37 Complete Reading: Perfective Verbs


I’ve already mentioned that some Croatian verbs stand for accomplishments, while most verbs stand for processes (there are more types, but these two are the most common). This distinction – an essential feature of Croatian verbs – is called verbal aspect (or grammatical aspect).

The following two sentences illustrate the essence of verbal aspect:

Jučer sam čitala knjigu. I was reading the book yesterday. (some of it)

Jučer sam pročitala knjigu. I read the book yesterday. (completed it)

Now, the second sentence means that you completed the reading yesterday. You could, in principle, have started earlier, but the essential part, the accomplishment, was done yesterday. And this is constantly expressed in Croatian: whether there was a completion of the action or not. Using the first sentence implies there was some reading, but not if you completed it or not.

In previous versions of this ‘course’, I translated pročitati as read through. But that’s not accurate: read through implies careful, close reading, when you pay close attention, or look for errors. The verb pročitati has no such implications – it just implies the reading is completed. You made it. Reached the goal.

Therefore, one English verb (read) corresponds to two Croatian verbs: čitati and pročitati. So, how to make perfective verbs?

Some perfective verbs are obtained from impf. verbs just by adding a prefix. Unfortunately, not all verbs get the same prefix. Some get po-, for instance:

imperfective verb perfective
jesti (jede) eat pojesti (pojede)
piti (pije) drink popiti (popije)
slati (šalje) send poslati (pošalje)

Since it’s important to remember both verbs, the only option is to remember verbs in pairs. I will indicate them with the impf. verb on the left, perf. on the right, separated by a tilde (~):

čitati  ~  pročitati  read
piti (pije)  ~  popiti (popije)  drink

To simplify things even further, if a perfective verb differs just by a prefix, I’ll show just the prefix, e.g.:

čitati ~ pro- read piti (pije) ~ po- drink

If the prefix has the stress mark, as above, it means that the stress will be on the prefix in the Standard pronunciation. However, for almost all verbs, it will never be on a prefix in the ‘western’ pronunciation: it will stay on the same syllable as in the unprefixed verb.

Some verbs make their perfective verbs by prefixing na-:

crtati ~ na- draw, sketch
puniti ~ na- fill
slikati ~ na- paint (image)
hraniti ~ na- («) feed
pisati (piše) ~ na- («) write
učiti ~ na- («) learn

The stress in nahraniti, napisati and naučiti doesn’t move to the prefix in the infinitive, but (only in the Standard pronunciation!) it does move in the present tense: therefore, their present tense forms are nahrani, napiše and nauči. I will, as usual, indicate such shift in the present tense with just a («).

Others use o- or pro-:

brijati (brije) ~ o- shave
prati (pere) ~ o- (») wash
buditi ~ pro- («) waken
gutati ~ pro- swallow

The stress – both Standard and ‘western’ – in oprati moves one syllable to the right in the present tense: opere; I will abbreviate such stress shift with a (»), as above.

Other pairs have more complicated ‘relationships’. Here are the main types of pairs (besides prefixing pairs). A common type involves a change of verb ending:

bacati ~ baciti throw primati ~ primiti receive

Within this scheme, most pairs always change the final consonant before the ending:

plaćati ~ platiti pay
prihvaćati ~ prihvatiti accept ®
vraćati ~ vratiti return

(It’s worth remembering that, in such pairs, the impf. verb most often has a Croatian-specific consonant, while the perf. verb has an ordinary consonant.)

Many verbs in this scheme also change the vowel before the final consonant, always a vs. o:

odgađati («) ~ odgoditi («) postpone
otvarati («) ~ otvoriti («) open

Another scheme, used by many pairs, is that impf. verbs have -ava-, and the perf. verbs just -i- or -a- (some pairs have change of consonant as well):

pokušavati («) ~ pokušati try
ukrašavati ~ ukrasiti («) decorate

Finally, there’s a very common scheme – likely, including the highest number of verb pairs – where impf. verbs have -iva-, which changes in pres-3 to -uje, while perf. verbs just -i- or -a- (again, some pairs have change of the consonant before all these endings):

odlučivati (odlučuje) ~ odlučiti («) decide
uspoređivati (uspoređuje) ~ usporediti («) compare

Since such impf. verbs tend to be long, I’ll often list them just by showing change in the variable part, and the constant and variable part will be split by a thin vertical line ():

Shorthand for -ivati/-uje verbs
instead of uspoređivati (uspoređuje)
I’ll write just uspoređivati (-uje «)

The symbol « will be there to remind you of the stress shift in the present tense, which here applies to both Standard and ‘western’ stress patterns.

There’s no need to learn these schemes now: they are here just to show you what lies ahead. There’s no simple rule how to make a perfective verb – the pairs must be learned, but most of them fall into the small number of schemes above.

When should you use perf. verbs?

Perfective verbs are almost never used in the true present tense, for an ongoing action. However, it is possible to use perf. verbs in the present tense – if we use the present tense to describe things that happened in the past and will happen in the future, especially when adverbs često often and ponekad sometimes are used:

Ponekad napišemnapisati pismo i ne pošaljemposlati ga3m/n A. Sometimes I write a letter and don’t send it.

Why have I used perf. verbs, e.g. poslati (pošalje)? Because sending is not something where any progress matters (e.g. even reading a few pages from a book can matter). Sending is normally done in one go, not split into parts. So it’s only important that the action was not completed. The first sentence talks about accomplishments. Letters are completed, but not sent.

For most verb pairs, in the past tense, perf. verbs are usually used, unless the action was interrupted, you describe what you were doing at some moment, or it’s not clear what the outcome was. Also, you can tell how long something was happening only if you use an imperfective verb, e.g. these adverbs of time can be used only with imperfective verbs:

dugo for a long time kratko for a short time

For example:

je noćfem..
The night fell.

Kiša je dugo padala. ‘The rain was falling’ for a long time.

Kiša je palapasti
‘The rain fell’.

Perfective verbs are so often used in the past tense that some people would answer that the past form of the verb padati is pao! Another example:

Platio sam piće. I paid for the drink. (done)

Plaćam piće. I’m paying for the drink. (right now or about to do it)

If you want to express that something has happened moments ago, you can use the adverb sad(a) now with a perf. verb in the past tense:

Sad sam se probudio. I’ve just woken up.

Since perf. verbs stand for accomplishments, you must often tell exactly what you did, even if you don’t have to with the impf. verb:

Čitao sam. I was reading (something).

Pročitao sam knjigu. I have read the book. (must say what)

You should use perf. verbs if there’s an indication what was produced, absorbed or consumed, even if the amount is not exact. In the sentence #1, it’s not clear at all how much is consumed each time, the action is very generic:

(1) Ponekad pijempiti vino. I drink wine sometimes.

(2) Ponekad popijempopiti malo vina I drink little wine sometimes.

In the sentence #2, it’s stated how much is consumed, so we use a perf. verb (here both verbs are in the present tense, since we’re talking about occasional events; but this applies to all tenses).

Whenever there’s a focus on action – not on what was actually accomplished – you should use impf. verbs in Croatian:

We were building houses. → impf. in Croatian

We built three houses. → perf. in Croatian

The first sentence has emphasis on action: what the result was isn’t said, what was successfully built – if anything! Such a sentence will use an impf. verb in Croatian. But the second sentence tells exactly what was accomplished, and such a sentence uses a perf. verb in Croatian. Since people talk about both – what they were doing and what they accomplished – Croatian (as all Slavic languages, from Russian to Czech) treats it as different things, and has a different verb for each of them.

What about we built houses? If you imply that the houses mentioned were really completed, it’s perf. in Croatian.

For example, if you like some activity – you would normally use an impf. verb:

Volim crtati. I like to draw.

Sometimes, two verbs that make a pair are different in English as well:

Puno sam učila. I studied a lot.

Puno sam naučila. I learned a lot.

There’s another very rough rule: impf. verbs often correspond to English continuous tenses (I was reading) while perf. verbs often correspond to simple tenses or perfect tenses (I read, I’ve read). For example:

I was getting hungry. → impf. in Croatian

I got hungry. → perf. in Croatian

A major exception to this rule is that states, usually represented with non-continuous tenses in English (I am, I live, I love, I sleep), in Croatian always use impf. verbs.

Also, although there are perfective counterparts of gledati watch and slušati listen – for example, you just prefix po- to gledati – they are much rarer than you would expect. Normally only impf. verbs are used to say or ask if someone watched or listened to something.

When you use verbs with negation, the negated perf. verbs state that the action was not complete, but it might be ongoing:

Nisam čitao knjigu. I haven’t read the book (at all).

Nisam pročitao knjigu. I haven’t read the book (completed it).

While the first sentence means you haven’t read the book at all, the second only says you haven’t read the book in its entirety, haven’t completed it. It’s not stated if you have read any part of it or not. So, both answers are possible:

Jesi li pročitao knjigu? Have you read the book (completed it)?

— Nisam, još je3f A čitam. No, I’m still reading it.

— Nisam ni počeo. I haven’t even started.

The verb početi (počne) is a perf. verb meaning start; it will be explained in the following chapters. The word ni emphasizes the negation; it will be explained in 67 Only, Except, Too: Inclusion and Exclusion.

If you use the present tense for a future action, e.g. I’m leaving tomorrow, this is (like in English) understood as an extension of the present moment, and consequently, impf. verbs must be used. Again, English continuous tenses correspond to Croatian impf. verbs.

Most Romance languages have at least two past tenses (e.g. Spanish has imperfect and preterite, Italian has l’imperfetto and passato prossimo, French has imparfait and passé composé, etc.). It would be tempting to draw a parallel with Croatian impf. and perf. verbs, but unfortunately, it would be wrong! While Spanish imperfect often does correspond to the past tense of Croatian impf. verbs, the preterite can correspond to Croatian impf. verbs as well! For example:

Yo bailé ayer. (preterite)
Plesala sam jučer. (impf.!) 
    I danced yesterday.

Spanish uses its preterite tense, because there’s a clear time-frame; from the viewpoint of Croatian, it doesn’t matter: there’s no accomplishment, no outcome – so Croatian uses an impf. verb. Recall the very first example jučer sam čitala knjigu – the action is over, but no accomplishment is implied; maybe there’s something left to read.

Spanish past tenses aren’t about accomplishments and outcomes, there are about defined start and end times of action. For example, Spanish ayer (yesterday) normally ‘triggers’ the preterite tense. Croatian jučer never ‘triggers’ any aspect.

Remember: Croatian aspects are not about time. Tenses are about time.

There are a couple of impf. verbs that show some characteristics of perf. verbs; important ones are:

čuti (čuje) hear
razumjeti (razumije,...) understand  
vidjeti (vidi,...) see

These verbs are ‘really’ perf. verbs, but are used as imperfective in most situations. However, you cannot tell how long with these verbs (except in a specific construction which will be shown later). You can use them in the present tense (and they’re frequently used) but even English translation changes a bit in the present tense:

Vidio sam te2 A. I saw you.

Vidim te2 A. I (can) see you.

I’ll explain various tips when to use perfective, and when to use imperfective verbs as I introduce verbs and various constructions. We start immediately, in the following chapter.


® In Serbia, the impf. verb prihvaćati is used in a slightly different form: prihvatati; there’s no difference for the perf. verb.

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5 Easy Croatian: 37 Complete Reading: Perfective Verbs N A  DL  G 24 I I’ve already mentioned that some Croatian verbs stand for accomplishments , while most verbs stand for processes ...

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