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The Spanish word hay means there is/are, however it comes from the present indicative impersonal third-person for of the verb haber.

When constructing most impersonal phrases such as "one must" - "se debe", you take the impersonal pronoun "se" and follow it with the verb in the third-person (e.g. "debe").

Why does hay not follow the pattern of other impersonal formations?

Is this down to its etymology?

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No, it doesn't have anything to do with its etymology, although it's an interesting one. It's just that haber is an impersonal verb per se. Follow the previous link and look for the meanings marked as "impers.". You need to use se when using a non-impersonal verb (such as deber) in an impersonal sentence.

The meanings of haber in such sentences are these ones:

  1. impers. Estar realmente en alguna parte. Haber veinte personas en una reunión. Haber poco dinero en la caja.
  2. impers. Hallarse o existir real o figuradamente. Hay hombres sin caridad. Hay razones en apoyo de tu dictamen.

There are many impersonal verbs, most of them being related to the weather: llover, nevar, granizar, atardecer, diluviar, brisar, and so on. None of them need the se to form sentences.

Note that you still need to use se with haber when the verb is not used in any of its impersonal meanings:

Se ha de venir bien vestido.

In the case of the last example, the meaning is not impersonal:

  1. aux. U. con infinitivo que denota deber, conveniencia o necesidad de realizar lo expresado por dicho infinitivo. He DE salir temprano. Habré DE conformarme.
  • Sorry, I got mixed up! I would just like to ask, is there any official word for the "hay" form of the verb, it comes, etymologically from "ha" (he/she/it has) + I (from the Latin ibi - there). Is this a reusable formation or is it unique to hay? For example, frivolously, could I say "da" (he/she/it gives) + I to form "it gives me there"? – BladorthinTheGrey Sep 23 '16 at 21:20
  • @BladorthinTheGrey no, it's not a reusable formation. The hay form is unique, I can't think right now of any other verb with a similar construction. – Charlie Sep 23 '16 at 21:25
  • @BladorthinTheGrey at best it'd be called the forma especial impersonal. Note that interestingly you don't use hay when referring to time, despite it being equally as impersonal: cinco años ha, hice algo (and not *cinco años hay hice algo) – user0721090601 Sep 24 '16 at 1:07

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