Russian: Common Pitfalls

For someone whose native language is not Slavic, Russian is not an easy language to master. There is little in common between your language’s vocabulary and Russian’s, the grammar is different and the syntax is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It’s only natural, therefore, that you make mistakes – and that is fine. Whenever you make mistakes, you are practising the language, and any practice is useful. Of course, there’s no learning without having those mistakes corrected – and that’s where this post comes in. I will try to clear up some of the common mistakes made by beginner and lower intermediate learners, which will hopefully make it easier for you to get better practice and move on to other topics in the language.

‘If’ sentences with если and ли

This point can be especially confusing to learners. In Russian, there are two “words” that can serve as translations for ‘if’ – если and ли. The word если is used for ‘if’ in sentences like “If you practise, you will learn”. The particle ли is used for ‘if’ in places where it can be replaced with ‘whether’, like “I don’t know if [whether] I should work today”.

An important detail to understand is that ли is not a word in itself, but a particle that needs to follow the word being questioned. This can present further difficulties – for example, the sentence “I don’t know if I should work today” is rendered in Russian as “Я не знаю, стоит ли мне сегодня работать”. There is some figuring out that needs to be done on the speaker’s part – since the particle ли follows the word being questioned, you need to figure out what that word is. In this case, ‘worth’ is that word. If you say “Я не знаю, мне ли стоит сегодня работать”, for instance, you’re saying that you’re not sure if it’s you who should work today [or someone else].

Это

There are four Russian determiners synonymous to ‘this’ – этот, эта, это, эти for masculine, feminine, neuter and plural, respectively. They are mostly used before a noun phrase to make it more specific. However, это can also be used on its own as a subject, which makes it synonymous to “this is” as in “Это очень интересный фильм.” (“This is a very interesting film.”). None of the other three words can be used in that capacity (using эта there is wrong).

Implied meanings of cases

Some cases in Russian have implied meanings, which means that sometimes, words can be used in those cases without any prepositions. For instance, most ‘of’ objects will be rendered as a simple genitive object in Russian; many of the ‘to’ objects will be rendered as simple dative; and ‘by’ objects are very often translated as an instrumental object:

Пример доброго поступка — помочь бабушке перейти дорогу.
An example of a kind deed is helping an old woman cross a road.

Дай это Саше, пожалуйста.
Give this to Sasha please.

Эта пьеса написана Шекспиром.
This play is written by Shakespeare.

Possession

As you may know, most of the time Russian does not use a verb for possession. Instead, it is expressed with the phrases у меня or у меня есть. There is an important distinction to be made between the two – у GEN is used for qualities or properties, something that cannot be taken away from an object, whereas у GEN есть is used for possession of objects. Also, a place, like a city or country, having something, for instance a city having many restaurants, would be expressed with a different construction altogether – instead of у GEN, в PREP is used. Some examples:

У меня синие глаза.
I have blue eyes.

У тебя есть деньги?
Do you have money?

В этом городе красивая архитектура.
This city has beautiful architecture.

В этом городе есть много ресторанов.
This city has many restaurants.

Теперь vs сейчас

A subtle distinction not present in English is made in Russian for the concept of ‘now’. The word теперь is ‘now’ used to express something beginning now and having no foreseeable end. The word сейчас, on the other hand, expresses something being true or happening in this moment only. A helpful test to see if you should use теперь or сейчас involves replacing ‘now’ with “right now”. If the sentence doesn’t lose meaning, you should use сейчас; otherwise, use теперь.

Теперь я знаю, когда использовать это слово.
Now I know when to use this word.

На улице сейчас холодно.
It’s cold outside right now.

Тоже vs также

Yet another nuance that often confuses learners, тоже and также are both words for ‘also’. The difference is grammatical, and there’s no simple catch-all rule for it, but it essentially comes down to the nature of things being put together. If you’re adding an object that has the same quality, you use тоже, for instance:

Я студент. Мой друг Саша тоже студент.
I am a student. My friend Sasha is also a student.

The word также is used when you’re adding an object that has the same kind of quality, but a different one:

Я студент. Я также работаю программистом онлайн.
I am a student. I also work online as a programmer.

In the example above, you are putting together qualities that are different instances of the same kind of quality – occupation.

Здесь vs тут

There are plenty of little distinctions in meaning between words that catch you off-guard and make your speech not quite right. This is not one of them. Both of these mean ‘here’, and there is no discernible difference between the two. Happy days!

Conclusion

Hopefully these notes have cleared up some of the confusion you may have had. I welcome any feedback, so if some part of this post isn’t clear, or if you think I missed something important, let me know! If you’d like to practise the grammar features mentioned here, consider completing the following exercises. To check yourself, hover over [ANSWER] to reveal the answer. The [TRANSLATION] element contains the English translation for some especially long or complex sentences.

Exercise 1.

Fill in the gaps with есть where necessary.

  1. У меня _______ русское имя. Ты из России? [ANSWER]
  2. У меня _______ жена и двое детей. [ANSWER]
  3. В нашем городе _______ стадион. [ANSWER]
  4. У неё _______ длинные волосы. [ANSWER]
  5. У меня _______ идея! [ANSWER]
  6. В его квартире _______ две спальни. [ANSWER]

Exercise 2.

Fill in the gaps with теперь and сейчас.

  1. _______ 12 часов дня. [ANSWER]
  2. Со мной рассталась моя девушка, и _______ я не знаю, что делать. [ANSWER] [TRANSLATION]
  3. Я купил очки — _______ я хорошо вижу. [ANSWER]
  4. _______ мне весело, но через пару часов мне будет очень плохо. [ANSWER] [TRANSLATION]
  5. Я купил iPhone 6S, и _______ у меня нет денег на еду. [ANSWER] [TRANSLATION]

Exercise 3.

Fill in the gaps with тоже and также.

  1. Ты купил новый телефон? Я _______ хочу такой! [ANSWER]
  2. Я свободно говорю по-русски, а _______ по-немецки и по-французски. [ANSWER]
  3. Наша фирма _______ предоставляет медицинское страхование. [ANSWER] [TRANSLATION]
  4. Он со мной в одной группе — он _______ учит русский. [ANSWER]

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EngiN33R

Developer, human and programming language enthusiast, teacher at heart. Please remember: all my opinions are independent and subjective.

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