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Lesson Transcript


Michael: Is it common to omit the subject in Hebrew sentences?
Lenny: And why?
Michael: At HebrewPod101.com, we hear these questions often. Imagine the following situation: Sasha Lee, a highschool student, is in a bookstore with her friend. She points at a book and says,
"[Do you] see that book?"
Sasha Lee: רואה את הספר הזה? (Ro'ah et ha-sefer haze?)
Sasha Lee: רואה את הספר הזה? (Ro'ah et ha-sefer haze?)
Renana Reuven: ?מעניין (Me'anyen?)
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Sasha Lee: רואה את הספר הזה?
Michael: "Do you see that book?"
Renana Reuven: ?מעניין
Michael: "Is it interesting?"

Lesson focus

Michael: Omitting the subject is possible in so-called "pro-drop languages." Pro-drop languages are languages where omitting the pronoun, or the subject, does not affect the information conveyed by the sentence. You can observe this, for instance, in Slavic and Romance languages. We can also call them null-subject languages.
Hebrew is considered a partially null-subject language. The verbs in Hebrew change according to person and number and so, in most cases, if you omit the personal pronoun, you will still be able to understand who the subject is. It is actually very common in spoken language, both in informal and formal situations. Let us have a look at some sentences where the subject can be omitted. For example,
Lenny: [NORMAL] עזור לאחרים, יעזרו לך (Azor le'akherim, ya'azru lekha)
[SLOWLY] עזור לאחרים, יעזרו לך
Michael: The literal translation here is "Help others, will help you," but it really means "If you help others, they will help you." Did you hear how the pronoun was dropped? The sentence still makes sense without it, so it's okay to do so.
As long as we clearly understand who the subject is, we can drop the pronoun in Hebrew. Just remember that omitting the subject pronoun is only okay when the verb is conjugated for grammatical person. Here is another example:
Lenny: [NORMAL] הולכים לים (Holkhim la-yam) [SLOWLY] הולכים לים
Michael: which literally translates to "going to the beach," but it means "We are going to the beach."
As you can hear, no subject was mentioned in this sentence. But why does it still work?
Hebrew conjugates verbs to indicate specific pronouns. This sentence is a null-subject construction, but, in fact, the conjugation shows us who the subject pronoun is. How about we listen to that conjugated verb again?
Lenny: הולכים (holkhim)
Alisha: This form of the verb tells us that the implied subject is "we."
Now listen to this sentence, which is past tense:
Lenny: [NORMAL] הלכנו לים (Halakhnu la-yam) [SLOWLY] הלכנו לים
Michael: literally, "Went to the beach." The word
Lenny: [NORMAL] הלכנו (halakhnu) [SLOWLY] הלכנו
Michael: means "we went." So, really, this is not a true null-subject phrase.
But what about when you have to keep the pronoun for the sentence to make sense? To understand better, let us look at the order of the words in a simple sentence. In Hebrew, most sentences will follow the same structure as in English—in other words: subject, verb, object. For example, we have this sentence:
Lenny: [NORMAL] אני לומד עברית. (Ani lomed Ivrit) [SLOWLY] אני לומד עברית.
Michael: This means "I study Hebrew." In this case, if we leave out the word "I," it will not be clear who we are talking about. In general, subject pronouns must be included in the present tense. Since Hebrew has no verb forms expressing the present tense, the present tense is formed using the present participle—somewhat like the English "I am guarding." The only thing that changes is the grammatical gender and number. So, for example, "I guard" is
Lenny: אני שומר (ani shomer)
Michael: where the word
Lenny: אני (ani)
Michael: means "I am" and
Lenny: שומר (shomer)
Michael: means "guarding." So, following that, "you guard" is
Lenny: אתה שומר (ata shomer)
Michael: and "we guard" is
Lenny: אנחנו שומרים (anachnu shomrim)
Michael: In other words, in present tense cases like this, the pronoun must be kept. In contrast, with the past tense and the future tense, the verb form is inflected for person, number, and gender, giving us sufficient information about the subject. The subject pronoun is therefore normally dropped, except in the third-person. So, in a past tense sentence like
Lenny: [NORMAL] שמרתי (shamarti) [SLOWLY] שמרתי
Michael: meaning "I guarded," or this one:
Lenny: [NORMAL] שמרתם (sh'martem) [SLOWLY] שמרתם
Michael: meaning "You all guarded," it is okay to drop the pronoun. In other words, if the verb takes a suffix to indicate the possessor, you can drop the personal pronoun.
[Recall 1]
Michael: Let's take a closer look at the dialogue.
Do you remember how Renana Reuven says "Do you see that book?"
Katja as Renana Reuven: רואה את הספר הזה?
Michael: The subject here, though implied, is "you," or
Lenny: את (at)
Michael: If you express the subject, the question will be
Lenny: את רואה את הספר הזה? (at Ro'ah et ha-sefer haze?)
Michael: And here is the original question:
Lenny: רואה את הספר הזה? (Ro'ah et ha-sefer haze?)
Michael: which literally means "See that book?" but it translates as "Do you see that book?"
[Recall 2]
Michael: Now let's take a look at our second sentence.
Do you remember how Sasha Lee says "Is it interesting?"
Katja as Sasha Lee: ?מעניין
Michael: The literal translation here is "interesting?" As you can hear, no subject is mentioned. So, let us concentrate on the implied subject of this sentence, which is "it," or
Lenny: זה (ze)
Michael: In this context, we call it a dummy subject because the word "it" replaces the word "book." As I explained before, Hebrew is a verb-second, or a subject-verb-object language, which means that the verb falls in the second position. And, in Sasha Lee's response, it is clear that the implied subject is the book, so therefore it is acceptable that she drops the subject.
Michael: In this lesson, you learned that Hebrew is a partially pro-drop language. When it comes to spoken language, the subject can usually be dropped without losing the meaning of the sentence. However, in the present tense form, the subject is usually kept.
Michael: In some cases, Hebrew word order can be modified, which can be a little confusing to beginners. You might think that Hebrew is breaking its own subject-verb-object rule, with the way some things are expressed. For instance, "it is raining" is said like this:
Lenny: [NORMAL] יורד גשם (yored geshem) [SLOWLY] יורד גשם
Michael: but the direct translation is "descends rain." Rain is the subject. In other words, the construction here is verb-subject. The phrases meaning "It is snowing" and "It is hailing" are formed in the same way. In these cases, Hebrew word order makes the sentences appear to be null-subject, when the subject is, in fact, given after the verb.
Another exception is when the subject is indefinite—meaning an unknown or nonspecific subject. In this case, we will often see the word order verb-object-subject. Like this example:
Lenny: הגיע בשבילך משהו בדואר (Higi'a bishvil'kha mashehu ba-do'ar.)
Michael: meaning "Something came for you in the mail." Literally, it says: "Came for you something in the mail."


Michael: Do you have any more questions? We're here to answer them!
Lenny: !להתראות (lehitra'ot!)
Michael: See you soon!