19

I've seen phrases like Как его зовут? in several places, but when I look up зовут, it appears to be the third person plural. Why is it being used for the singular, here?

29

Зовут is really the third person plural, "[they] call", it is an impersonal verb and has no explicit subject in the sentences about names, so Как его зовут? can be translated word for word as "How him [they] call?" that is "How do they call him?" And the answer is "Его зовут Алексей." - "Him [they] call Alexey." - "They call him Alexey." That is how these phrases about names are built in Russian.

12

This is because зовут does not belong to его. In all these sentences:

Как его зовут?
Как её зовут?
Как их зовут?

the verb зовут belongs to a missing third-party noun people, like this:

Как люди его зовут?
Как они её зовут?
Как люди их зовут?

Compare e.g. this:

Как мы его зовём?
Как я её зову?
4

"Его зовут X" is similar to "They call him X". That's why it is always 3rd person plural for everyone. And that's why it you use Accusative case for the one whose name you tell.

In Russian this structure is one of the very popular ways to make a pseudo-passive. If an action is performed by assumed "unstated persons" — then you can express "it is done" by saying that "(they) do it" while omitting "they":

На углу строят здание = A building is being built on the corner.

Так не говорят. ~ People don't talk like that (= "sounds unnatural/bad")

Я думаю, нам помогут = I think we'll receive help.

Needless to say that "Меня зовут Джон" is a construction that crystallized this way and a native hardly even notices "passive" here.

  • In "Его зовут X" the X part is usually in the Nominative case, what part of sentence is it? The predicative? – Yellow Sky Nov 6 '14 at 11:35
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    @YellowSky I am not that good at modern classification—I mean, in serious linguistics, not in school grammar, which is full of holes—, but X here is clearly a part of the predicate, with full predicate being "зовут X". My argument is as follows. The verb here functions similar to copula: "Мою сестру зовут Маша" does not work without "Маша" (it is grammatical but means totally different thing). Thus, "зовут" in this construction requires a noun to form a proper predicate. Still reading on that. – Shady_arc Nov 6 '14 at 11:52
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    @YellowSky, I would rather say that X is more often than not in the Instrumental: Его зовут Васей, её зовут Таней. Nominative is typically used for name-patronymic pairs or other compound names: Нашего замдиректора зовут Пётр Михалыч, Мою маму зовут София Августа Фредерика Ангальт-Цербстская. – ach Nov 6 '14 at 12:26
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    Instrumental in introduction sounds pretty unnatural and old-fachioned to my ear. Maybe not so where you live. I can hardly imagine anyone in the Moscow region would ever use "Его зовут Васей", though grammatically it makes some sense (but doesn't make sense from a practical point of view). – Shady_arc Nov 6 '14 at 12:35
  • @AndreyChernyakhovskiy, "— Как тебя зовут? — Ваней." is unimaginable, at least nowadays. – Yellow Sky Nov 6 '14 at 13:01
1

Consider "What do they call your dog?"

they call = зовут

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