If you have ever been curious about how se can appear in multiple contexts, you’ll see in this post how you can use it in sentences to reduce blame, to hide guilty parties and to make generalisations.
Not to be confused with the conjugation sé (I know) from saber or the imperative command sé (be…!) from ser, the pronoun se is an extremely versatile Spanish word.
In this post, I’ll share the 4 uses of the Spanish pronoun se to ensure you are never puzzled by this word again.
Use 1. In pronominal verbs
In Spanish, two types of verbs are categorised as pronominal: reflexive verbs and reciprocal verbs. Often the term reflexive gets used to talk about both types of verbs.
But, in reality, reflexive verbs and reciprocal verbs can often vary slightly in meaning.
That said, in this article, the reason I have categorised reflexive and reciprocal verbs together is because the pronoun se is used in the same way for both types of verbs in terms of sentence structure and grammar.
In these verbs, the pronoun se is used to indicate that the object and the subject of the sentence are the same.
I’ll take you through some examples for each type of pronominal verb.
In reflexive sentences, the object and the subject of the sentence are the same and the subject could be one, two or many different people. Here are a few examples:
English: He got himself to bed at eleven last night.
Español: Él se acostó a las once anoche.
English: My children wash before dinner every night.
Español: Mis hijos se lavan antes de la cena cada noche.
In both of these examples, if you removed the pronoun se, the sentences would be incomplete.
For example, if you said the second sentence without the se:
Mis hijos lavan antes de la cena cada noche. ⊗
The listener would ask the question ‘washed what?’.
You could say ‘their clothes’:
English: My children wash their clothes before dinner every night.
Español: Mis hijos lavan la ropa antes de la cena cada noche.
But, if you meant to say themselves, you need to ensure you include the pronoun se.
In contrast to reflexive sentences, in reciprocal sentences, the object and the subject of the sentence are typically two different people doing the same thing to each other. Here are a few examples:
English: They kissed each other.
Español: Ellos se besaron.
English: They see each other every Wednesday.
Español: Se ven cada miércoles.
English: They woke each other up.
Español: Se despertaron el uno al otro.
Again, if you removed the pronoun se, these sentences wouldn’t make sense. If you said ellos besaron, the person you are speaking with would ask ‘who did they kiss?’.
Before moving on, I’ll also point out that the phrase “el uno al otro” means “each other”. This phrase gives you a hint that the sentence is most likely reciprocal and will need the word se included before the conjugated verb.
Use 2. When combining direct and indirect object pronouns
The second use of the pronoun se is for sentences that combine direct objects and indirect objects.
In Spanish, the words lo, la, los and las can be used to replace direct objects. A quick example:
English: I have the keys.
Español: Tengo las llaves.
This can be shortened to:
English: I have them.
Español: Las tengo.
You can then use the words le and les to substitute for indirect objects. For example:
English: I didn’t say anything to my parents.
Español: No dije nada a mis padres.
This can be shortened to:
English: I didn’t say anything to them.
Español: Yo no les dije nada.
The next step is to combine direct and indirect objects, but there is a problem that occurs.
If you start with this sentence:
English: I gave the books to my parents.
Español: Di los libros a mis padres.
When you try to shorten this sentence with direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns, you get:
English: I gave them to them.
Les los di.
But, les los isn’t correct. Why?
Try saying les los di three times fast.
Now, instead, say se los di three times fast.
Hopefully, you can see that se actually makes life easier for you here.
Since the point of direct and indirect pronouns is to make life easy, the pronoun se is used to replace both le and les in these types of sentences to avoid a tongue twister.
Here is a summary of how you should replace le and les with se in sentences with a combination of direct and indirect object pronouns:
le lo → se lo
le la → se la
le los → se los
le las → se las
les lo → se lo
les la → se la
les los → se los
les las → se las
Here are two more examples:
English: She brought it for them (it is a book).
Español: Ella se lo trajo.
English: I bought them for her (they are flowers).
Español: Se las compré.
These constructions are important for hacking Spanish grammar, you can read more about Spanish grammar shortcuts with the 13 grammar hacking sentences here.
Use 3. The impersonal se
Similar to how reflexive and reciprocal verbs are sometimes referred to as the same, so too are impersonal and passive verbs.
I have incorrectly referred to impersonal verbs as passive verbs a number of times on the blog and podcast. But, like pronominal verbs, the name doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that you recognise the behaviour and role of the pronoun se in these sentences.
For now, an impersonal sentence is a sentence where the subject is completely generalised. This means you could talk about rules or make comment on the general behaviour of people in your city or country.
They say that you should eat vegetables every day.
One cannot smoke here.
Here, the idea of ‘one’ or ‘they’ isn’t anybody specific.
When you form these ideas in Spanish, the word se replaces ‘one’ or ‘they’ from English. Here are a few examples:
English: They say that you should eat vegetables every day.
Español: Se dice que deberías comer verduras todos los días.
English: One cannot smoke here.
Español: No se puede fumar aquí.
English: One enters through here.
Español: Se entra por aquí.
English: In my country they speak French.
Español: En mi país se habla francés.
Last week I wrote an article about the Spanish verb encontrar. In that article, I gave the following example:
English: Where can I find the best place to eat tapas in this neighbourhood?
Español: ¿Dónde puedo encontrar el mejor lugar para comer tapas en este barrio?
Another (and more common) way to ask this question is by using the impersonal se:
English: Where can one find the best place to eat tapas in this neighbourhood?
Español: ¿Dónde se puede encontrar el mejor lugar para comer tapas en este barrio?
This question is now no longer about you or the person you are speaking with but anybody who may want to find tapas in the neighbourhood.
Use 4. The passive se
In contrast to the impersonal se, the passive se is used when the subject of the sentence is someone or something specific but is omitted from the sentence for various reasons.
You may want to omit the subject in a passive sentence if the subject isn’t relevant, if the subject isn’t known, or to reduce blame.
Here are some examples:
English: The car was sold last week.
Español: Se vendió el coche la semana pasada.
English: These problems were solved last year.
Español: Estos problemas se resolvieron el año pasado.
In this last example, the problems were solved by someone specific (or multiple people). But, the reason the sentence is presented this way is because the most important thing is the fact that the problems were solved. It doesn’t really matter by who.
Also, if you omitted the se from this example, it would sound like “the problems were solving (something else)” which doesn’t make sense in this context. Particularly, since there isn’t another object in the sentence.
Last few examples:
English: I forgot the tickets.
Español: Se me olvidaron las entradas.
When you forget something in Spanish, you often do it with a passive construction to highlight that you forgot by accident. Similarly, you could say:
English: I broke your computer.
Español: Se me rompió tu ordenador.
In both of these examples, the speaker is trying to reduce the blame for their mistake. The best literal translations would be ‘the tickets were forgotten to me’ and ‘the computer was broken to me’.
In fact, if you said:
English: I broke your computer.
Español: Rompí tu ordenador.
In Spanish, this could be interpreted that you broke the computer on purpose (or through pretty heavy negligence).
As you can see, the Spanish pronoun se is not straightforward.
The best way to get used to these sentences is to put them into action.
This week, construct some sentences using the impersonal se about how things are done in general in your country.
Also, try using the passive se to talk about something important that happened in your life recently and see if you can omit the subject of the sentence.
How else can you use the pronoun se in a Spanish sentence?