How to Use Impersonal Verbs in Spanish

English and Spanish have them but use them in different ways

Woman in Tulum, Mexico, feeling raindrops fall.
¡Llueve! (It's raining!).

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Impersonal verbs, verbs that don't refer to the action of a specific entity, are used in both English and Spanish, although in different ways. Known as verbos impersonales in Spanish, they are fairly rare. They consist mainly of some weather verbs and certain uses of haber and ser along with their English equivalents.

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. 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).

Applying this strict definition to English, only one impersonal verb—"methinks"—remains in use, and then only in literature or for effect.

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 pronoun, 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, 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.

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, literally to make or do wind). Other weather-related hacer phrases include hacer buen tiempo (to have good weather), hacer calor (to be hot), hacer frío (to be cold), hacer mal tiempo (to have bad weather), and hacer sol (to be sunny).

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), ha llovido (it has rained), and llovería (it would rain).

Haber as an Impersonal Verb

In Spanish, the hay form of haber also is considered impersonal. In translation to English, "there" rather than "it" is used as a dummy pronoun. 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 "Había 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 habrán in the future tense.

Ser as an Impersonal Verb

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).

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." Note how "it" doesn't refer to anyone or anything in particular but is included simply so "is" can have a subject.

Key Takeaways

  • Impersonal verbs are those which the subject of the verb is no person or entity in particular.
  • When impersonal verbs are used, Spanish doesn't use a noun or pronoun as the subject, omitting the subject entirely. In English, "it" and sometimes "there" are used as dummy subjects for impersonal verbs.
  • Impersonal verbs are used only in the third person.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "How to Use Impersonal Verbs in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 28). How to Use Impersonal Verbs in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "How to Use Impersonal Verbs in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).