- Definition & Preliminary Points
- An impersonal verb is one that is not used with a personal
subject. In other words, such verbs do not occur in the 1st or
2nd person at all, nor the 3rd plural; in fact, they are used
only in the 3rd person singular, and never with any explicit
subject (common noun or pronoun). In other words, when translating
an impersonal verb literally, the subject will always
- English uses some verbs impersonally, e.g. "it is snowing."
It would be silly to say "Herbert is snowing," "Are
you snowing today, dear?" or "Gad zooks, the Cardinals
really snowed yesterday!" Most verbs used impersonally in
English are either so obvious as to require no explanation (as
above), or have a rather archaic ring, as
- It behooves you to study hard before a math test.
- In Latin, there are a few very common verbs used only impersonally
but whose meaning corresponds to verbs not so used in
The Big 3 Impersonal Verbs
- Here are the three most frequently occuring impersonal verbs
in Latin. Note that, being impersonal, these verbs' principal
parts are given only in the 3rd person singular (except for the
infinitive, of course).
- licet, licere, licuit: it is permitted (+ dative)
- oportet, oportere, oportuit: it is fitting, it behooves
- placet, placere, placuit: it is pleasing (+ dative)
- (all three are 2nd conjugation)
Usage of Impersonal Verbs
in Latin, & Literal Translation into English
- The usage of these three impersonal verbs is consistent.
Each is construed with a person involved, either in the dative
or accusative (see above), and with an infinitive of the action
that is permitted, fitting, or pleasing. To put it in formulaic
- It is permitted for X to Y. [X = dative
of person & Y = infinitive]
- It is fitting for X to Y. --or-- It behooves
X to Y. [X = accusative of person &
Y = infinitive]
- It is pleasing to X to Y. [X = dative of
person & Y = infinitive]
Converting to Personal
Translation in English
- Each of these verbs conveys an idea that English can, and
indeed may prefer, to express with a personal verb, viz.:
- It is permitted for X to Y. = X MAY
- It is fitting for X to Y. = X OUGHT
- It is pleasing to X to Y. = X DECIDES
- The pattern is consistent: to convert from impersonal to
personal verb, take the dative/accusative of the person and make
it into the subject; use the personal verb; retain the infinitive
(except with licet, when you lose the "to").
- Please note, however, that conversion to a personal verb
will not always work. For example:
Notes & a Caveat
- Latin has other ways to express the ideas implicit in two
of these verbs. oportet can be replaced with debeo,
which is used personally; likewise constituo pretty much
is synonymous with placet. licet, on the other
hand, is unique; there's no easy way around it, if you want to
express an action that is permitted.
- By the way, be very careful with how "may" is used
in English. It may be a subjunctive helping verb, as used (for
instance) to translate purpose clauses:
- venio ut te videam
- I am coming so that I may see you.
- But "may" is also used in English as a "modal
auxiliary," a special kind of helping verb that indicates
- You may stay at my house.
- tibi licet venire apud me.
- One test (not foolproof) to determine the difference: when
"may" is a subjunctive helping verb, it is in a subordinate
- Wait...There's More!
- There are two more points to raise in connection with impersonal
- (1) Certain intransitive regular verbs can be used
in what's called "the impersonal passive," an awkward
construction utterly foreign to English usage. Hence:
- milites fortiter pugnaverunt.
- The troops fought bravely.
- fortiter pugnatum est.
- Literally: "It was fought bravely." Better: "The
battle was waged fiercely." or "There was a fierce
- Verbs of motion may be similarly used:
- tertia hora Romam ventum est.
- It was arrived at the third hour at Rome. or Rome
was reached at the third hour.
- (2) Verbs that take the dative, rather than a direct object,
may only be used impersonally in the passive. This is
hard to remember, because several straightforward, transitive
verbs in English (e.g. "persuade") take the dative
in Latin, and cannot be used with personal passive. Thus:
- Pompeius was spared.
- = It was spared to Pompeius
- Pompeio parsum est.
- You will be persuaded to leave.
- = It will be persuaded to you that you leave. (Remember:
"persaude" introduces an indirect command in Latin,
but only an infinitive in English.)
- tibi persuadebitur ut discedas.
- Don't worry too much now about these last two points, which
really represent the outer fringes of predictable Latin syntax.