French impersonal verbs

Les verbes impersonnels

Salut, and welcome to our lesson about French impersonal verbs at Language Easy! Impersonal verbs are those verbs that express an action without a doer. They’re pretty much used when talking about the weather, so master them and you’ll never lack of a conversation starter!

Allez, on y va !

Proverb about French mpersonal verbs

What are French impersonal verbs?

Que sont les verbes impersonnels?

French impersonal verbs (les verbes impersonnels) are verbs that express actions without a doer. They are always conjugated at the neutral third singular grammatical person, generally with the personal pronoun IL.

A few examples of impersonal verbs:

  • Il pleut tout le temps en Bretagne!
    It’s always raining in Brittany!
  • Il faut se coucher tôt pour être en forme le matin!
    One has to go to bed early to be active in the morning! (lit. He has-to lie down early in the morning)

Notice that the pronoun used for this type of construction differs from English. Yes, in French, IT doesn’t rain, but HE rains! The use of ça (it) or cela (that) is sometimes correct though in a more informal way of speaking:

  • Tiens, ça pleut!
    Here, it rains!
  • Cela arrive que j’aie raison!
    It can happen that I’m right!

Be aware though, there are a lot of constructions that look like it’s an impersonal verb, but it’s not. For example, in the sentence “‘Ça semble juste!” (It sounds fair), the pronoun is in replacement to that something that sounds fair. You can say, maybe, that these words or that agreement sounds fair… In the above examples, you can’t do this, so it’s impersonal. Nothing is raining, it just rains; nothing is happening, it just does.

In the following sentences, can you tell which construction is impersonal, and which isn’t ?

  • Regarde Marc, il semble triste.
    Look at Marc, he looks sad. (lit. he seems sad)
  • Il semble que quelque chose lui soit arrivé!
    It seems that something happened to him!

Accidentally impersonal verbs

Les verbes accidentellement inpersonnels

Accidentally impersonal verbs (les verbes accidentellement impersonnels) are verbs that are generally not impersonal but also appear in impersonal constructions.

Here is the list:

French accidentally impersonal verbs
to be
Il est bon de penser avant d’agir.
It is good to think before acting.
y avoir
to be (there is)
Il y a beaucoup de clients.
There are a lot of clients.
to be (weather)
Il fait froid aujourd’hui.
It is cold today.
arriver, advenir
to happen
Il arrive de se tromper.
It can happen that ones fails.
to look like
Il semble qu‘il va pleuvoir !
It looks like it’s gonna rain!
paraître que
to be said that
Il paraît que le dernier Tom Cruise est super!
They say that the last movie with Tom cruise is super!
se pouvoir
to be possible
Il se peut que je soit en retard.
It is possible that I be late.
to be eager to
Il me tarde de rentrer à la maison!
I’m eager to be home!
should be that
Il convient de dire bonjour.
One should say hello.
en résulter
as a result
Il a résulté du sondage que la populion est d’accord.
It resulted from the survey that the population is in favor.
s’en déduire
to be inferred
Il se déduit de son alibi qu’il n’est pas coupable.
From his alibi, we can deduce he is not guilty.
to be sufficient
Il suffit de respirer pour être vivant!
It is sufficient to breathe to be alive!
to appear
Il est apparu que c’est toi qui avait raison.
It appeared that you are the one who was right.
ennuyer, fâcher
to bother, to annoy
Ça m’ennuie de devoir toujours t’attendre.
It annoys me to always have to wait for you.

Essentially impersonal verbs

Les verbes essentiellement inpersonnels

Essentially impersonal verbs (les verbes essentiellement impersonnels) are the verbs that are impersonal by nature; they are never used with a subject other than the impersonal IL.

Interestingly, there are only few such verb that doesn’t talk about the weather:

Essentially impersonal verbs
Il faut que tu travailles plus!
You have to work more!
s’en falloir Il s’en a fallu de peu pour que tu ne tombes.
You were close to falling down.
ça va barder!
The situation is going to become violent!

And now is the moment to fulfill our promise to introduce new vocabulary for your converstation starter ability! There are a lot of regionalism, so I put only the most used ones.

Essentially impersonal verbs
Flotter, dracher to rain a lot
Pleuvoir, mouiller, tomber to rain
Bruiner, pluvioter, chouiner to rain a little
venter, souffler to be windy
grêler to hail
neiger to snow
tonner to rumble
tanguer to pitch (boat)

Apparent subject, real subject

Sujet apparent, sujet réel

The verb être, as always, is a very interesting one: it allows us to make an impersonal construction from any sentence of the form action+être+quality by the following construct:

  • Dormir est agréable → il est agréable de dormir.
    Sleeping is enjoyable → it’s enjoyable to sleep.
  • Travailler est fatigant → il est fatigant de travailler.
    Working is tiresome.

It can also have the value of introducing the existence of something, as an alternative to “il y a”:

  • Il est un pays imaginaire où les ours son bleus.
    There is an imaginary country where bears are blue. (lit. It is an imaginary country…)

We generally can distinguish two subjects in the sentence: the real subject (sujet réel), and the apparent subject (sujet apparent). Let’s take this idiomatic sentence which means that it rains very much:

  • Il pleut des cordes!
    It’s raining a lot! (lit. It’s raining cords)

As for any impersonal verb, IL is the apparent subject because it takes the place of the grammatical subject of the verb; however, what is really raining are cords of water, hence they are the real subject of the verb. Such constructions are quite common to further describe meteorological phenomenons, by using a metaphor like we saw, or simply for giving more precision:

  • Il pleut de l’eau très polluée.
    It’s raining a very contaminated water.
  • Il grêle des grelons gros comme des abricots.
    It’s hailing hails as big as an apricot.

So, can you tell the apparent and real subjects in the three first examples of this section?

French impersonal verbs and the Imperative

Les verbes impersonnels à l’impératif

French impersonal verbs are never at the imperative mode, as there is nobody to command if the action has no doer. Essentially impersonal verbs don’t even have an imperative form in their conjugation table.

However, if we really need to make such a command, we use the subjunctive instead.

Imagine that the season is really dry and that I want to encourage water to fall from the sky, then I could say :

  • Allez, qu’il pleuve un peu s’il vous plaît!
    Come on, let it rain a bit please ! (lit. that it rain a bit please!)
  • Qu’il tombe un peu d’eau… Que ça flotte!
    Let it fall a little water, let it rain…

What’s next?

C’est quoi, la suite ?

Et voilà, we reached the end of our lesson about French impersonal verbs. It’s certainly a step forward in your learning. You’ve learned a lot of new words and expressions today, our next lesson for tomorrow will be about pronominal verbs. Keep going, you’re doing good!

Allez, à bientôt !

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