and trying out verbs in context across moods, tenses and aspects (another concept we’ll get to in a moment) with a resource like FluentU.
Through interactive captions with grammar notes that identify Russian conjugations as you naturally encounter them, it helps you actively and meaningfully learn verbs, without rote memorization.
- Master Russian Verbs. This is another page that’s handy for checking your conjugation knowledge, especially if you don’t have a Russian verb book. While this one doesn’t have examples, it’s very well-organized and easy to understand. You can look up verbs alphabetically here. Master Russian also offers a series of lessons on verbs that you may find helpful. Another useful thing about Master Russian is that it lists verbs in perfective and imperfective pairs. In a moment, you’ll see why that’s convenient.
Prime Aspect: Russian Perfective vs. Imperfective Verbs
This post is all about splashing into conjugation without worrying about the concepts behind the conjugations, but aspect is one concept that can’t entirely be avoided.
Essentially, Russian verbs fall into two categories: perfective and imperfective.
A perfective verb indicates a completed action, often emphasizing the result of that action, while an imperfective verb indicates an incomplete or ongoing action. Often, Russian verbs come in perfective and imperfective pairs.
The difference between the imperfective and perfective verb in a pair is often discernible by an added prefix or suffix, or some other change.
Here are a few examples:
Imperfective: понимать / Perfective: понять (to understand)
Imperfective: говорить / Perfective: поговорить (to talk, have a talk)
Imperfective: делать / Perfective: сделать (to do, make)
You can see that there are similarities that pair each set of verbs together, but slight differences that distinguish them. This will all make more sense as we start to explore some verb pairs through conjugation.
It’s a Whole Mood: Forming the Russian Indicative
Russian conjugations are divided into tenses and moods. The three tenses (present, future and past) are all part of the indicative mood.
No Perfectives Allowed: The Russian Present Tense
Only imperfective verbs are used in the Russian present tense.
In the present tense, verbs fall into two conjugation categories. Which category a verb falls into can often be predicted by its infinitive. As you may already know, the infinitive of a verb is the basic form of the verb as it is before conjugated. In the example verbs given in the last section, all the verbs are shown in their infinitive form.
1st Conjugation Verbs
Usually, verbs whose infinitives end in -ать, -еть, -уть and -ти are first conjugation verbs. To take one of the above verbs as an example, делать is a first conjugation imperfective verb.
When conjugated in the present, Russian verbs have to agree with the person (first, second, third) and number (singular or plural) of the subject. Here’s what this looks like for делать:
Я делаю — I do
Ты делаешь — You (singular, informal) do
Она делает — She does
Мы делаем — We do
Вы делаете — You (plural, formal) do
Они делают — They (plural) do
Since there’s no getting around the fact that this is a grammar post, let’s add a bit of fun by looking at an example of this verb in a present tense conjugation from a Soviet-era cartoon. In the cartoon, a mother hen returns home from a walk and realizes she has lost one of her chicks. The chick, lost in the woods, soon runs into a frog, who says to him:
Эй, ты! Ты чего тут делаешь? (Hey, you! What are you doing here?)
Now, here’s a look at a slightly different kind of first conjugation verb, идти (to walk, go on foot).
Я иду — I walk
Ты идёшь — You walk
Он идёт — He walks
Мы идём — We walk
Вы идёте — You walk
Они идут — They walk
In the cartoon, after the mother hen discovers her chick is missing, she declares:
Я иду в лес одна. (I’m going into the forest alone.)
(This video is no longer available on the platform but feel free to check out this fun animated FluentU clip on the perfective and imperfective, complete with interactive captions.)
So we have some different possible conjugations for each verb within this category. There are a couple of reasons for these differences:
- The endings beginning with -ю come after a vowel, and the ones beginning with -у come after a consonant.
- An ending beginning with -ё indicates that the ending takes the stressed syllable in the word. For example, if you listen to the pronunciation of the conjugated verb for the third person singular of идти, идёт, you’ll hear that the stress is on the second syllable. The third person singular делает, however, takes the stress on the first syllable rather than the ending.
In each case, the conjugated endings are added onto the verb stem for the present tense. You can determine this stem for a verb by lopping the ending off of its third person plural form. Therefore, the stem for делать is дела-, and the stem for идти is ид-. This rule goes for both first and second conjugation verbs.
You might wonder what the heck the point is of being able to determine a verb stem for conjugation if you have to already have the verb conjugated to do so! Well, as it turns out, this stem will be used for other conjugations too, such as the future and the imperative. So, as the saying goes, keep calm and carry on.
2nd Conjugation Verbs
Usually, verbs whose infinitives end in -ить are second conjugation verbs.
An example of a second conjugation verb is говорить (to talk or speak). Here’s what it looks like conjugated in the present:
Я говорю — I speak
Ты говоришь — You speak
Он говорит — He speaks
Мы говорим — We speak
Вы говорите — You speak
Они говорят — They speak
Он говорит по-русски. (He speaks Russian.)
As you can see, these conjugations actually look really similar to those of the first conjugation verbs. The most notable difference is that е is replaced with и.
Another second conjugation verb that’s conjugated a little differently is учить (to learn). Note: This verb can also mean “to teach” and in that case is used in a grammatically different way that makes the meaning clear.
Я учу — I learn
Ты учишь — You learn
Она учит — She learns
Мы учим — We learn
Вы учите — You learn
Они учат — They learn
Ты учишь русский язык. (You are learning Russian.)
You can see that the only endings that differ between the two sets are the endings for я and for они. The determining factor here is the consonant that the endings follow. The consonants г, к, ж, ч, ш and щ are followed by -у and -ат.
While this is how these conjugation groups generally work, be aware that there are exceptions to how the conjugations above are formed, for both groups, as well as additional changes that sometimes take place.
One of the most common additional changes is consonant mutation. This happens when the consonant at the end of a stem is changed to a different consonant when it’s conjugated.
For example, the second conjugation verb ходить (to walk, go on foot) demonstrates consonant mutation:
Я хожу — I walk
Ты ходишь — You walk
Он ходит — He walks
Мы ходим — We walk
Вы ходите — You walk
Они ходят — They walk
Я хожу в школу каждый день. (I walk to school every day.)
As you can see, in the first person singular, the consonant д shifts to ж. In the present tense, this sort of thing happens pretty frequently.
A quick aside: You might be confused, thinking that we already learned the verb for “to walk.” But in Russian, “verbs of motion” take on unidirectional and multidirectional characteristics. идти is to walk as a single action, while ходить is to walk more generally. Don’t worry about this right now if it’s confusing, but it’s hard to avoid verbs of motion altogether, so just know you’ll probably be seeing them again soon.
Back to conjugation! We’re done looking at the basic parts of the present tense. That wasn’t so bad, was it? The above might seem like a lot, but the idea here isn’t necessarily to cram specific information, but rather to gain an understanding of how the conjugations work. Practice will take care of the rest. On to the future!
Seeing Double: The Russian Future Tense
Okay, so the Russian future tense comes in two varieties.
Maybe you’re feeling a bit upset and betrayed right now. I said there were only three tenses, right? Well, technically there are, and the difference between the two types of future tenses is easy. I promise in a minute you’re going to feel better. Watch this.
Compound It! The Compound Future
The Russian compound future is formed by taking an imperfective infinitive and putting a conjugated form of the Russian verb быть (to be) in front of it, like so:
Я буду учить — I will be learning
Ты будешь учить — You will be learning
Она будет учить — She will be learning
Мы будем учить — We will be learning
Вы будете учить —You will be learning
Они будут учить — They will be learning
Она будет учить русский язык. (She will be learning Russian.)
Is that it? Yes. That’s it. Seriously? Yep. All you have to do is memorize the conjugations for that one verb and slap an infinitive on.
This next part is pretty fun, too.
Have Some Perfective! The Simple Future
Finally, perfective verbs. The simple future is basically conjugated like the present tense, but using perfective verbs instead of imperfective ones. For example:
Я поговорю — I will speak
Ты поговоришь — You will speak
Она поговорит — She will speak
Мы поговорим — We will speak
Вы поговорите — You will speak
Они поговорят — They will speak
Я поговорю с ней. (I will speak with her.)
See how that works? The perfective part of a verb pair is generally going to be conjugated the same as its imperfective half. Again, the endings used here are—and I can’t stress this enough—the same as those of the present tense.
If you were to take all the conjugations above and slice off the по- prefix, which is part of the perfective verb поговорить (to speak, to have a talk), what you would be left with is the imperfective verb говорить conjugated in the present tense, exactly as it is in the present tense section further up in this post.
In other words, it’s the fact that the verb is perfective that causes this conjugation to indicate the future rather than the present.
Note: The perfective verb сказать is often mentioned in conjunction with говорить along with поговорить, and is considered another perfective counterpart of говорить, but these verbs all have different nuances of meaning. Сказать has to do with expressing or conveying information at a specific point in time and is like “to say” or “to tell.”
Now that you understand how perfective verbs function, they probably seem a lot less abstract and a lot more useful.
Hindsight is 20/20: The Russian Past Tense
The past tense is pretty simple, too. In the past, we can conjugate both perfective and imperfective verbs. To put any verb in the past, you first need to find the infinitive stem. Note that this is different from the stem we looked at above that’s used to form the present and future.
Infinitives end in -ть, -чь or -ти. All you have to do to get the infinitive stem is to drop whichever of those three endings applies.
With the imperfect verb работать (to work), for example, we drop the -ть and end up with работа-. That’s our infinitive stem.
To form the past, we take that stem and add the endings -л, -ла, -ло and -ли.
But that’s only four endings, right? Where are the other two? Well, in the past, our conjugation configuration (say that ten times fast) looks a little different.
While for the tenses above we conjugated for person and number, here we’re conjugating for gender and number.
So the conjugations with our stem look like this:
Я (masculine) / ты (masculine) / он работал — I/you/he worked
Я (feminine) / ты (feminine) / она работала — I/you/she worked
Оно (neuter) работало — It worked
Мы / вы / они работали — We/you/they worked
Они работали в школе. (They worked at the school.)
As with the future tense, it’s important to remember that choosing a perfective or an imperfective verb will determine your meaning. Since работать is an imperfective verb, the conjugations above have the meaning of having worked habitually or continually over a period of time in the past.
By contrast, if you said “Я поговорил с ним” (I talked to him), using the perfective verb поговорить, this would imply that you had a specific conversation with him at some point in the past, like last week.
Now, below is just a very brief look at conjugations used in the imperative and conditional moods. This overview doesn’t do them justice as far as explaining usage, but this is really just to show you the general rules for conjugation.
Just Do It: Forming the Russian Imperative
The imperative mood is what you use to give commands. You can use it with both perfective and imperfective verbs.
To form it, you take the present/future verb stem that we went over above and slap on й/йте, и/ите or -ь/-ьте for informal and formal (or singular and plural) respectively.
If the stem ends in a vowel, you add on й/йте. As we know, the verb работать gives us the stem работа-, which ends in a vowel. So we have:
Работай! — Work!
If the stem ends in a consonant and the first person present/future singular puts stress on the ending, or if the stem ends in two consonants, it takes и/ите.
The verb помнить (to remember) gives us the stem помн-. Я помню (I understand) is said with the stress on the first syllable. But the stem ends in two consonants, so the verb takes и/ите in the imperative:
Помни! — Remember!
If the stem ends in a consonant, but the first person present/future singular doesn’t have the stress on the ending, it takes -ь/-ьте.
Я отвечу (I will answer) uses the first person singular of the verb ответить (to answer). The stress is on the middle syllable rather than the last one, so the verb takes -ь/-ьте in the imperative:
Ответь! — Answer!
If you’re familiar with the imperative in other languages, you might be wondering how you would form the conjugation for “let’s [verb].”
All you have to do is grab the first person plural formation from the present/future: We already know that Мы поговорим is “We will talk,” therefore:
Поговорим — Let’s talk
There are irregularities and exceptions, but the above should give you a strong idea of what imperatives look like and how to recognize and form them.
Would Too! Forming the Russian Conditional
To conjugate for the conditional, all you have to do is add the particle бы to the past tense. Yep, that’s it.
Он был бы — He would be
Она была бы — She would be
Оно было бы — It would be
Они были бы — They would be
This is an extremely rudimentary idea of how the Russian conditional actually works, which is something we don’t have time to get into in this post.
The important thing to understand about the conditional for the purposes of conjugation is that from studying the past tense, you basically already have the information you need to form it.
Where to Go from Here
You should understand that the above is not a complete guide to Russian conjugation and barely scratches the surface when it comes to usage. If you’re using this post as a starting point, you still have a lot of work to do.
Besides brushing up on the above, along with irregularities, usage and getting some practice with real-world materials, you’ll want to look into the following:
- Verbs of motion. We touched on this a bit with ходить and идти, but there’s a lot more to explore. Here are some of the most common verbs of motion.
- The particle -ся, which can be attached to some Russian verbs to make them reflexive or otherwise affect meaning.
And as you’re practicing your verbs, consider that you probably won’t learn all your conjugations through memorization and strict applications of rules. You’ll rather come to recognize moods and tenses as they come up, then recreate them yourself.
Learning verbs, or any part of grammar, is never a “one and done” type deal.
But conjugations are powerful. They unlock the doors to meaning and ultimately help you get the language practice you need.
So embrace your inner verb nerd.
Elisabeth Cook is a freelance writer who blogs at Lit All Over.