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Impersonal Verbs

Introduction

Verbs can be used transitively, intransitively, pronominally or impersonally.

The impersonal verb uses a dummy subject (il = it), as in 

Il importe de ne rien laisser au hasard

It's important that nothing be left to chance. 

The il or it do not refer to anything in particular here. They are dummy forms. The meaning is Leaving nothing to chance is important.  The most common impersonal form is il y a = there is, there are. Note its other tenses (il y avait, il y a eu, il y aura, etc.). 

Falloir

The ninth most common verb, falloir, only exists an an impersonal. There is no form for je or tu

Il ne faudrait pas que nous nous en réjouissions.

We shouldn't be happy about this.

Il faut exporter: nous récoltons trop de carottes.

We have to export, it is necessary to export...

Il a fallu presque une génération pour que les scientifiques admettent que l'ozone est menacé.

Almost a generation was needed...

Il nous faut décider tout de suite.

We must decide at once. 

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Other impersonals

The most common impersonal, apart from il faut, is il s'agit, which combines an impersonal with a pronominal, but is found in the dictionary under V IMPERS. Il s'agit basically means it's a question of , it's about, but the ways this comes out in English vary very widely. This expression is found in most informative and argumentative texts of a certain length, so it's worth while spending a little time on it. Check it out in your dictionary, copy out a few of the common phrases and keep reviewing them. Here are a few common ways it's used.

Dans ce roman, il s'agit d'une aventure amoureuse.

This novel is about an affair.

De quoi s'agit-il?

What is it? / What's going on?

Il ne s'agit pas d'argent.

It's not a question of money.

Il s'agissait de faire vite.

We had to be quick. / It was necessary to be quick.

With other verbs, the meaning of the impersonal form may be slightly different from that of the standard form, though usually not as different as in the cases of pronominal verbs. If you find an impersonal form in a text, check the impersonal form section of the verb entry in the dictionary. This will make it quicker and easier to find idioms or special meanings. Check out the following in your dictionary. 

convenir   - to suit

il convient de

you should, we should 

rester -    to stay

il reste que

the fact remains that 

se trouver     - to be

il se trouve que

it so happens that 

Que me reste-t-il de la vie? Que me reste-t-il? Que cela est étrange, il ne me reste que ce que j'ai donné aux autres.

What's left of my life?  What's left?  How strange, only what I've given to others is left.
 

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