Croatian has a special way of distinguishing processes from accomplishments. What is it about?
For example, you could have been in a restaurant. You were drinking beer when your phone rang. Obviously, you haven’t completed the beer, and it’s not important anyway, since we’re focusing on what you were doing (a process).
On the other hand, you could have drank the beer, and then grab your phone and call someone. Now we’re focusing on what you did; when you completed the beer (an accomplishment), you started doing something else. Some languages (e.g. Spanish and French) use two different past tenses for this purpose (usually called imperfect and preterite).
Croatian has only one past tense (in general use), but has a special set of verbs that stand for accomplishments. Such verbs are usually called perfective verbs (perf. for short). All verbs we have learned so far were imperfective (impf. for short). For many imperfective verbs (not all!) there’s a corresponding perfective verb.
Some perfective verbs are obtained from impf. verbs just by prefixing po- to them, for instance:
|jesti (jede) eat||pojesti (pojede)|
|piti (pije) drink||popiti (popije)|
|slati (šalje) send||poslati (pošalje)|
Since it’s important to remember perfective verbs, it’s worth remembering verbs in pairs. I will indicate them with the impf. verb on the left, perf. on the right, separated by a tilde (~):
To simplify things even further, if a perfective verb differs just by a prefix, I’ll show just the prefix, e.g.:
gledati ~ po- watch
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.
Other verbs make their perfective verbs by prefixing na-:
crtati ~ na- draw, sketch
pisati (piše) ~ na- («) write
puniti ~ na- fill
slikati ~ na- paint (image)
učiti ~ na- («) learn
The stress in napisati and naučiti doesn’t move to the prefix in the infinitive, but (in the Standard pronunciation) it does move in the present tense: I will, as usual, indicate such shift in the present tense with just a («).
Others use o- or pro-:
brijati (brije) ~ o- shave
buditi ~ pro- («) waken
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:
Within this scheme, most pairs always change the final consonant before the ending:
prihvaćati ~ prihvatiti accept ®
vraćati ~ vratiti return
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 («) ~
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
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.
Not all impf. verbs have perfective counterparts. For instance, these verbs have no matching perf. verb:
htjeti (hoće +,...) want
morati must, have to
The strange verb (bude) is a kind of perf. counterpart of the verb biti (je² +) be, although it’s not really an ordinary perf. verb.
Perf. verbs are sometimes irregular when impf. aren’t. For example:
padati ~ pasti (padne, pao) fall
uzimati ~ uzeti (uzme) take
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 – including (bude) – 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 napišem pismo i ne pošaljem ga. Sometimes I write a letter and don’t send it.
Često bude hladno ujutro. It’s often cold in the morning. (or It often gets cold...)
Such use is standard, very common an by no means confined to a region in Croatia, unlike the use of (bude) to form future in regular sentences.
Why have I used a perf. verb 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.
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:
Pala je noć. The night fell.
Kiša je dugo padala. ‘The rain was falling’ for a long time.
Kiša je pala. ‘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 pijem vino. I drink wine sometimes.
2 Ponekad popijem 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 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.
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
An 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.
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. (haven’t 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 it’s entirety. It’s not stated if you have read any part of it or not. So, such a conversation is possible:
Jesi li pročitao knjigu? Have you read the book (through)?
— Nisam, još je čitam. No, I’m still reading it.
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 again, impf. verbs must be used. Again, English continuous tenses correspond to Croatian impf. verbs.
There are couple of verbs that show characteristics of both impf. and perf. verbs; important ones as:
čuti (čuje) hear
vidjeti (vidi,...) see
ostati (ostane) perf. remain
razumjeti (razumije,...) understand
The first two verbs, čuti (...) and vidjeti (...) are in fact perf. verbs. For example, you cannot tell how long with these verbs. 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 te. I saw you.
Vidim te. I (can) see you.
On the other hand, you cannot use the verb ostati (ostane) in the present tense, but you can say how long you remained somewhere when you use it in the past tense!
There are more such verbs, I will comment on their use when I introduce them.
________® In Serbia, the impf. verb prihvaćati is used in a slightly different form: prihvatati; there’s no difference for the perf. verb.