Have you ever wondered if there’s a way to say something in Spanish without being too direct or hurting someone? Or how to hint to someone that something needs to be done without telling them you that want them to do it? All this and more can be accomplished with Spanish's impersonal sentence structures. Consider this:
En casa con tu compañero de casa – At home with your roommate
- La casa es un desastre. Hay que limpiar...
The house is a mess: it’s necessary to clean. (“Someone” needs to do it)
Después de trabajar todo el día te dices a ti misma – After working all day you tell yourself
- ¡Estoy agotada! ¡Y tengo mucho trabajo más por terminar.
I’m exhausted! And I’ve got so much work left.
- Habrá que terminarlo ahora o después será peor.
It’s necessary (I’ll have) to finish it now or it’ll be worse later.
What is impersonality and how do you use it
In a general sense, you can think of impersonal sentence structures as being used to communicate that something must be done without specifying who should do it.
You’ve likely seen sentences in English that use the word “it” or “there is/are” as their subject. These are what we call “impersonal” sentences: sentences where there is no natural subject (like I, you, he, etc.). In English, the more formal the style, the more likely it is that you will see this detached and impersonal form, although you will also find it used in some everyday situations.
Here are a few common use cases of the impersonal in English:
- When you talk about the weather: It’s been raining for the past three days.
- When you want to talk about the existence of something without specifying its location: There are too many books on my nightstand.
- When you want to make generalizations: One cannot learn an entire language in a single month.
In Spanish we have our own way of “hiding” the subject of a sentence, and we do so when we want to avoid being too direct or when we want to put emphasis on the action rather than the doer of that action. Impersonal structures are a lot more common (and much less formal) in Spanish than in English, so I recommend trying to incorporate some of them into your repertoire if you want to sound more like a native.
As a side note, I’ve noticed that impersonality is used almost the same in Serbian (my third language). In fact, even though Spanish and Serbian come from a completely different family of languages, there are many shocking similarities.
How about you? Does impersonality exist in your mother tongue? How is it used?
Formal vs Informal Impersonality
In formal speech in Spanish, we use the passive voice (El planeta está siendo destruído por los humanos → The planet is being destroyed by humans).
In informal speech, or daily situations, we tend to use other forms—especially those which include the pronoun se:
- Se necesitan personas con experiencia.
Experienced people are needed.
- Se habla español.
Spanish is spoken (here).
Common impersonal structures using the pronoun se
Structure one: La pasiva refleja – Passive ‘reflexive’ with se
This impersonal form with the reflexive pronoun se is used much more often in informal speech than the passive form is. In this form, we omit the sentence's subject because we want to highlight the action instead.
At first glance, the impersonal can be easy to confuse with the passive voice, so let’s look at a few examples:
- Oración activa: Los humanos ensucian los océanos.
Active voice: Humans pollute the oceans.
- Oración pasiva: Los océanos son ensuciados por los humanos.
Passive voice: Oceans are polluted by humans.
- Oración pasiva refleja: Se ensucian los océanos.
Passive reflexive sentence: Oceans are polluted.
We form the passive reflexive structure by:
- Se + transitive verb (a verb that takes a direct object) in 3rd person singular form + a singular subject
Example: Se contamina la naturaleza. – Nature is polluted.
- Se + transitive verb in 3rd person plural form + a plural subject
Example: Se contaminan los ríos. – Rivers are polluted.
Structure two: Impersonal se
This is probably the most common manifestation of the impersonal form in Spanish. As with the passive reflexive form, the subject disappears because it’s not important to the message we want to convey. We care more about emphasizing some sort of action.
As opposed to the passive reflexive form, this form can only be used with third person singular pronouns.
Here’s a comparison for you:
- Oración activa: Los humanos creen que la naturaleza se regenera sola.
Active voice: Humans believe nature regenerates itself.
- Oración impersonal: Se cree que la naturaleza se regenera sola.
Impersonal sentence: It is believed nature regenerates itself.
We form the impersonal se sentence structure by:
- Se + verb in 3rd person singular form
Example: Se va a los parques para relajarse.
One goes to the park to relax.
Example: Se camina para estar en forma.
One walks to be (get/stay) in shape.
Structure three: Hay que + infinitive
This impersonal form is my favourite one (yes, I’m a grammar geek if you haven’t noticed yet). The array of meanings and nuances it can convey could fill up a whole new article, so I’ll try to be brief.
A simple use of the auxiliary verb haber can express the notion of obligation, necessity, or, more poetically, the inevitability of life’s responsibilities. Context and intonation alone let native speakers understand which of these aspects is being communicated in a given sentence.
Strictly speaking (grammar geek alert) this structure is what's known as a perífrasis verbal impersonal de infinitivo, which can be translated as an impersonal verbal periphrasis followed by an infinitive. Much like phrasal verbs (verb + preposition combo, such as get up or hear [somebody] out) in English, a verbal periphrasis in Spanish consists of:
- Two or more verbs
- plus a preposition or connector, ultimately
- yielding a new structure takes on a new meaning when compared to the meanings of its constituent words in isolation.
A common verbal periphrasis that all Spanish students learn early on is the structure with ir + a + infinitivo (go to + infinitive), which is used to talk about future plans. Notice how, in this structure, ir means will rather than to go.
There are different kinds of verbal periphrases (some followed by an infinitive, some by a gerund or past participle), but that's a topic for another article.
Here's how to make the hay que strucuture:
Hay (or any other 3rd person singular form of the verb haber) + que + infinitive verb (the root verb form ending in -ar, -er, or -ir).
And here's several examples:
En el trabajo - At work
- Tu jefe al pasar (Your boss passing by):
¡Hay que trabajar más y distraerse menos!
It's an obligation to (you/one must) work more and get distracted less!
En casa con la familia – At home with family
- El basurero está lleno, hay que sacar la basura.
The rubbish bin is full, it’s necessary to take out the trash (nuance: someone needs to do it, but not me!).
Un profesor a su alumno – A teacher to his student
Despite its intrinsic impersonality, this type of periphrasis can be used to convey the idea of putting in an effort to accomplish something, almost as if you were trying to influence the person you're talking to with your opinion. For example:
- Para aprender español hay que revisar, escuchar y hablar todos los días un poco.
In order to learn Spanish, you/one must review, listen and speak a little every day.
Viernes por la mañana en el trabajo – Friday morning at work
In some contexts, this structure can indicate the speaker accepts/considers a situation to be unavoidable.
- Hemos postergado esto por mucho tiempo, habrá que terminarlo ahora o estaremos en problemas.
We’ve put this off for too much time; it needs to get finished now or we’re going to be in trouble.
En una agencia turística – At a tour agency
And, finally, it can also communicate the idea of something being convenient or required. For example:
- Hay que visitar el norte de Chile y no solo el sur para poder tener la experiencia completa.
It’s necessary to visit the north of Chile — not just the south — to get the whole experience.
- ¿Habrá que comprar agua embotellada?
Will it be necessary to buy bottled water?
More in depth information on verbal periphrasis is available here (in Spanish), if you’re interested.
Don't get confused by these lookalikes:
Be careful not to confuse the impersonal use of se with other pronominal verbs like reflexives or the indirect object pronoun in double object pronoun sentences. Consider these examples:
1. Verbo reflexivo recíproco – Reflexive verb with a reciprocal value
With this structure, the action is done by two or more people who both receive the other’s action.
- Se quieren mucho y siempre se abrazan y se besan en público. ¡Es demasiado!
They love each other a lot, and they are always hugging and kissing (each other) in public. It’s a bit too much!
2. Verbo reflexivo – Reflexive verb
With this structure, an action is done by the same person who ends up receiving the action.
- Ella se tiñe el pelo cada seis meses de un color diferente.
She dyes her hair (herself) in a different colour every six months.
3. Double object pronoun sentences
In sentences where there are two object pronouns beginning with an "L" it's necessary to change the indirect object pronoun "le" to "se". In Spanish, you can’t have a “le” precede a “lo/la”.
- ¿Le compraste a tu mamá el regalo?
Did you buy your mom a gift?
- Sí, ya se lo compré.
Yes, I bought her one.
(that se is really a le, but because of the “le + lo/la” rule, le got changed to se.)
4. Verbos de cambio - Verbs of change
There are several verbs in Spanish that represent the idea of change or becoming, such as volverse, hacerse, and quedarse. They are all used with reflexive pronouns, but they all express something slgihtly different: hacerse tends to refer to voluntary changes, whereas volverse refers to involuntary ones, for example.
- Se quedó en casa porque no tenía ganas de salir.
He stayed at home because he didn’t feel like going out.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to being impersonal than what you’d have imagined, especially in Spanish!
On a personal note, I often wonder what that says about the Latin-American culture: the fact that it’s so natural for us to avoid using a defined subject in contrast with how formal the same structure sounds in English. Does that mean we want to avoid conflict or even responsibility? Food for thought.
Hopefully this post will motivate you to use this way of speaking when using Spanish. I can assure you that it’ll gain you points in your next conversation with a native speaker.
¡Hay que intentarlo!
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