A Grammar of the Polish Language

Part seven

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Morphology – inflected parts of speech, p. 4

Conjugation, part 2

The category of tense in Polish, as well as in other Slavic languages, is connected to the category of aspect. And so, imperfective verbs have the past tense (e.g. czytałem), the present tense (czytam) and the future tense (the last one is a composed formation: będę czytać or będę czytał), while perfective verbs have the past tense (przeczytałem) and the future tense (formed just as the Present Tense of imperfective verbs: przeczytam).

A complex system of relative, continuous, etc. tenses, resembling the one in English, has not been formed, even if in Old Polish the pluperfect tense existed (imperfective: czytałem był as well as perfective: przeczytałem był). It expressed an act previous to another past act – forms of that type can still be met in old or archaized texts, including the ones from the canon of Polish literature.

In the spoken language resultative constructions of the type miałem / mam / będę mieć przeczytaną książkę appear. Probably they are a copy from West-European languages. Intransitive verbs that have passive participles (see below) form constructions with być, similarly as in German or French, e.g. jestem przemoknięty (what means przemokłem ‘I have got soaked’). Maybe they will be developed into separate tenses sometime. In the passive voice of perfective verbs we can meet not only common past and future forms (like zostałem umyty, zostanę umyty), but also special resultative forms, past, present and future (e.g. byłem umyty, jestem umyty, będę umyty) that have meaning close to English Perfect tenses (I had been washed, I have been washed, I will have been washed respectively).

The Past Tense have a special set of endings which can be torn away from the verb and linked to some other words in the sentence, especially in the informal speech and archaized texts, e.g. cóż mi uczynił, jam to zrobił instead of cóż mi uczynił, ja to zrobiłem (‘what have you done to me’, ‘I have done it’). The same shifting endings can be met in the conjugation of the verb być ‘be’ in the Present Tense: jestem, jest, … Forms of 1st and 2nd person plural of the Past Tense are stressed in a special way, usually as if the endings ~śmy, ~ście were separate words: robili-śmy, even if in singular: robił-em.

The active adverbial participles distinguish relative tenses: contemporary and anterior. In theory it gives some possibilities to express the sequence of acts, however in fact they are used unwillingly while other means are applied. Yet the aspect only gives sometimes possibility to express that the acts do not take place simultaneously. Instead of napisawszy list czytałem książkę one can say napisałem list i czytałem książkę ‘I had written a letter and I was reading a book’. The best way is to use a deverbial substantive (gerund) with the preposition po: po napisaniu listu czytałem książkę ‘after writing a letter I was reading a book’, or a complex sentence of the type napisałem list, a potem czytałem książkę ‘I wrote a letter and then I was reading a book’.

For those who use Polish only the moment of the actual occuring of an act is important, hence English I wrote, I have written and I had written can be rendered by one form napisałem (sometimes pisałem). The situation of the type I have written is understood by an Englishman as present, but by a Pole as past, since he is interested in the moment of writing and not whether its results are felt now or not. And that is why the sentence I have lived here for years will be translated by a Pole as mieszkam tu od lat (Present Tense) – if he still lives here – or as mieszkałem tu od lat (Past Tense) – if he is just moving to a new quarter. The Polish language does not distinguish in general also forms of the type I am writing from I write translating both as piszę. Sometimes there exist possibility of using a derivative verb (so means of the word-formation, not the inflexion) for rendering the multiplicity of an act: pisuję. Such forms are rare and not obligatory however.

The Polish language uses the future tense with pretty consequence, so instances of using present form for expressing the future are rarer than in English. Compare e.g. jeżeli przyjdzie (future tense) with the English if he comes (Present Tense). It is however correct in both languages to use the Present Tense for expressing an act which is to happen soon, what the speaker is sure of, e.g. wyjeżdżam jutro – I am leaving tomorrow.

More on tenses – see here.

The category of aspect is very important but hard to master by not-Slavs. Each verb is attributed by one of two aspects: imperfective or perfective. These terms have nothing to do with Latin imperfect and perfect tenses (known from other languages too), the Polish terms “niedokonane” (ndk, ‘not executed’) and “dokonane” (dk, ‘executed’) are more adequate. Imperfective verbs denote actions as processes, that is just happening, ongoing states and acts which run is important, perfective verbs denote states or acts as completed facts, that is as actions which were / have been / are or will be finished and their run is unimportant and they are treated by a speaker as a closed whole. For this reason perfective verbs have not the Present Tense – an act that is happening just now cannot be finished, already executed. Of course the act can be said as finished in the future and that is why the future perfective tense does exist. In English the renderings for Polish imperfective verbs are often continuous tenses (be ~ing) while the ones for perfective verbs are simple or perfect tenses.

When speaking będę iść ‘I will be going / walking’ or szedłem ‘I was going / walking’ (imperfective aspect) we are telling about our way. At that time something else can (could) happen. In the past or future perspective that we have introduced, our act is passing. Imperfective are iterative (frequentative) verbs, e.g. rzucać, dopisywać, kichać, drgać ‘throw, add (remarks), sneeze, tremble many times’, or denoting lasting states, e.g. stać, czerwienić się ‘stand, redden’.

Imperfective verbs mean:

When speaking pójdę or poszedłem instead (perfective aspect) we treat our act as a closed whole, as an item of the plan of our activities what we were realizing or we will be realizing. Perfective are verbs expressing single or instantaneous acts, e.g. rzucić, dopisać, kichnąć, drgnąć, commencing of an act (a state), e.g. stanąć, zaczerwienić się, or lasting of it through any complete period of time, e.g. postać ‘stand for a while’.

Perfective verbs mean past or future, but not present activities – an activity which is happening now cannot be ended, so it cannot be perfective. Perfective verbs mean:

A thorough analysis of the category of aspect raises doubts if this term concerns inflexion or rather word-formation only. Firstly, there does not exist one marker of aspect, and given marker can characterize one time an imperfective verb, e.g. płyć, walić ‘flow, overthrow’, another time a perfective one, e.g. mić, rzucić ‘pass, throw’. One time a given marker signals a change of aspect, another time it modifies the meaning of a verb, e.g. pojechać is the perfective counterpart to jechać ‘go / come (by car, train, etc.)’, while powiedzieć has nothing to do with wiedzieć ‘know’, as it is the perfective counterpart to mówić ‘speak’. The differences between imperfective and perfective verbs (respectively the first and the second element in the following pairs) are marked with:

Secondly, there exist bi-aspected verbs, happening both as imperfective and as perfective, e.g. awansować, darować, frunąć, zionąć ‘promote / be promoted, overlook / forgive’. Thirdly, there exist one-aspected verbs: imperfective not having their perfective counterparts, like być, mieć, musieć, móc, umieć, potrafić ‘be, have, must, may, can, be able’, and also perfective with no imperfective counterparts, like pozbierać, poczytać, dojrzeć, zmówić ‘collect / gather, do some reading, catch a glimpse, recite / say (a prayer)’. Fourthly, the differences in pairs that differs in aspect may touch also the sphere of their semantics, e.g. kichać differs from kichnąć also in this, that kichać expresses an iterative act while kichnąć – a single one. Similarly pomyśleć is often the perfective counterpart to myśleć ‘think’, but it has also a special meaning ‘think through some time’.

Most simple Polish verbs are imperfective (the same in other Slavic languages), ex. iść ‘to walk, to go’, nieść ‘to carry’, pisać ‘to write’. But there are also few simple perfective verbs, ex. dać ‘to give’, siąść ‘to sit down’. There exist many perfective verbs with suffixes and without prefixes, ex. krzyknąć ‘to shout’, kupić ‘to buy’ (cf. the imperfective kupować with a different suffix). Numerous perfective verbs are formed from simple imperfectives by prefixation. To create the perfective counterpart, verbs use various prefixes without any clear rules. The actual prefix can even depend on a dialect or special meaning, ex. the perfective counterpart to malować is pomalować when it means ‘to paint a wall’, or namalować when it means ‘to paint a picture’, or umalować when it means ‘to make up with a lipstick’.

Besides the strict perfective equivalent, a number of other prefixed verbs may be formed from a given simple imperfective verb. They all have similar but distinct meaning. And they form, as a rule, their own imperfective equivalents by means of suffixation (attaching suffixes) or stem alternation. Example:

There is a number of verbs which form their aspectual counterparts by simultaneous prefixation and suffixation or by suppletion, ex. (the first one is imperfective) stawiać – postawić ‘to set up’, brać – wziąć ‘to take’, widzieć – zobaczyć ‘to see’.

Special imperfective verbs are those which express aimless motions. They are mono-aspectual, i.e they have no perfective equivalents. They are formed from other imperfective verbs by stem alternations or suppletion, ex. nosić ‘to carry around’ (from nieść), chodzić ‘to walk around, to go around’ (from iść ‘to go, to walk’). However, when such a verb gets an aim anyway, it becomes iterative: chodzić do szkoły ‘to go to school’.

Other iteratives build another group of mono-aspectual imperfective verbs. They are formed from other imperfective verbs, including the previous group: chadzać ‘to walk around usually’ (from chodzić), jadać ‘to eat usually’ (from jeść ‘to eat’). Both groups are not too numerous: most Polish verbs cannot form iterative counterparts.

Perfective verbs which express activities executed in many places, on many objects or by many subjects at the same time, and those which express actions or states which last some time, have no imperfective counterparts. They are formed with the prefix po- (which can have other functions as well).

States and activities which last for some time can be expressed by means of both imperfective and perfective verbs: cały dzień leżał w łóżku ‘he was in bed all day long’ (literally: ‘he lay in bed’) means nearly the same as cały dzień przeleżał w łóżku. The difference is mainly stylistic: imperfective is neutral here, while using perfective causes stronger tone of the statement.

Aspect in Slavic is a superior category in relation to tense or mood. Particularly, some verbal forms (like infinitive) cannot distinguish tense but they still distinguish aspect. Here is the list of Polish verb forms which can be formed by both imperfective and perfective verbs (such a list is similar in other Slavic languages). The example is an imperfective and a perfective Polish verb with the meaning ‘to write’. All personal forms are given in 3rd person, masculine singular:

The following may be formed only if the verb is imperfective:

One form may be created only if the verb is perfective, namely:

More on aspects and tenses – see here. See also the article on aspect in Wikipedia.

A verb in Polish distinguishes 3 modes (moods): indicative, conditional and imperative. A sentence in the indicative mode expresses not always an act considered to be real, especially when using adverbs like chyba, może etc. The conditional mode has two forms, e.g. robiłbym and byłbym robił (there exist their perfective counterparts too: zrobiłbym, byłbym zrobił). The first one denotes possible acts, the second one – potential, which are known not to have happened for sure (cf. ‘I would do’ – ‘I would have done’). The conditional mode is sometimes used to express a request: zrobiłbyś to ‘you would do this’ = ‘do this please’.

Forms of the conditional mode are of an agglutinative character. They consist of the form of the 3rd person of the past or pluperfect tense in suitable number and gender (cf. above), to which one fastens “endings” composed of the particle by and proper personal endings the same as in the Past Tense. The endings of the conditional mode (~bym, ~byś etc.), just like the endings of the Past Tense, are movable and may be fastened to other words in the sentence or be torn off – then they build individual words, e.g. Ania by to chętnie zrobiła instead of Ania zrobiłaby to chętnie ‘Annie would do it willingly (with pleasure)’. In some cases, in sentences containing conjunctions aby, żeby, gdyby ‘in order to, that, if’, the transfer of the ending is obligatory: one cannot fasten it back to the verb: proszę, abyś to zrobiła ‘I ask you to do this’ (literal: ‘I ask that you would do this’), *proszę, a to zrobiłabyś is impossible. Seemingly it looks like if the conjunction aby was conjugated by persons and was connected with the Past Tense of the indicative mode.

Sentences like Ania prosi mnie, bym to napisał (Annie is asking me to write it) can be expressed in the other way: Ania prosi mnie, by to napisać. Such constructions are less precise (we do not know who is to write it (to napisać) – ja (me) or Ania) and less correct, however they happen to be used in the colloquial speech. Instead of a personal form of the conditional mode the exotic conditional form of the infinitive occurs here. Also here it is not possible to join the particle and the verb (the form *zrobićby does not exist). When there exists the same subject in the main clause and in the subordinate clause, using of the conditional form of the infinitive is obligatory: Ania potrzebuje długopisu, by napisać list (Annie needs a ballpoint pen to write a letter). Instead of the particle only, the conjunctions aby and żeby are in common use.

The impersonal conditional form also exists in Polish, e.g. czytano by ‘it would have been read’.

The imperative mode expresses order, desire, appeal etc, and it has a wider use than e.g. in Latin or Greek. Such wider range can be explained with it that during the developing of the language it soaked the old optative mode in, from which after all its simple forms have been developed. It exists both in the imperfective and in the perfective aspect. The positive form (order) is expressed as a rule in the perfective aspect, because orders commonly concern complete realization of the act, e.g. zrób to ‘do it’. On the other hand, the negative form (prohibition) is more often used in the imperfective aspect, because also the process of executing is usually forbidden, not only the finishing, e.g. nie rób tego ‘do not do it’. The imperfective aspect in the positive form is used for urging on, e.g. rób to ‘do it (at once)’. Such a form can be even acknowledged as insulting sometimes.

Beside simple forms for 2nd pers.sg. as well as 1st and 2nd pers. pl, there exist periphrastic forms for all the other persons, composed of the forms of the Present Tense (or the future perfective tense) of the indicative mode preceded by the particle niech (cf. English let: niech będzie = let it be). In the old language there existed also a simple form for 3rd pers. sg, identical with the form of 2nd person. It happens in texts of prayers even now (bądź wola Twoja = niech będzie wola Twoja ‘Thy will be’), sometimes also in common phrases of the type siedź pan spokojnie ‘you sit quiet, sir!’.

In official statements the construction proszę + infinitive is used, e.g. proszę to zrobić ‘please do it’. Despite the appearences, such a form has very categorical meaning. An even more official form (milder, but completely not in everyday use) is the impersonal phrase uprasza się + infinitive or uprasza się o + accusative of gerund, e.g. uprasza się nie palić ‘you are requested not to smoke’, uprasza się pasażerów o przejście na peron drugi ‘the passengers are requested to go over to the second platform’.

A desire in Polish can be also expressed by optative forms, i.e. the conditional mode preceding by oby (with the accreted particle by), e.g. obyś nam żył sto lat ‘may you live for us for 100 years’. More common are forms of the imperative mode with the word tylko ‘only’, e.g. tylko traf = obyś trafił ‘just hit your mark, may you hit home’. Forms with niechby have peculiar imperative-optative meaning. They look like the conditional mode created from the imperative mode.


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