Impersonal Sentences in Spanish Grammar

Introduction

Impersonal sentences (las oraciones impersonales) are sentences without a defined grammatical subject. Impersonal sentences allow us to make general statements about customs, rules, the weather and how things are done. In English grammar, impersonal pronouns include you and they as well as the one pronouns anyone, no one, everyone, someone, one. In Spanish grammar, the impersonal pronoun is se and the verb of an impersonal clause is always conjugated in the 3rd person singular.

Learn which verbs can be used to form impersonal sentences and how to distinguish them from other types of sentences. Put your knowledge to the test in Lingolia’s exercises.

Example

Hoy está despejado y por eso hace mucho calor. Sin embargo, se dice que es mejor quedarse en casa esta tarde, porque en unas horas diluviará y seguro que luego se estará más a gusto. Así que creo que hoy no iré al gimnasio, pues me basta con ir mañana. Hoy hay cosas más importantes que hacer y ya es muy tarde.

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Impersonal Expressions

The first type of impersonal sentences are expressions that don’t have a grammatical subject. The verb in these expressions is always conjugated in the 3rd person singular, and they can often be translated into English as "it is".

The table below gives some typical examples of these expressions.

expression example
ser + noun Es una pena que no puedas venir.It’s a pity that you cannot come.
ser + adjective Es importante recolectar dinero para la asociación.It’s important to collect money for the association.
estar + adverb + que/infinitive Está mal que engañen a la gente.
Está mal engañar a la gente.It’s bad to trick people.
bastar/sobrar Basta/sobra con ir mañana.It’s enough/It’s not necessary to go tomorrow.
paracer

Parece de día.It seems like daytime.

Parece que hemos perdido el tren.It seems like we’ve missed the train.

dar

Da gusto verte tocar tan bien el piano.It’s a pleasure to see you playing the piano so well.

tratarse

Se trata de retratar la forma de vida en la Edad Media.It’s about portraying life in the Middle Ages.

Impersonal Verbs

The verb haber

In Spanish, sentences that are formed with the verb haber are transitive (always with an object) and impersonal. Haber can be translated into English as "there is/there are". In Spanish grammar, the verb haber is always conjugated in the 3rd person singular in either the present, past or future and does not agree with gender or number.

Example:
Hay cosas más importantes que hacer.There are more important things to do.
Había muchas personas. (not habían muchas personas.)There were a lot of people.

The verbs ser, hacer and estar

The verbs ser, hacer and estar are used in impersonal sentences that talk about the weather or about the passage of time.

Examples:
Es verano.It’s summer.
Es bastante tarde.It’s quite late.
Por eso hace mucho calor.That’s why it’s so hot.
Hace años que no nos vemos.We haven’t seen each other for years.
Hoy está despejado.It’s clear today.

Impersonal sentences and the weather

Verbs related to the weather are always used in impersonal sentences: amanecer, anochecer, llover, diluviar, nevar, helar, granizar, tronar, escampar, relampaguear, etc.dawn, get dark, rain, pour down, snow, freeze, hail, thunder, clear up, lightning

Example:
anochecer → En verano anochece sobre las diez.In summer it gets dark around ten.
diluviar → En unas horas diluviará.It’s going to pour down in a few hours.
nevar → Mañana nevará en Los Picos de Europa.Tomorrow it’s going to snow in the Peaks of Europe.

Other verbs

In Spanish there are many verbs that are used in impersonal sentences in the 3rd person singular. Some of these verbs are linked to the senses while others are used with a place to talk about negative physical effects (pain, itching etc.). Such verbs include: oler, apestar, doler, picar, escocer, molestar, and zumbar.smell, stink, hurt, itch, burn, bother, buzz

Examples:
Aquí huele a rosas.It smells of roses here.
Me duele en la rodilla.My knee hurts.
Le pica en la nariz.My nose is itching.

The Impersonal se

Impersonal sentences that are formed with the pronoun se are known as impersonales reflejas. The verb is always conjugated in the 3rd person singular. We use the impersonal se with:

  • the verb estar;
    Example:
    Luego se estará más a gusto.Then it will be more pleasant.
    Se está mejor en verano que en invierno.It’s better in summer than in winter.
  • intransitive verbs (no direct object);
    Example:
    Se dice que es mejor quedarse en casa esta tarde.They say it’s better to stay at home this afternoon.
    En verano se duerme mal porque hace calor.Everyone sleeps badly in winter because it’s so hot.
  • transitive verbs;
    Transitive verbs always take a direct object (a person or a thing). When used in impersonal sentences, the direct object of a transitive verb is always a person, preceded by the preposition a. The verb is always conjugated in the 3rd person singular regardless of whether the direct object is singular or plural.
    Example:
    Se entrevistó a un conocido director de orquesta.They interviewed a famous conductor.
    Se entrevistó a los candidatos para el puesto de trabajo.They interviewed candidates for the job vacancy.
    If the direct object is a thing rather than a person, this is no longer an impersonal sentence but a passive sentence. Unlike impersonal sentences, in passive sentences the verb agrees in number with the direct object.
    Example:
    Se vende coche de segunda mano.Second-hand car for sale.
    Se venden coches de segunda mano.Second-hand cars for sale.

Info

Impersonal sentences are often confused with passive sentences (oraciones de pasiva refleja). To determine whether a sentence is impersonal or passive, change the object to plural; if the verb has to change to the 3rd person plural form then it is a passive sentence. If the verb remains in the 3rd person singular it is an impersonal sentence.

Example:
Passive sentence: Se vende casa en primera línea de playa. → Se venden casas en primera línea de playa.House(s) for sale on the beach.
Passive sentence: Se busca actor de doblaje para una película de terror. → Se buscan actores de doblaje para una película de terror.Dubbing actor(s) wanted for a horror film.
Impersonal sentence: Se busca a un actor de doblaje para una película de terror. → Se busca a actores de doblaje para una película de terror.They are looking for (a) dubbing actor(s) for a horror film.

Impersonal sentences with an implied subject

Impersonal sentences are often used with an implied subject that is not explicitly expressed in the sentence.

This omission of a subject can be because of the following reasons:

  • the subject is unknown
Example:
Me robaron la cartera en el metro.They stole my wallet on the metro.
  • the speaker does not wish to name the subject
Example:
Me han regalado unas entradas para el teatro.I got some theatre tickets.
  • to express uncertainty or to be deliberately vague
Example:
Dicen que el profesor de matemáticas está de baja.Apparently the maths teacher is off sick.

There are different types of impersonal sentences with an implied subject.

Occasional Impersonal Sentences

These impersonal clauses are always formed with the 3rd person plural of the verb. We use it to express general statements. In English we often use one/they in this situation.

Example:
Llaman a la puerta.They are knocking on the door.

Impersonal Sentences in the 2nd person singular

These impersonal sentences are formed with the 2nd person singular of the verb (tú), but they do not refer to a speaker, they have a more general meaning. In English we also use the general you in this situation.

Example:
En esta ciudad, si no tienes un buen trabajo, so sobrevives.If you don’t have a good job in this city you won’t survive.

Impersonal Sentences with «uno» or «una»

In these impersonal sentences the 3rd person singular of the verb appears together with uno or una. These sentences can express something general or they express the speaker’s opinion in a neutral way, allowing the speaker to distance themselves from the opinion.

Example:
Cuando una juega con fuego se acaba quemando.If you play with fire you will get burned.
Uno se acostumbra rápido a las comodidades.You can quickly get used to the convenience.