Impersonal construction

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An impersonal construction is a clausal construction in which no subject is realized, or at least no referential subject.


The following examples are impersonal constructions from German:

Es wird getanzt.

Dancing is going on. (impersonal passive)

Man trägt diesen Sommer weiß.
one wear.3SG this summer white

One wears white this summer. (construction with impersonal pronoun in subject position)

Japanese does not require an overt/dummy subject, as is demonstrated in this example:

Nichiyobi heiten

We are closed on Sundays. (cited after Yamamoto 2006: 4)


In the recent linguistic literature, a clear distinction has been made between passives and impersonal constructions (cf. Blevins 2003, Yamamoto 2006).

  • "Whereas passivization detransitivizes a verb by deleting its logical subject, impersonalization preserves transitivity, and merely inhibits the syntactic realization of a surface subject." (Blevins 2003).

The non-realized subjects of impersonals are often interpreted as indefinite human agents, thus those constructions are often only possible with verbs which select a human agent. In languages which require an overt subject (i.e. languages not allowing pro-drop) an expletive subject is used.

Other constructions that have been called "impersonal" are:

  • constructions with an expletive subject (e.g. it is raining, Russian svetaet 'it dawns')
  • "subjectless" experiential constructions with the experiencer in a non-nominative case (e.g. Latin me pudet 'I am ashamed', German mich friert 'I am cold')



  • Blevins, James P. 2003. Passives and Impersonals. Journal of Linguistics 39: 473-520.
  • Lambert, P.-Y. 1998. L’impersonnel. In J. Feuillet (ed.). Actance et valence dans les Langues de l’Europe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 295-347.
  • Yamamoto, Mutsumi. 2006. Agency and Impersonality. Their Linguistic and Cultural Manifestation. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Other languages

French construction impersonnelle
German unpersönliche Konstruktion