German/Grammar/Impersonal verbs

Sometimes you need talk about something happening but need to be vague about what's causing it. This can pose a problem for grammar because in many languages, including English and German, you need to include this information to make a grammatical sentence. One way to handle this in both English and German is the passive voice, which we'll cover in another section. Another way, again used by English and German, is to use a special word which serves as a placeholder for the information that's not there, and that will be the main topic of this section. We'll talk about certain verbs which use these placeholders as part of their meaning. These are verbs where no actual subject is needed, but a "placeholder" subject is used instead to satisfy the rules of grammar.

Terminology edit

Consider the sentence "It's raining." What, exactly, is raining, the air? the sky? a cloud? The "it" in "It's raining," is known as an impersonal pronoun. This is a new type of pronoun used when a subject or other noun is required by grammar, but the pronoun doesn't refer to anything in particular. In fact, given that a pronoun is supposed to refer to something, perhaps it's not really appropriate to call it a pronoun at all. Another term is "dummy pronoun". So when you want refer to things in general, or to no one in particular, or to nothing really at all, you'd use an impersonal pronoun. Their main function is to serve as grammatical placeholders, something to fill the spot where a noun is expected but the information needed isn't there. For example, most sentence types in German as well as English require a subject, in other words a "doer" for whatever is being "done", but what happens when there is no "doer"? In English one solution is to use the impersonal pronoun "it". This is not the same as the personal pronoun "it", referring to a specific thing, but in this sense the "it" refers to the environment, life in general, or nothing at all. The impersonal "it" is often used with the weather, as in "It's raining," or "It's cold outside," but it can be used in many other ways as well, for example "How's it going?" and "It was nice of you to call." A verb that requires an impersonal "it", or which takes a special meaning when accompanied by an impersonal pronoun, is called an impersonal verb. An impersonal verb may also be classified as intransitive, transitive, ditransitive, or some other type, depending on whether it expects any nouns in addition to the impersonal pronoun.

Using impersonal verbs edit

Just as English uses "it" as both a personal pronoun and impersonal pronoun, German uses es as both a personal and impersonal pronoun. For example:

  • Es regnet. – "It's raining."

This is from regnen – "to rain". As with the other meaning of es, the verb is conjugated using the third person singular when the subject is the impersonal pronoun es. To form a question you must put the verb first as usual:

  • Regnet es? – "Is it raining?"

The future tense, again, works as expected.

  • Es wird regnen. – "It will rain."

Other weather related verbs are:

  • frieren – "to be freezing"
  • gießen – "to pour (rain hard)"
  • hageln – "to hail"
  • stürmen – "to storm"
  • ziehen – "to be drafty"

Other impersonal verbs edit

Other impersonal verbs exist in German. Word for word translations seldom work, and you must learn the impersonal meaning separately from any other the meanings the verb may have. These are some of the most common ones.

sein edit

This is also used for weather, but when you want to describe conditions rather than to say something is happening. For example:

  • Es ist kalt draußen. – "It's cold outside."

This impersonal es is also used as a predicate when you're identifying yourself or someone else. For example:

  • Ich bin es. – "It's me."

There are a couple of differences between the ways that German and English handle this situation. First, the subject and the predicate have swapped roles, so in German the person (ich) is the subject and the impersonal pronoun (es) is the predicate. Now that ich is the subject, the verb is conjugated as bin. Recall that both the subject and predicate take the nominative case with sien, so "me" has been converted to ich. When you ask this as a question, everything stays the same exept the verb moves to the first position:

  • Bist du es? – "Is it you?"

In addition, there are many combinations of sien with the point-of-view dative; see below for details.

geben edit

This may be classified as impersonal transitive because it requires an accusative object. It's used to state that something exists, so it may be translated as "there is" or "there are". For example:

  • Es gibt viele Leute in Deutschland. – "There are many people in Germany."
  • Es gibt ein Kind hier. – "There is a child here."
  • Gibt es Kaffee? – "Is there coffee?"

gehen, laufen edit

You can say "Es geht ..." with an adjective to describe how you feel about the general state of things. It's very similar to the English expression "It's going ...", being almost a literal translation. As you might expect, it's commonly heard in small talk.

  • Wie geht es? – "How is it going?"
  • Es geht gut. – "It's going well."

You may substitute laufen for gehen with about the same meaning, though the literal translation of laufen – "to walk or run", doesn't really work in English.

  • Wie läuft es? – "How is it going?"

As with many common expressions, this is especially prone to being shortened in speech. Thus we get the greeting:

  • Wie geht's? – "How are you?"

The point-of-view dative edit

This is an important use of the dative case, and since it's very often used with impersonal verbs, this is a good place to talk about it. This is a situation where a little knowledge of German grammar, such as the indirect object use of the dative, can be more confusing than helpful, because this use of the dative is used in many common expressions, and yet seems to contradict the laws of grammar which learners have worked so hard to master.

The rule itself is not that complicated though. It states that if you want to say a given statement is according to someone's own experience, opinion, or point of view, you can simply insert the dative of the person in question into the sentence. For example:

  • Die Suppe ist heiß. – "The soup is hot."

This is a plain statement which leaves no room to consider whether heiß/"hot" is a matter of opinion. If you want to say the soup is hot according to your standards, but not assume that everyone will feel the same way, then insert the dative mir:

  • Die Suppe ist mir heiß. – "To me, the soup is hot."

Another example:

  • Deutsch ist mir schwer. – "German is difficult for me."

You're not saying German is intrinsically difficult, but that you in particular are having a hard time with it.

Now let's see how this can be applied to the examples above.

  • Wie geht's? – "How are you?"
  • Mir geht's gut. – "I'm doing well."

Notice that the subject, "I", in the English version is now in the dative case in the German version; this is because the German version says that, from your point of view, things are going well, but you're not claiming that everyone is so fortunate. Meanwhile, the actual subject, es, in the German version has been reduced to 's and tacked onto the end of the verb like an afterthought instead of being the first word in the sentence as you might expect as an English speaker. This is allowed, as you should recall, because German has flexible word order and words like the impersonal es, basically just a placeholder, would rarely be placed in such a prominent position as the start of the sentence. It all makes sense once you understand what's going on, but you can probably see how the overall result might seem wrong if you're not used to it.

There are many more such examples with sein. Let's start with:

  • Es ist mir heiß. – "To me, it's hot."

This is just a way of saying that you're feeling hot, or, to put it simply, "I'm hot." This English version is ambiguous though since it could also mean that you're feverish or sexually attractive. One of these latter interpretations would be assumed if you were to naively use the phrase Ich bin heiß.

We mentioned that the impersonal es would rarely go first in a sentence. In fact, with sein you would normally drop it altogether using the power of ellipsis. So the most common phrasing would be:

  • Mir ist heiß. – "I'm (feeling) hot."

There are several adjectives that are, or at least can be, used this way, some of which are not obviously related to the weather or the environment:

  • Ist dir langweilig? – "Are you bored?"
  • Ihm ist schlecht. – "He feels sick."
  • Mir ist schwindlig. – "I feel dizzy."

We've mentioned that gut would normally mean quality, moral fitness, or being well behaved. To say you are felling well or healthy, the point-of-view form is more appropriate:

  • Mir ist gut. – "I'm (feeling) good."

But keep in mind that the pattern is not universal:

  • Bist du müde? – "Are you tired?"

Since this is more a property of the adjective in question than sein, you can use this idea with other copulative verbs:

  • Wird dir langweilig?. – "Are you getting (starting to feel) bored?"
  • Mir bleibt schwindlig. – "I'm still feeling dizzy."


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