Croatian (as all other Slavic languages do) utilizes the so-called 'aspect distinction'. By some accounts, this is the most difficult concept to grasp when learning Croatian. In my point of view, a similar distinction exists in English, so it should not be too hard!
Let's compare it with English; it has "continuous" and "non-continuous" tenses:
"I was eating pizza."
"I had eaten (up) a pizza."
The first sentence says what you have been doing, and emphasizes the duration of action. If you add time phrases to them, with the first one you can say how long it took ("for 15 minutes"), and with the second when you did it ("before lunch").
Croatian has roughly the same distinction, but uses two different verbs (the red diamond indicates 'now' on the time arrow):
Jeo säm pizzu. "I was eating pizza." Pojeo säm pizzu. "I have/had eaten a pizza."
English also distinguishes between "I have eaten" and "I had eaten" — the former refers to something completed right now or very recently, and the latter to something completed in the past. Croatian has only one form: pojeo säm. Only the context (and additional words) gives information if it was 5 seconds or 5 years ago.
Let me emphasize the point here: these are two different verbs, each having its own entry in dictionaries!
Verb pojedem, pojeo refers to the "completing of action" and is as such not used in the present tense, except in conditional sentences, and that will be explained later. So, in the present tense you should normally just use:
Jedem pizzu. "I'm eating a pizza." / "I eat pizza."
The verb used to indicate completing an action — achievement — is called 'perfective', and the other one (continuous action) is called 'imperfective'. These names I will abbreviate as perf. and impf. This has nothing to do with "the perfect tense". In Croatian, there are past, present, and future tenses. Perfective/imperfective has nothing to do with the tenses except for the fact that the perfective verbs are normally not used in the present tense, but just in the future and past tenses.
Let me repeat: these are properties of verbs, not forms of a verb.
Actually, some English verbs have "built-in" aspect as well: the verb "have" refers to something that lasts, or lasted. There's no way to "complete" "having" something. But there's a way to complete eating — when you're done.
The main difference between the English system and the Croatian one is with states ("sit", "live") in English, states are usually expressed with simple tenses, unless one wants to emphasize interrupted action; similar for emotions. Croatian always uses impf. verbs for states and emotions, for anything that lasts.
Spavao säm. "I slept."/"I was sleeping"
Imao säm loptu. "I had a/the ball."
Volim sladoled. "I love/like ice-cream."
Volio säm sladoled. "I loved/liked ice-cream."
Another way that English uses to express aspect is by definiteness of object. This sounds complicated, but an example will clarify it:
English aspect Croatian "I built houses." impf. Gradio sam kuće. "I built two houses." perf. Izgradio sam dvijë kuće.
The first sentence has emphasis on action: what was the result is not 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 achieved, and such a sentence uses a perf. verb in Croatian. Since people talk about both — what they were doing and what they did — both aspects are really used in Croatian a lot!
Next, there are actions which come in "bits", like sneezing and blinking. Croatian has two verbs for each of them: one (impf.) stands for continuous sneezing, and the other one (perf.) means you sneezed only once:
Kihao si. "You were sneezing." (it was repeating)
Kihnuo si. "You sneezed." (it happened once)
To summarize what the aspect is and how to tell aspect from an English sentence:
Aspect Croatian imperfective verbs (impf.)
are used for states, emotions, for actions where action itself is emphasized, or when the outcome is not clear and for actions happening right now. They can be used in all tenses.
Croatian perfective verbs (perf.)
are used for things happening in an instant, change of states, completion of actions, where a change or an instant action are emphasized. They cannot be used in the present tense in normal sentences.
How to tell aspect in English Use of continuous tenses in English
(e.g. "I was writing a letter.")
(e.g. "I loved it." "I had a car")
Not telling what was actually done
(e.g. "I wrote letters for hours.")
Talking about ongoing actions
(e.g. "I've worked here since June.")
Changes of state
(e.g. "I fell asleep." "I became father")
Things that happen almost in an instant
(e.g. "The window broke.")
Telling the outcome
(e.g. "I wrote two letters.")
(e.g. "I sneezed twice.")
There are some situations when you can express the same thing using impf. and perf. verbs, and some other fine points — they will be explained later.
Perfective verbs don't stand for outcomes and achievements only, keep in mind they can mean "change of state"; you'll see why below.
Therefore, many verbs are organized into "pairs": one verb is impf. and another perf. where English and some other languages, like Spanish, would have only one verb. You will have to learn not just Croatian verbs, but verb pairs!
Of course, the pairs are not merely random. For some verb pairs, a perf. verb is formed just by adding a prefix, the verb has otherwise exactly the same forms (the dash is normally not written, of course; I just used it here to emphasize the prefix). For the following verbs, the perf. verb is made by prefixing na-:
impf. perf. meaning pišem, pisao na-pišem, na-pisao "write" učim na-učim "learn, teach" (used for both meanings!) crtam na-crtam "draw an image" punim na-punim "fill"
Instead of such a nice and large table, I will use shorthand notation like crtam ~ na- where the verb left of the tilde (~) is impf. and one right of the tilde is perf. If the perf. verb is obtained just by prefixing, I'll write down only the prefix. This is not standard notation (there's no standard notation) but rather something I've invented.
Another prefix is po-:
gledam ~ po- "watch"
jedem, jeo ~ po- "eat"
kucam ~ po- "knock"
ljubim ~ po- "kiss"
pijem ~ po- "drink"
pušim ~ po- "smoke (cigarette)" trošim ~ po- "spend (money)" šaljem, slao ~ po- "send"
zovem, zvao "call" ~ po-
zvonim ~ po- "ring"
(I have listed here some verbs that belong to verb classes I haven't introduced yet, or verbs that are simply irregular, such as šaljem, slao; use them just as they are listed). Of course, there are verbs that use other prefixes to make perf. verbs:
brojim, brojao ~ iz- "count"
čekam ~ do- "wait"
čitam ~ pro- "read"
gubim ~ iz- "lose" gutam ~ pro- "swallow"
koristim ~ is- "use" kradem, krao ~ u- "steal" kuham ~ s- "cook" perem, prao ~ o- "wash"
sušim ~ o- "dry"
Unfortunately, verbs in most verb pairs don't differ only in a prefix: they have different verb classes, and often differ in some sounds! One common combination is that the impf. verb is an a-verb, and the perf. verb is an i-verb:
bacam ~ bacim "throw"
nastupam ~ nastupim "perform (in public)"
pripremam ~ pripremim "prepare"
primam ~ primim "receive"
snimam ~ snimim "record, make movie"
udaram ~ udarim "kick, bang"
The following verb pairs show sound differences, besides having different (a- vs. i-) verb classes (these are just examples, there are more verb pairs like that):
ispravljam ~ ispravim "correct"
izmišljam ~ izmislim "invent, make up"
napuštam ~ napustim "abandon"
odgovaram ~ odgovorim "answer"
osvajam ~ osvojim "conquer"
otvaram ~ otvorim "open"
plaćam ~ platim "pay"
ponavljam ~ ponovim "repeat"
popravljam ~ popravim "fix, repair"
prihvaćam ~ prihvatim "accept"
puštam ~ pustim "release, let go"
rađam ~ rodim "give birth"
sastavljam ~ sastavim "assemble, put together"
shvaćam ~ shvatim "understand"
spajam ~ spojim "connect"
vraćam ~ vratim "return"
zaboravljam ~ zaboravim "forget"
zatvaram ~ zatvorim "close"
There is an underlying logic in sound differences, but I'll leave it to geeks (or language history enthusiasts) and advice you to simply learn both members! There's a variation of this combination, where -av- is appended to the impf. verb:
obećavam ~ obećam "promise"
objašnjavam ~ objasnim "explain"
uništavam ~ uništim "destroy"
usporavam ~ usporim "slow down"
Another common combination is that the impf. member is an a-verb (or 'j/a-verb) and the perf. member is an n-verb (sound changes are also possible):
guram ~ gurnem "push"
kišem, kihao ~ kihnem "sneeze"
padam ~ padnem, pao "fall"
pripadam ~ pripadnem, pripao "belong"
skidam ~ skinem "take down"
udišem, udisao ~ udahnem "inhale"
trepćem, treptao ~ trepnem "blink (eye)"
vičem, vikao ~ viknem "shout, yell"
A quite common combination is that impf. verb is a j/v-verb, and the perf. verb can be of any other class:
dajem, davao ~ dam "give"
istražujem, istraživao ~ istražim "explore, research, investigate"
kupujem, kupovao ~ kupim "buy"
opisujem, opisivao ~ opišem, opisao "describe"
pokazujem, pokazivao ~ pokažem, pokazao "show"
posuđujem, posuđivao ~ posudim "borrow"
Pairs where the impf. verb is of j/iv type are especially abundant. More combinations of verb classes exist.
Occasionally, there's a strange pair where sometimes completely unrelated verbs come together, or verbs that differ a lot. Frequently one of them a "weird" or "irregular" verb, and it's worth remembering it's always the perf. one:
dolazim ~ dođem, došäo, došla "arrive"
uzimam ~ uzmem, uzeo "take"
Some verbs can use more than one prefix to get two perf. verbs that mean more or less the same:
brišem, brisao ~ po-, o- "wipe, clear"
gradim ~ iz-, sa- "build"
Verbs above meant actions, where there a possibility of a result or an outcome. However, there are verbs for states (imam "have") and emotions (volim "love/like"): for them, there's really no sense in "successfully completing" the state or emotion. Verbs with the same meanings in English are often used only in simple tenses: you don't say "I'm loving ice-cream" even if you love it right now! Such verbs are sometimes called 'stative' verbs.
However, it turns out that weird minds who invented Croatian (actually, Slavic languages and some others) thought that it would be nice to have a verb that indicates "entering" the state. Therefore, in Croatian, there's a perf. verb zavolim, meaning "begin to love" (or "begin to like", since volim really can mean "like" as well). Such a verb is sometimes called "inchoative".
Not all stative verbs have an inchoative buddy. If they have, it's mostly obtained by prefixing za-. To distinguish true aspect pairs (explained above) from such pairs, I will use a double tilde (~~) to separate impf. and perf. verb. So, if you see a double tilde in this work, the verb after it means "begin to...". Such pairs are:
blistam ~~ za- "sparkle, shimmer"
mirišem, mirisao ~~ za- "smell, scent"
mrzim ~~ za- "hate"
pamtim ~~ za- "remember"
spavam ~~ zaspim, zaspao "sleep"
trëbam ~~ za- "need"
vjërujem, vjërovao ~~ po- "believe"
vladam ~~ za- "govern, rule"
volim, volio, voljëla ~~ za- "love"
želim, želio, željëla ~~ za- "desire, want"
Zavolio säm čaj. "I started to like tea."
Of course, there are stative verbs that don't have a "begin-to" perf. verb:
dišem, disao "breathe"
dugujem, dugovao "owe"
očekujem, očekivao "expect"
živim, živio, živjëla "live"
It's interesting that there are some action verbs that have only "begin-to" perf. verb:
grlim ~~ za- "hug"
plačem, plakao ~~ za- "cry"
šutim, šutio, šutjëla ~~ za- "be silent"
tražim ~~ za- "seek, look for"
Really, sometimes it's really ambigous what a perf. verb stands for, except that is somehow implies something that happened in a moment.
Some impf. action verbs combine both possibilities: they have a normal "success" perf. verb, and a "begin-to" perf. verb! The first perf. verb is mostly formed by prefixing od- or ot- and the second one by za-. I will list them as impf. ~ success-perf. ~ begin-perf. Such pairs are:
igram ~ od- ~ za- "play (game)"
pjëvam ~ ot- ~ za- "sing"
plivam ~ ot- ~ za- "swim"
pušem, puhao ~ puhnem ~ za- "blow"
sviram ~ od- ~ za- "play (instrument)"
trčim ~ o- ~ po- "run"
Zapuhao je vjëtar. "A wind began to blow."
Zapjëvala je. "She started to sing."
While English is ambiguous — "start to sing" cound mean "start the singing career" — Croatian zapjëvam means only opening mouth and starting a song!
There's a very interesting verb budem that has present forms only. It's a kind of perf. counterpart of säm, bio. It has rather special uses which will be introduced gradually. It's kind of similar to German werden.
Normally, I will list verb pairs by simply writing impf. forms on the left, perf. on the right, in order impf. ~ perf., separated with a tilde; if the difference is only a prefix, I will just list the prefix; if only one verb is listed, it's assumed to be impf., e.g.:
bacam ~ bacim "throw"
čitam ~ pro- "read"
If there's an inchoative ("begin-to") perf. verb, it comes after the second tilde; if there's no ordinary perf. verb, nothing separates two tildes:
mrzim ~~ za- "throw"
plivam ~ ot- ~ za- "swim"
This notation is specific to this work, other books use other ways, and cheaper dictionaries unfortunately don't give information about aspect and aspect pairs at all!
Aspect pairs (in Basic Croatian)
Normal aspect pairs are listed in this work as (impf. verb) ~ (perf. verb)
e.g. primam ~ primim "receive, accept"
If the perf. verb is obtained by merely adding a prefix, only the prefix is shown
e.g. pišem, pisao ~ na- "receive, accept"
If only one verb is listed, without a tilde (~), it's impf.
If there's an inchoative perf. verb, it comes after the second tilde
e.g. plivam ~ ot- ~ za- "swim"
Perfective Verbs in the Present Tense
In the present tense, only impf. verbs are normally used:
Pišem pismo. "I'm writing a/the letter."
An exception is when you want to say that you do something "every day", "sometimes", and each time complete it. For example, every day you write a letter. Then you can use a perf. verbs in the present tense — it means that you complete it every time:
Svaki dan napišem pismo. "I write a letter every day."
(every day a new letter, you complete it every day)
Svaki dan pišem pismo. "I'm writing a/the letter every day."
(but probably don't complete it, you just "work on it")
However, in the past both verbs are used, depending what one wants to say. Maybe you were writing a letter, but then your pen broke, so it was never finished, never written as intended — you will say: pisao säm, ali... "I was writing, but..."
On the contrary, if you wrote a letter, but then lost it, you should say: napisao säm, ali... "I have written, but..."
There are some common perf. verbs that are used in normal present tense sentences, due to its nature. It's maybe best to treat them as "bi-aspectual", that is, getting their aspect from the context, like English verbs:
vidim, vidïo, vidjëla impf./perf. "see"
čujem, čuo impf./perf. "hear"
There are other verbs with similar meaning, but only impf., indicating not just that you took a notice, but you were paying attention:
Vidim Anu. "I (can) see Ana."
Gledam utakmicu. "I'm watching a/the match." (likely football, basketball, etc.)
Čujem zvono. "I (can) hear the bell."
Slušam radio. "I'm listening to the radio."
There is the verb viđam that looks like a impf. counterpart of vidim, but it has a slightly different meaning: "see frequently", "see from time to time", e.g. when you frequently see someone over a period of time. These are subtleties, we leave it for later...
Expressing Sequences of Events
Perf. verbs are often used to express a sequence of events that happen one after another, e.g. to describe what happened, tell a story, etc. The following adverbs are often used in such sequences:
adverb meaning odmah "immediately" uskoro, ubrzo "soon", "after a short time" odjednom, iznenada "suddenly"
For instance (both verbs are perfective):
Ivan je pokucao na vrata. Ana je odmah otvorila. "Ivan knocked on the door. Ana opened (it) immediately."
In storytelling, poetry, it's possible to use a sequence of perf. verbs in the present:
Ivan pokuca na vrata. Ana odmah otvori. (the same meaning, but more expressive)
Accidental and Intended Events
Another set of four useful adverbs is used to express if the event has intended or accidental:
adverb meaning slučajno "accidentally" namjërno "intentionally, deliberately" nenamjërno
Ana je slučajno otvorila vrata. "Ana accidentally opened the door."
Perfective Verbs and Other Adverbs
The adverbs of repetition can of course be used with perf. verbs, e.g.:
Ivan je opet pokucao na vrata. "Ivan knocked on the door again."
The adverbs of indefinite frequency are used less often with perf. verbs; when they are used, they imply repeated events — then perf. verbs can be used in the present tense:
Ivan je ponekad napisao pismo. "Ivan wrote a letter sometimes." Ivan ponekad napiše pismo. "Ivan writes a letter sometimes."
With adverbs of expectation, only već is often used with perf. verbs, to indicate that some event happened earlier than expected:
Ivan je već pokucao na vrata. "Ivan already knocked on the door."
Of course, You cannot use adverbs of relative duration (dugo, kratko) since the perf. verb stands for an event, but you can use the following adverbs to tell how quickly event took place:
adverb meaning brzo "quickly" polako "slowly"
Ivan je brzo otvorio vrata. "Ivan quickly opened the door."
Negation of Perfective Verbs
There's something important: negative sentences with perf. verbs behave almost as impf. They mean that an event did not occur; we can then tell how long it did not occur, etc. — alike impf. verbs. We can use još to emphasize that something did not occur (but it was expected); we can use više to indicate that events stopped occurring; we can also use dugo (and sometimes even kratko):
Ivan još nije pokucao na vrata. "Ivan didn't knock on the door yet." Ivan više nije pokucao na vrata. "Ivan didn't knock on the door anymore." Ivan dugo nije pokucao na vrata. "Ivan didn't knock on the door for a long time."
If you try the same adverbs with positive sentences, they sound meaningless and even ungrammatical. You'll see later, negation of perf. verbs shows more strange features.
These sentences are in the present tense, rewrite them to the past using the same (impf.) verb, and with the perfective verb (all the verbs are listed above):
Updated 2013-09-17 (v. 0.4)