Impersonal Verbs and How They're Used

Such Verbs Have No Clear Subject Performing Action

wind in trees
Hace viento. (It is windy.). Christian Frausto Bernal/Creative Commons.

Impersonal verbs are fairly rare in Spanish and consist mainly of some weather verbs and certain uses of haber.

Definition of Impersonal Verb

An impersonal verb is one that expresses the action of an unspecified, generally meaningless subject.

In its narrowest sense, an impersonal verb can have no subject. In English, only one such verb — "methinks" — remains in use, and then only in literature or for effect. Impersonal Spanish verbs in this narrow sense include the weather verbs such as llover (to rain), which are also defective verbs because conjugated forms exist only in the third-person singular (as in llueve, it is raining).

In a broader and more usual sense, however, impersonal verbs in English are those that use a meaningless "it" as the subject. The "it," known by many grammarians as an expletive, dummy or pleonastic pronoun, is used not to provide meaning in the sentence but to provide a grammatically necessary subject. In the sentences "It snowed" and "It is apparent he lied," "snowed" and "is," respectively, are impersonal verbs.

In Spanish, no equivalent of "it" is used with impersonal verbs, which stand alone using a third-person singular conjugation. An example of an impersonal verb usage is the es in "Es verdad que estoy loco" (It is true that I am crazy).

In Spanish, sometimes plural verbs can be considered impersonal, as in a sentence such as "Comen arroz en Guatemala" (They eat rice in Guatemala.) Note how in this sentence, the implied subject of the sentence (translated as "they" in English) doesn't refer to anyone in particular. There is no significant difference in meaning between saying "Comen arroz en Guatemala" and "Se come el arroz en Guatemala" (Rice is eaten in Guatemala). In other words this impersonal usage is similar in meaning to that of the passive voice.

Impersonal verbs are known as verbos impersonales in Spanish.

Using the Weather Verbs

The most common weather verbs that are used impersonally in addition to llover are granizar (to hail), helar (to freeze), lloviznar (to drizzle), never (to snow), and tronar (to thunder). Hacer can similarly be used impersonally in phrases such as hacer viento (to be windy).

Verbs used similarly to refer to outdoor phenomena include amanecer (to become dawn), anochecer (to become dark, as at night), and relampaguear (to become brighter).

When used impersonally, these verbs can be used only in the third person, but they can be used in any tense. For example, forms of llover include llovía (it was raining), llovió (it rained), and llovería (it would rain).

In Spanish, the hay form of haber also is considered impersonal. In translation, "there" rather than "it" is used as a dummy pronoun.

Haber as an Impersonal Verb

When used in the third person, haber can have meanings such as "there is," "there are" and "there were."

In the present indicative, haber takes the form of hay when referring to the existence of both singular and plural subjects. So "Hay una mesa" is used for "There is one table," while "Hay tres mesas" is used for "There are three tables."

Traditionally in other tenses, only the singular form is used. Thus you would say "Había una mesa" for "There was one table" and "Habían tres mesas" for "There were three tables." However, although grammar purists may frown on it, it isn't unusual to hear habían used for the plural, or habrían in the future tense.

Ser as an Impersonal Verb

Ser is commonly used impersonally as the equivalent of constructions such as "it is," "it was" and "it will be" in English impersonal expressions. Thus you could say "Es posible que salgamos" for "It is possible we will leave."