Perfective And Imperfective: Verb Aspects Demystified

avatarMille Larsen
3 mins read

I've already talked about several language concepts which seem to give English-speakers trouble when learning a foreign language, but there are still more to discuss! Today, I would like to discuss the difference between perfective and imperfective verbs.

Perfect doesn't mean flawless...

If we hunt back to its Latin origins, we find that the word perfect meant "complete," and that's what a perfective verb describes: an action that is complete.

When you say, "I washed the car", you are referring to a single instance of washing, and you are saing that it started and finished in the past. It is complete. This is perfective.

Some more examples:

  • Last night, I watched television.

  • My sister visited Paris last summer.

  • Tell me who ate the ice cream.

Imperfective? Well, it ain't perfect.

If perfective means completed, you've probably already figured out that imperfective means "not completed." Imperfective verbs describe action that is, was, or will be ongoing at the time they reference.

Referring back to our example above, if you say, "I was washing the car," you are clarifying that at the time to which you are referring, you were engaged in the act of washing, and it was ongoing, ie incomplete.

Some more examples:

  • I was watching television when you called.

  • My sister was visiting Paris while we were on summer break.

  • John was eating the ice cream when I walked into the kitchen.


I first experienced the concept of perfective and imperfective when learning to form the past tense of Spanish verbs, and I remember how it confused me. Today, I think of how incredibly crucial and inescapable this concept is in Slavic languages, and I look back at the Spanish past tense like it's child's play.

This subject doesn't really get much attention in English because we tend to indicate imperfective verbs by use of the gerund (-ing), but in Latin languages it will affect the endings of some verb conjugations, and in Slavic languages it will actually dictate which verb you use! It is definitely an vital concept for language study, and it will be important next week when we look into the subjunctive mood. I'll bet you can't wait!