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Don't Take it Personally!

For most people, learning to conjugate verbs probably isn’t the most exciting part of studying a language (unless they have friends like our very own Margaux and Manon, that is). But luckily, in French as in other languages, there are a few verbs that cut you a break. These are the "impersonal verbs," and the beauty of them is that you only have to worry about conjugating them with the pronoun il (he/it). They’re called "impersonal" because they don’t refer to any specific person—il in this case just means "it."

A good number of these verbs have to do with that most impersonal of dinner party topics, the weather. Imagine this conversation between two partygoers who don’t have much to talk about:

Est-ce qu’il pleut dehors? -Non, il neige!

Is it raining outside? -No, it’s snowing!

The two forms that you see above, il pleut and il neige, are the only conjugations of pleuvoir (to rain) and neiger (to snow) that exist in the present tense. This is obviously because people can’t "rain" or "snow": you can’t say je pleux (I rain) or tu neiges (you snow). Unless you have superpowers, that is!

Some other impersonal weather expressions: il gèle (it’s freezing), il bruine (it’s drizzling), il tonne (it’s thundering), il grêle (it’s sleeting).

Next we’ll take a look at one of the most common impersonal verbs, falloir (to have to, to be necessary). In the present tense, you’ll see this as il faut:

Il faut protéger la terre.

We have to protect the earth.

Cap. 2, Nouveaux Talents? - Adonis chante

Il faut deux ans pour former les pilotes d’hélicoptère de l’armée française.

It takes two years to train French Army helicopter pilots.

Cap. 28, Le Journal: École de pilotage

As you can see, you can have "il faut + infinitive" (to have to do something) and "il faut + noun" (to need something). A bit more complicated is the phrase il faut que..., which requires the subjunctive:

Il faut que je fasse la pâte.

I have to make the batter.

Cap. 16, LCM: Recette - Crêpes

Another impersonal verb you’ll see quite frequently is s’agir (to be about), in the expression il s’agit de...:

Il s’agit de voir où sont les abus.

It’s a question of seeing where the abuses are.

Cap. 12, Le Journal: Contrôle des prix alimentaires - Part 1

La seule prison qui se trouve dans Paris intra-muros, il s’agit de la prison de la Santé

The only prison located within Paris itself, namely, the Santé [Health] Prison

Cap. 19, Voyage dans Paris: Le Treizième arrondissement de Paris - Part 1

Note that s’agir is just the reflexive form of agir (to act), which is not an impersonal verb.

Sometimes regular old verbs can become impersonal too. Basic verbs like avoir, être, and faire can be conjugated left and right, but they can also be impersonal:

Il est minuit à Tokyo, il est cinq heures au Mali

It’s midnight in Tokyo, it’s five o’clock in Mali

Cap. 12, Amadou et Mariam: Sénégal Fast Food

Il est intéressant de vivre dans un pays étranger.  

It is interesting to live in a foreign country.

Il y a beaucoup de choses à faire aujourd’hui.

There are many things to do today.

Il fait froid en hiver

It is cold in the winter.

As you can see, impersonal verbs come in handy when you’re talking about the time, the weather, and the general state of things. You can learn more about them on this page

Grammar

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