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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting a Little Verb Tense

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??? ???????...: suddenly grabbed/grabs

Way back in Russian 101, the language's verb system was presented as a good news-bad news situation. The bad news was aspect, and the good news was the supposedly simple system of tenses. None of the English nonsense of a dozen tenses with preposterous names -- pluperfect, indeed! -- but just three tenses: past, present and future.

For example, if you take the verb pair ??????/????????? (to read), there is a compound future -- ? ???? ?????? -- that denotes a continuous action in the future, and a simple future -- ? ???????? -- that denotes a time-bound action in the future. Simple, right?

Wrong. What they failed to tell us in Russian 101 is that the future tense can sometimes be used in the past and present.

I came across this usage while reading, and since I like grammar -- along with spinach and broccoli -- I got out my favorite Russian grammar book and spent a happy hour on the couch traveling back to the future.

One of the most common non-future uses of the future tense is in what are called "generalized" sentences. Often, this kind of sentence can be translated with "can": ?????? ???? ??????? ?? ???? ??????. (Only Vasya can answer that question.) ????????? ?? ???????. (You can't get back your youth.) It is often used in the negative to give a rather emphatic quality to a statement: ? ????? ?? ????? ???? ????! (I just can't find my glasses anywhere!)

Another common usage is the future tense with ???, which indicates some unexpected and sudden action in the past or present. ? ??? ?? ?????, ? ????? ???-?? ??? ??????? ???? ?? ????. (I was walking down the street when, suddenly, someone grabbed my arm.) This kind of action is comic-book sudden, and you almost want to add some sound effects: ?? ????? ????????, ? ????????? -- ? ????? ??? ???????, ??? ????????. (He was sitting peacefully, half-dozing, when suddenly Wham! he jumped up and screamed.)

Other curious -- to us English speakers -- uses of the non-future future in the past and present are mostly found in literature. If you are midway through "War and Peace" in the original -- a typical leisure activity in the expat community -- it may be helpful to know that the pseudo-future is used to denote habitual actions in the present or past. Take this bit from a Chekhov story: ???? ? ???? ???????? ??????????? -- ?????? ?? ????? ?????????. ?????? ? ???????, ????? ? ?????? ... (He had a strange habit of going from apartment to apartment. He'd stop in to see the teacher, sit down, and say nothing.) Here -- if this dose of pure grammar hasn't got you snoring -- you of course noticed that Chekhov has ?????? in the present, the action in the future -- but it all takes place in the past.

This use of the future tense is also found in constructions that give a passage greater immediacy and vividness: ???? ???? ????? ? ?????. ????? ?? ??????????? ? ??????, ?? ??????. (The night was quiet and clear. The wind would rustle the bushes and then would die down.)

The most unusual literary usage -- from the point of view of an English speaker -- is the combination of ?????? (it would happen) and the simple future tense, which is used to show recurring action in the past. The first time you stumble upon the archaic usage ?????? ????? (literally "it would happen I will go"), you're ready to give up on Russian forever. ?????? ??????? ? ???, ? ????? ??????? ??? ????????? ? ?????? ???????? ??????. (You could go into the woods and come back a half an hour later with a basket full of mushrooms.)

To which you respond: ????? ?? ?????! (I just don't get it!) Give me the pluperfect any day.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.