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French Impersonal Expressions

Expressions impersonnelles


Impersonal expressions are those which do not have a specific subject. In grammatical terms, "impersonal" does not mean cold, but rather invariable by grammatical person. There are a few things you need to know about French impersonal expressions:
  • The French impersonal subject is either il or ce, whereas the English impersonal subject is "it."
  • All of the French impersonal expressions can begin with il est or c'est with no difference in meaning; however, c'est is less formal than il est. Therefore, c'est is more common in spoken French, while il est is more common in written French. (Note: this applies to il est and c'est only in impersonal expressions; in other constructions, there is a difference: c'est vs il est)
There are essentially two different types of constructions with impersonal expressions - either they are followed by que and a subordinate clause, or they are followed by a preposition and infinitive.

1. With que - When using il est or c'est + adjective followed by que, the verb in the subordinate clause may need to be in the indicative or subjunctive, depending on the meaning of the impersonal expression:

   Il est probable que David le fait / C'est probable que David le fait.
   It's probable that David is doing it.

   Il est possible que David le fasse / C'est possible que David le fasse.
   It's possible that David is doing it.

2. Without que - In expressions with il est or c'est + adjective followed by a preposition and infinitive, the choice of preposition depends on the type of subject:

a) When the impersonal subject is a dummy subject, you need the preposition de, and there are two possible constructions:

   impersonal expression + de + intransitive infinitive
   Il est difficile de parler / C'est difficile de parler.
   It's hard to speak. (Speaking is hard)


   impersonal expression + de + transitive infinitive + direct object
   Il est important de dire la vérité / C'est important de dire la vérité.
   It's important to tell the truth.

b) When the impersonal subject is a real subject and the infinitive is used intransitively as a passive infinitive, you must use the preposition à:

   Il est bon à savoir / C'est bon à savoir.
   That's good to know.

   Il est difficile à faire / C'est difficile à faire.
   That's hard to do.

Go on to page 2 for a list of the most common French impersonal expressions.
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