Nie mogę pozwolić, żeby to się stało.


#1

Can anyone please explain the function of ‘żeby’ in this sentence? I have seen ‘żeby’ and various derivatives of this word on CM (Clozemaster) many times and I understand that literally it means in English ‘in order to’. Would this sentence still make sense in Polish if the ‘żeby’ were omitted? If the answer to this is ‘yes’, then what is the function of it? Is it just to add emphasis e.g. to add a stronger emotion to the sentence? I would be really grateful for an explanation of the use of ‘żeby’ and its various forms. I once asked a native Polish speaker about this and he advised me that it is difficult to explain and give any kind of comparative to the English language. Thanks in advance.


#2

It’s definitely a tricky word. In this specific sentence, “żeby” is absolutely necessary. The standard translation would indeed be “in order to”. However, it doesn’t always translate so easily into English, which is why many learners find it difficult to grasp. Other possible translations include “ to”, “so as, “so that” (according to Wiktionary).

The main function of “żeby” is introducing subordinate clauses of purpose, and this is usually where it is translated into “in order to”:

Robię to, żeby zwyciężyć. (I’m doing this [in order] to win.)
Żeby zarabiać pieniądze, trzeba pracować. (In order to earn money, one has to work.)

“Żeby” is also used after verbs of permission, warning, request, command, desire, concern, hope,
preference.
(quote from Oscar E. Swan’s textbook), and “pozwolić” is one of them. Some other examples:

Chcę, żeby wszystko było dobrze. (I want everything to be fine.)
Powiedział mi, żebym zadzwonił jutro. (He told me to call tomorrow.)
Anna prosi nas, żebyśmy pomogli jej mamie. (Anna is asking us to help her mother.)

There are also some other minor uses, but I think these are the two most common ones.

So why do you need to use “żeby” in all these contexts?

Well, Polish doesn’t really have a direct equivalent to the English “to”: a sentence like I want to eat lunch. is simply translated as Chcę zjeść obiad. In this simple example, we don’t need any word to link “chcieć” and the verb, since it is obvious who is the subject of the sentence and what is its object.

However, if you want to say I want you to eat lunch, you can’t simply insert “ciebie” between “chcieć” and the verb, as you do in English. “Chcę ciebie” only makes sense if you literally want the other person. The correct way to say this is Chcę, żebyś zjadł(a) obiad. The purpose of “żeby” here is to make it clear that the person who is supposed to do the “eating” isn’t the same as the person doing the “wanting”.
Note that “żeby” takes the suffix here, which tells us that the clause is about second person singular. If you change it back to the regular “żeby”, it will mean the third person. The first person forms are “żebym” (singular) and “żebyśmy” (plural), and so on.

Of course, this is a simplified explanation. If you need more context, I suggest that you browse the sentences in Clozemaster’s database—a search for “żeby” gives 420 results, that should be enough to get a better idea of how it works in practice.


#3

Thank you Adam, it makes a lot more sense now. In several of the sentences I’ve seen on CM, ‘żeby’ seemed to be surplus to the sentence but I now understand the usage much better, especially in the example you gave ‘chcę, żebyś zjadł(a) obiad’, where it is used in order to separate the speaker from the person who is required to perform the action. I also now understand why ‘żeby’ is used in the original sentence I queried … it is following a verb of permission.