Impersonal verbs

(German verbs only used with the pronoun ‘es’)

Table of contents – impersonal verbs

On this page you will find the following:

  1. What are impersonal verbs?
  2. Impersonal use of personal verbs
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What are impersonal verbs?

In German grammar, impersonal verbs (in German: unpersönliche Verben) are action words that can be used only with the personal pronoun ‘es’ (it) and not with the others, such as ‘ich, du, er, wir’ (I, you, he, we). This type of verb has no valency (avalent) since it neither requires a subject nor an additional constituent. However, the word ‘es’ as personal pronoun takes the place of the subject in the sentence and serves as a dummy subject (expletive).

  • Compare the use of German impersonal verbs in the following examples. Most of these verbs typically express the weather:
    • schneien (to snow), regnen (rain), hageln (hail), gewittern (thunder), donnern (thunder), dämmern (dawn), etc.
    • Example sentences:
      • Es schneit schon den ganzen Tag.“ (It has been snowing all day.)
        • Du schneist …“ (You are snowing …)
        • This construction or a similar one that includes a proper subject is not possible.
      • „In meinem letzten Urlaub hat es nur geregnet.“ (During my last holiday, it was always raining.)
        • Likewise, the word ‘es’ has no meaning here. It merely occupies the position of the subject.
      • „Wir müssen uns beeilen; es donnert bereits.“ (We must hurry; there’s a thunderstorm already.)
        • The verb ‘donnert’ can be utilized only in the third person with ‘es’.

Impersonal use of personal verbs

Besides the pure impersonal verbs listed above, some personal verbs exist that can function impersonally in addition to their regular personal use.

  • Among others, the following verbs belong to this group:
    • geben (there is/are), klingeln (to ring), läuten (ring), klopfen (knock), riechen (reek/smell), spuken (be haunted), ziehen (there is a draught), brennen (burn), geschehen (happen), etc.
    • Example 1:
      • Es klingelt an der Tür; machst du bitte auf.“ (The doorbell is ringing; will you please open.)
        • The statement shows the verb ‘klingeln’ in its impersonal use with ‘es’ as the dummy subject.
      • Mein Nachbar hat gerade geklingelt.“ (My neighbour has just rung the bell.)
        • Here, however, the sentence illustrates the personal use with ‘mein Nachbar’ (my neighbour) as the subject.
    • Example 2:
      • „Hier riecht es schon etwas komisch, oder nicht?“ (It smells a bit strange in here, doesn’t it?)
        • The verb ‘riecht’ (smells) requires the impersonal use with ‘es’.
      • „Puh, du riechst aber stark nach Zigarettenrauch.“ (Whew, you smell a lot like cigarette smoke.)
        • In this case, the personal use with ‘du’ as the subject is possible.

Further explanations relating to the ‘Impersonal verbs’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Using impersonal verbs in the German language’ and could also be interesting:

  • Conjugation of verbs
  • Personal pronouns in German grammar
  • The subject (phrase controlling the verb)