37 Complete Reading: Perfective Verbs

  You can also read this chapter in French.


I’ve already mentioned that some Croatian verbs stand for completion, while some other verbs stand for processes (there are more types, you’ll see). This distinction – an essential feature of Croatian verbs – is called verbal aspect (or grammatical aspect). This is a bit complex feature, so you will likely read this chapter more than once.

The following two sentences illustrate the essence of verbal aspect:

Jučer sam čitala knjigu. I was reading the book yesterday. {f} (not saying how much = process) ®

Jučer sam pročitala knjigu. I read the book yesterday. {f} (all of it = completion)

Now, the second sentence means that you completed the reading yesterday, meaning you reached the end of the book. Nothing left to read in the book. And this is often expressed in Croatian: there was a completion of an action on a defined object. Using the first sentence implies there was some reading, but says nothing about how much you did read.

Completion verbs in Croatian belong to a bigger group of so-called perfective verbs (perf. for short). If you have troubles remembering that name, think like this: you’ve finally finished it, all of it – perfect! – perfective verbs. Perfective verbs are a bit weird, as you’ll see. They express something is done (or will be done) so they can’t be freely used in the present tense.

Verbs which aren’t perfective are called imperfective (impf. for short). Process verbs are, of course, imperfective. They say nothing about completion; maybe the process was completed, maybe not.

Since it’s important to remember both the process verb and the corresponding completion verb, they will be listed as a pair, with the impf. verb on the left, perf. on the right, separated by a tilde (~), and an asterisk (*) standing for completion:

  = process-completion pair
čitati  ~*  pročitati read

Why an asterisk? It means you’ve completed the task. You have read the whole book. Built the house. Washed all the dishes. Perfect! You get a nice star-shaped sticker as a reward! (If you collect a lot of stickers, maybe you get a candy...)

Completion verbs don’t mean you stopped doing something. They mean there’s nothing left to do. No more pages in the book to read. Or in the given chapter. Nothing left on your plate. No more work on the house. You don’t get a star-shaped sticker if there’s no roof on the house. Keep this in mind.

Now, good news! Most completion verbs are formed by simply sticking a sticker... I mean, a prefix, to the process verb:

imperfective verb
perfective verb
write pisati (piše) napisati (napiše)
fill puniti napuniti
learn učiti naučiti («)
wash prati (pere) oprati (opere)
eat jesti (jede, jeo) pojesti (pojede, pojeo)
drink piti (pije) popiti (popije)
read čitati pročitati

Bad news: you’ll have to remember the prefix for each verb. Good news again: there are only a couple of prefixes used, and verbs with similar meanings often use the same prefix.

Of course, it would be too much to list two verbs which differ just by a prefix, so we can write simply:

čitati ~* pro- read

More bad news, if you’re a fan of the standard stress scheme: adding a prefix will sometimes move stress, or move it only in the present tense. (You were warned.) If the standard stress shifts left in the present tense when the prefix is added – of couse, only in the standard stress scheme – I’ll write the same symbol as I did before:

pisati (piše) ~* na- («) write učiti ~* na- («) learn

This gives you a part of explanation for the underline in pisati (piše) write: the stress will not move from the inf form, because it has an underline! But this underline will get useful once more later.

For some verbs, the prefix will be stressed in all forms in the standard stress scheme, so we can underline the vowel in the prefix:

brijati (brije) ~* o- shave puniti ~* na- fill

However, in the ‘western’ scheme, which is much simpler, the stress with almost always stay on the same place as in the unprefixed verb. There are rare exceptions, such as jesti (jede) ~* pojesti (pojede) eat.

Finally, there are verbs where the stress always (in both standard and ‘western’ schemes) moves right in the present tense. One is:

prati (pere) ~* oprati (opere) wash

I’ll abbreviate such stress shift with a (»):

prati (pere) ~* o- (») wash

Actions described by process verbs typically take some time, and matter even if not completed (which will turn out to be essential for understanding them in the long run).

It’s often hard for non-native speakers to understand when to use completion verbs. There are some useful hints.

First, completion verbs usually mean completing a specific object. If the process verb has an optional object – like čitati read or jesti (...) eat – the corresponding completion verb requires an object. A characteristic example is:

I ate in a restaurant yesterday.

Ayer comí en un restorante. (the same, in Spanish)

Since the action is over, and we don’t want to tell how long it took, English uses its Simple Past, and Spanish its preterite tense. However, Croatian always uses process verbs in such sentences (here I assume a female speaker, while the English and Spanish sentences are non-specific):

Jučer sam jela u restoranu. (the same, in Croatian, impf.)

Why? Because you’re not specific. You focus on the action, you’re not talking about how much you ate. There’s no object at all. Completion verbs aren’t about ‘it’s over’. They say there’s ‘nothing left to do’ with a specific object. You can’t use pojesti (...) perf. eat without objects! But, if you continue with specifics, you would switch to the completion verb:

Jučer sam jela u restoranu. Pojela sam pizzu. I ate in a restaurant yesterday. I ate a pizza. {f}

Even when expressing objects, you can decide to be vague and not tell how much stuff you ate/read/washed/whatever – because it’s often not important – by using a process verb:

Jela sam pizzu. I ate pizza. {f} (we don’t say how much = process)

Pojela sam pizzu. I ate a pizza. {f} (= one whole pizza = completion)

Note that in all these examples, both English and Spanish would use the same tense. Most Romance languages have at least two past tenses: Spanish has el pretérito imperfecto (which sounds like imperfective) and el pretérito perfecto (which sounds like perfective), Italian has l’imperfetto (sounds familiar again) and passato prossimo, French has imparfait (again) and passé composé, etc. It’s very tempting to draw a parallel with Croatian impf. and perf. verbs, but unfortunately, it’s wrong for Croatian process-completion verb pairs.

If we want to stress completion, we can add the phrase do kraja to the end:

Pojela sam pizzu do kraja. {f} I ate the pizza ‘to the end’. (i.e. really all of it)

Jučer sam pročitala knjigu do kraja. {f} I read the book yesterday ‘to the end’.

(The last example stresses you completed it yesterday, so you likely started on some other day. This is a rather fine point.)

Of course, in the true present tense, i.e. at the time of speaking or writing, any process is ongoing. You couldn’t reach the goal exactly at the moment of speaking: therefore, completion verbs (actually, all perf. verbs) aren’t used in the true present tense.

However, you can use completion verbs in the present tense to talk about things which are completed ‘all the time’, ‘sometimes’, etc. when being specific about objects and their quantities:

Često pojedem jabuku za doručak. I often eat an apple for breakfast. (one apple = perf.)

Često jedem jabuke za doručak. I often eat apples for breakfast. (we don’t say how much = impf.)

Često pojedem dvije jabuke za doručak. I often eat two apples for breakfast. (very exact! = perf.)

(You’ll later see other constructions using the present tense of perf. verbs.)

Next hint: when talking about what you were doing at a given moment – either someone asks you what you were doing at 7:30, or you describe what you were doing when something else happened – you would use process verbs. In exactly these circumstances, you would use English Past Continuous tense:

Što si radila jučer navečer? What were you doing yesterday evening? {to f}

Čitala knjigu. I was reading a book. {f}

Dok sam čitala knjigu... While I was reading a book... {f}

You would use process verbs if you tell how long the action lasted, completed or not, for example if you use the following adverbs or DLI-pl of time units:

dugo for a long time kratko for a short time

Dugo sam pisala pismo. I wrote a letter for a long time. {f}

Čitala je danima. She read for days.

You can’t use completion verbs with expressions like for days or for a long time, because these expressions are about the process.

More hints: when you use such pairs with negation, the negated completion verbs say that the action was not complete, but it might be ongoing:

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

Nisam pročitao knjigu. I haven’t read the book (to the end). {m}

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. It’s not stated if you have read any part of it or not (but the emphasis is on not completing, so it’s likely that you have read at least some of it). This is a common example:

Jesi li pročitao knjigu? Have you read the book? (all of it) {to m}

— Nisam, još je čitam. No, I’m still reading it. (lit. ‘her’)

Of course, non-specific vs specific objects work in negation too:

Nisam jela ribu. I didn’t eat fish. (didn’t touch any) {f}

Nisam pojela ribu. I didn’t eat the fish. (I left a bit) {f}

Again, in the second sentence, it’s probable that you ate a bit; otherwise, you would likely use the impf. verb.

For process-completion pairs:

  • imperfective verbs express a process, the focus is on the action; also used in general statements;
  • perfective verbs stress what is exactly consumed, created, destroyed, built, read, written; they normally require an object. Completed = nothing left to do for the given object!

So much for such verb pairs, for now.

Now, there are other types of actions, where the important part is done essentially in one go. Such verbs are give, throw, pay, take, return, close and many others. They usually involve some transaction or a change of state. You can do it gradually, but the essential part is done in a short time. In Croatian, these verbs are:

dati give
baciti throw
platiti pay
uzeti (uzme) take
vratiti return
zatvoriti («) close

All these verbs can’t express ongoing actions, and aren’t used in the true present tense! They are another example of perfective verbs. There are matching imperfective verbs, which are derived from the verbs above and used in the present tense:

davati (daje) give
bacati throw
plaćati pay
uzimati take
vraćati return
zatvarati («) close

Why is it so? Why the matching imperfective verbs at all? Does bacati mean be about to throw something? Yes, in the present tense and sometimes in the past tense. But the main meaning in the past tense is throw repeatedly. It’s also a common meaning in the present tense.

We’ll call such pairs event pairs.

Process-completion verb pairs (e.g. čitati ~* pro- read) don’t have this property. I was reading the book doesn’t imply reading the whole book over and over. We can say that bacati has a repetitive meaning – besides the meaning ‘to be in the middle of some action’, ‘just about to do it’. I’ll indicate such pairs by a simple tilde (~) – no asterisks now, you don’t build things in event pairs, no star-shaped stickers for you:

  = event pair
bacati  ~  baciti throw

For event verb pairs, the two verbs match English Continuous and Simple tenses almost perfectly (and Spanish el pretérito imperfecto and el pretérito perfecto):

Bacam loptu. I’m throwing a ball. (repeatedly, or just about to throw a ball = impf.)

Bacala sam loptu. I was throwing a ball. {f} (impf.)

Bacila sam loptu. I threw a ball. {f} (perf.)

The only exception are expressions in the English Simple Present, and expressing how long something lasted:

Često bacam lopte. I often throw balls. (impf.)

Bacao sam lopte satima. I threw balls for hours. {m} (impf.)

Most important: event verb pairs aren’t about focus on objects at all. No optional vs. mandatory objects etc. They are simply about repetition and ‘being in the middle of’.

Another striking difference in comparison to a process-completion pair (e.g. read) is that impf. event verbs are almost always derived from perfective ones, and not by prefixes: they change the verb ending, almost always to -ati – like the verb pair for throw, shown above – and often change the consonant before that ending into a Croatian-specific one. Many pairs also change a vowel, always perf. o vs. impf. a:

plaćati ~ platiti pay
vraćati ~ vratiti return
ponavljati («) ~ ponoviti («) repeat
otvarati («) ~ otvoriti («) open

Two more schemes, used by many pairs, are as follows: impf. verbs have -ava- (which stays in the present tense), or -iva- (which changes in pres-3 to -uje, with a stress shift in both schemes); some pairs have change of the consonant before all these endings:

pokušavati («) ~ pokušati try
odlučivati (odlučuje) ~ odlučiti («) decide

Since the impf. verbs of the last type 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 odlučivati (odlučuje)
I’ll write just odlučivati (-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.

I admit, this is not trivial. There’s no other option but to remember both verbs in each event pair, and there are many pairs, hundreds. Most verbs are event verbs. However, event pairs tend to come in ‘families’, where all pairs are made in the same way, which simplifies things a bit.

There’s one more striking difference. Impf. event verbs are rare in the past tense. How rare? Google™ says, for the past-f forms, in thousands:

read (process-compl.)
čitala impf. 291
pročitala perf. 284
throw (event)
bacala impf. 35
bacila perf. 371

See, roughly 1:1 for a process-completion pair, and 1:11 for an event pair! (For more geeky statistics, check the Something possibly interesting section below.)

Imperfective event verbs are used in the past tense only when you want to express:

  • what you were doing at a specific moment;
  • what you were doing when something else happened or was going on;
  • repeating actions, especially when you want to say how long they lasted.

Which, as I wrote above, basically coincides with the English Continuous Past. So, you don’t have to think much when to use them. So much for event pairs.

Of course, there are some verbs which don’t fit neatly into nice schemes. There are few verbs pairs which are somehow in between process-completion and event, for example:

mijenjati ~*/~ promijeniti («) change

This pair is kind of process-completion, but it also has some event characteristics which will be obvious later; also, note that it uses both a prefix and a change of verb ending! So we have both symbols between the verbs.

Then, many process verbs are rarely completed. One example is:

igrati play (a game)

This verb is used for children playing with toys. What is a completion of such a game? None. But this verb is also used for playing a football game, which can be in the World Cup, and there’s definitely a completion then, expressed by the perf. verb odigrati. So, the completion verb is used only in a specific area, and is much rarer than the impf. verb. More verbs like that are run, sing, dance, swim etc.

Then, there are two important process verbs which are like read, but the corresponding completion verbs are much rarer than you might expect; they are:

gledati ~* po- watch slušati ~* po- listen

The completion verbs from these pairs are almost never used when you watch or listen something for fun (a movie, a song).

There are processes without any meaningful completion, like dream, breathe, think etc. No completion verbs. This includes verbs like live, love etc. where most people aren’t really eagerly waiting for a completion. (You’ll see later some of them have associated perfective verbs with other meanings.) Also, verbs like sit, stand aren’t processes at all – they’re rather states. Of course, no completion. This summarizes various types of Croatian verbs we’ve covered so far:

imperfective verbs perfective verbs
• used in all tenses
sjediti sit
• common in past tense
čitati read
• never used in true present
pročitati read completely
being ‘about to do it’

• rare in past tense
bacati throw (repeatedly)
• never used in true present
• very common in past tense
baciti throw

On the other side, there are verbs which don’t fit into the imperfective:perfective divide. 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 te. I saw you. {m}

Vidim te. I (can) see you.

If you’re now a bit overwhelmed and would like to ask since this is quite complicated, is there a shortcut, can I simply use impf. verbs all the time or something... – no, you can’t. There’s no way around this. I’m sorry.

From now on, I’ll explain various tips when to use perfective, and when to use imperfective verbs as I introduce various verbs and verb pairs.


® Instead of jučer, a slightly shortened juče is used in Serbia and Bosnia for yesterday.

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5 Easy Croatian: 37 Complete Reading: Perfective Verbs →   You can also read this chapter in French . N A  DL  G 24 I I’ve already mentioned that some Croatian verbs stand...

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