Russian Quick Fix: Impersonal Sentences

Acquiring a new language is a long journey, especially if your mother tongue is significantly different from your target language. Russian is fairly hard for English speakers as well as for speakers of other non-Slavic languages. Yet, there are some tricks that may help you to improve your Russian almost instantly. Well, maybe “instantly” is a strong word, but if you work on some particular grammatical structures first, you’ll start speaking like a native Russian sooner than by simply following traditional textbooks.

If English is your first language, you might have noticed that non-native speakers don’t use phrasal verbs much. Phrasal verbs, for example, check in, speak up, break down, and so on, are not hard to learn. In fact, they are usually short and easy. English speakers use phrasal verbs a lot. Still, many English textbooks and courses do not cover this topic at all, or cover it in the courses for intermediate-advanced students. Similarly, very few Russian textbooks teach impersonal sentences. Impersonal sentences are easy and usually shorter than standard sentences, and they are very common. I could write an entire article in Russian using only impersonal sentences, and native speakers wouldn’t even notice anything unusual. When you learn how to build and use impersonal sentences, your Russian will improve immediately.

One of the reasons why it is so hard to start speaking a new language is that every language builds sentences in a different way. Some languages require strict word order. In English, it is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), which means a normal English sentence starts with a subject, then has a verb, and an object goes third. Technically, Russian is an SVO language, too, but unlike English, Russian allows to shuffle subjects, verbs, and objects any way you like. The word order in Russian is a matter of emphasis, of what exactly a speaker wants to say. For example, a simple sentence, ‘She loves him,’ would be in Russian:
– Она любит его. She loves him.
– Она его любит. She loves him, not anyone else.
– Любит она его. She loves him, and this is why she acts like that.
I could continue, but I think you get the point.

Along with flexible word order, the Russian language has another distinctive feature: It allows to build sentences that describe events not like actions, but like experiences. In English, you can say, “I like this movie!” but your Russian, friends would say, “Мне нравится это кино!” literally, “To me, liked this movie.” The English sentence makes YOU a subject; you express your opinion on the movie. In Russian, you are just a recipient, a receptacle that is filled with emotions about the movie. It’s actually the movie that is the subject in this sentence, and you are affected by its charm. These grammar structures depict the reality as processes and conditions happening on their own, independently. The logical subject in those sentences can be totally omitted or presented in the Dative case (or Genitive), which is the case for a receiver, similar to the English preposition “to”. Because of the lack of an actual “person”, this type of sentence is called impersonal. This is how the Russian language describes the world: We may do things (SVO), but very often, things just happen, and we experience them and are influenced by them, rather than initiate them.

You can always build a normal SVO sentence instead of impersonal to convey the same idea, but, just like phrasal verbs in English, impersonal sentences in Russian are so natural and omnipresent that you might want to invest some time in adjusting your habits and acquiring a new language skill – the skill of speaking like a Russian. Also, from a grammatical point of view, impersonal sentences are easy. Here are some of the most common impersonal structures that you should learn:

1. Надо, нужно for ‘need’, ‘have to’, ‘should’. These words take Dative for the logical subject.
Мне нужно идти. I have to go.
Тебе надо отдохнуть. You need to take a rest.

2. Можно and нельзя for may/can and may not/cannot. These words should be your first choice for possible/allowed and impossible/prohibited actions. They also take Dative.
Ему можно есть мясо. He can eat meat.
Ей нельзя водить машину. She is not allowed to drive.

3. Хочется for want and нравится for like. Don’t forget to put the logical subject in Dative.
Нам хочется смеяться. We want to laugh.
Вам нравится путешествовать. You like travelling.

4. Dative + Adverbs for physical and emotional conditions. This is the simplest way to say how you feel.
Мне холодно. I’m cold.
Ей грустно. She’s sad.

5. Location + Adverb for describing environment. Also very easy.
На улице жарко. It is hot outside.
В комнате грязно. It is dirty in this room.

6. Dative + Adverb + Infinitive for actions that cause emotions, feelings in you (this description is longer and more complicated than the actual sentences):
Мне трудно учить китайский язык. Learning Chinese is hard to me.
Им приятно видеть старых друзей. They are pleased to see old friends.

7. Есть for haves, нет for have-nots. This structure takes у + Genitive:
У меня есть идея. I’ve got an idea.
У тебя нет времени. You have no time.

8. Negative pronouns for impossible or unnecessary actions:
Мне нечего сказать. I have nothing to tell.
Ему некуда пойти. He has nowhere to go.

As I learned from my teaching experience, many students have no problem with understanding impersonal sentences, but it takes them some time to internalize the new structures. I post lessons and articles on my Patreon where I explain each of these structures in detail and offer exercises and practice tasks. I designed my lessons so that you can acquire new language skills naturally, and make them a part of your language repertoire. Become my patron and learn Russian faster and smarter!