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I'm reading Гарри Поттер и философский камень and came across a sentence I'm curious about:

Ему вообще казалось, что теперь его ничем не удивишь.

Why is удивишь in the second person? I've googled around a bit and it seems like this is a common construction, so maybe it's just idiomatic? Does it literally mean something "you won't surprise him with anything"?

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  • What the original English sentences? Mar 23, 2023 at 10:28
  • *What is the original English sentence?
    – CocoPop
    Apr 24, 2023 at 15:20

4 Answers 4

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In Russian, the future tense of perfective verbs isn't only used in the temporal sense; there are several other meanings, among which is a modal nuance of possibility/impossibility. In an impersonal sentence, a 2nd person perfective verb in the future tense denotes possibility:

  • In negation (as in your original question). Его ничем не удивишь = Его нельзя удивить.
  • With generalizing words, the word только and in some stable expressions. Везде увидишь = везде можно увидеть. Такое увидишь только во сне! = Такое можно увидеть только во сне! Со смеху помрешь = можно умереть со смеху.

Other uses of 2nd person perfectives in the future tense in impersonal sentences do not indicate possibility! They have a different meaning (a non-temporal property). Proverbs belong to this type. Что посеешь, то и пожнешь.

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  • Isn't something like удивишь actually a 2nd person perfective in the PRESENT tense, which was a future interpretation?
    – CocoPop
    Apr 24, 2023 at 15:14
  • Удивить is a perfective verb. It has no present tense form.
    – Atoma
    Apr 24, 2023 at 18:23
  • I'm talking about the conjugation. According to Wikipedia, "Grammatical conjugation is subject to three persons in two numbers and two simple tenses (present/future and past)" They combine present/future because they have the same form, but different interpretations. For instance, читаю and прочитаю have the same ending/conjugation, but one has a present interpretation and the other a future interpretation. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_grammar#Verbs
    – CocoPop
    Apr 24, 2023 at 18:47
  • I don't understand what you are asking. There are two verb aspects in Russian. Читаю is present tense (буду читать is future tense), прочитаю is future tense (has no present). Conjugation is the change in persons. Conjugation has no effect on the tense.
    – Atoma
    Apr 24, 2023 at 19:14
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[...] so maybe it's just idiomatic?

Not really. This type of construction is called "обобщённо-личное предложение". The second-person form indicates that the actor is indefinite and generalized, and that the action isn't bound to any particular tense and can happen any time, i.e., that the sentence could be attributed to any actor at any time.

  • "You never can tell with bees" = "Разве знаешь, что пчёлам в голову придёт?" (literary translation from the book). Literal translation: "С пчёлами никогда не знаешь наверняка".
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It means "he felt like you couldn't surprise him with anything anymore."

It's idiomatic, but it's not that different from English constructs with "you can't".

Think of constructs like this as something along the lines of "you won't be able to", but with the "be able to" part omitted and implied.

  • Что написано пером, не вырубишь топором // What's written down, lives forever (lit. "what's written with a quill, you can't cut out with an axe")
  • Его отсюда калачом не выманишь // He won't leave this place for love or money (lit. "you can't lure him out of here even with a kalach")
  • Плетью обуха не перешибёшь // You can't fight City Hall (lit. "you can't break an axe handle with a whip")
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This use of the 2p perfective in Russian is equivalent to English general you:

He had a feeling that he'd seen everything

[="you" couldn't surprise him with anything anymore].

This is also equivalent to English there's no -ing:

He had a feeling that there was no surprising him with anything anymore.

I once posted something in a Russian chat and realized it contained a typo. I tried to edit it, and another user told me:

Уже ж не исправишь.

There's no correcting it now.

I think this is a really good example, because even though it was directed at me, he didn't mean that I couldn't go back and correct it per se — he meant nobody could.

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