You have seen it as a reflexive pronoun as in, Ella se levanta temprano. (She wakes up early.), next to a direct object pronoun as in, dáselos (give it to them), as a passive: se alquila piso (apartment for rent)…se seems like a neverending mystery. In this post we will continue studying the different uses of se in Spanish. As a cool trick, se can show up in one of two ways:
- When se can only be used in its third-person form:
- Accidental se
- Impersonal se
- Passive se
- Middle se
- Replacement of le/les (indirect object pronoun)
- When se is simply the third-person of a particular construction:
- Reflexive se
- Reciprocal se
- Intensifier se
What do you say? Should we get going with SE?!
Table of Contents
For review of grammar terms used in the post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.
Part 1: Always ‘SE’ in third-person
As mentioned in the heading, for these uses of SE, the construction must always be in third-person singular or plural.
The accidental se is the one we use to say that no one is directly responsible for an accidental or an unplanned event, or when no one wants to assume the responsibility for an action.
It is built as follows:
se + indirect object pronoun + verb in third-person singular/plural + subject
¡Ay! Disculpa, pero se me rompió la taza.
Oh! I am sorry, but the cup broke.
Perdona el olor, pero a mi hijo se le quemaron las palomitas de maíz.
Sorry for the smell, but my son burned the popcorn.
This se is the one we use as an equivalent of the words “one,” “you,” “people,” or “they” in English, when the agent of the sentence is unknown or unidentified. To build this form, you need:
se + verb in the third-person singular.
Se come mucho en Panamá.
People eat a lot in Panama.
Se prohíbe nadar después de las 10 pm.
No swimming allowed after 10 pm.
For a more in depth look at “accidental se” and the “impersonal se,” check out “What is the difference between impersonal se and accidental se in Spanish?”
The passive se is used to talk about something that happened to an object without saying who or what carried out the action — the agent, or “doer,” is implicit. You can think of it as an alternative to the passive voice in Spanish, with the verb ser (to be).
- Only transitive verbs can be used.
- It’s more common with non-living nouns.
- The verb can be in the third-person singular or plural (because it has to agree with the subject), and it can be placed before or after the verb.
Todos los proyectos de la clase se entregaron a las 11:59pm.
All the projects of the class were turned in at 11:59pm.
↳The passive voice of the previous example would be:
Todos los proyectos de la clase fueron entregados a las 11:59pm.
El arreglo floral se ordenó antier.
The floral arrangement was ordered the day before yesterday.
↳The passive voice of the previous example would be:
El arreglo floral fue ordenado antier.
The middle se is utilized to express a state or a change of state, not an action. There is neither an explicit nor an implicit agent, or “doer” of the action of the verb. This lack of an agent is what distinguishes it from the passive se, which has an implicit agent as discussed above. Here are some additional rules that apply to middle se:
- The subject is always specific, and appears with definite articles or demonstrative adjectives, usually before the verb.
- The verb is conjugated in third-person singular or plural, matching the subject.
- The verb is followed by an adverb or a prepositional phrase.
Some examples of middle se:
Estos libros de colorear se venden muy bien.
These coloring books sell very well.
Esta camisa se plancha con facilidad.
These shirts are ironed with ease.
In some cases, they can use an indirect object pronoun, similar to an accidental se:
La blusa azul se te ve bien.
The blue blouse looks good on you.
As you see in the examples, this construction is very close to the passive se, but can also seem a little like the accidental se. I bet if you talk to any natives, they wouldn’t know the difference!
Replacement of le/les (indirect object pronouns)
In Spanish, this se is called “se espurio.” But don’t let the weird name scare you away! This se is simply used to replace the indirect object pronouns le/les when there is also a direct object pronoun that also begins with an “L” such as lo, la, los, las. Here are some examples:
Ella dio un libro a su hermano → Ella
le lo dio → Ella se lo dio.
She gave a book to her brother → She gave it to him.
Di la verdad a tus padres → Di
les la → Dísela.
Tell the truth to your parents → Tell them it.
Check out our post for a refresher on using indirect and direct object pronouns in Spanish.
⤷TIP Some Spanish teachers like to help students remember this rule with the rhyming phrase “you can’t le-lo in Mexico.”
Part 2: ‘SE’ as third-person within a construction
Everything in this category will refer to se as part of a particular set of constructions. In these cases, se can also be me, te, nos, etc. depending on the subject!
As you might remember from our post on reflexive pronouns in Spanish, the reflexive se is one of the five reflexive pronouns we use with verbs to talk about actions where the person doing and receiving the action are the same. When not in third-person singular or plural or usted/ustedes (you formal/you-plural), you will use other reflexive pronouns: me (myself), te (yourself), nos (ourselves), os (you all (only in Spain)). Here are some examples of the reflexive se:
Marcela se arregla para ir a trabajar.
Marcela gets ready to go to work.
Ellos se ponen los abrigos para ir al parque porque hace frío.
They put on coats to go to the park because it is cold.
Ustedes se despiertan muy temprano los domingos.
You wake up very early on Sundays.
We can talk about what two or more people do to each other in a reciprocal way by using reciprocal pronouns. They are the same as the plural reflexive pronouns (nos, os, se). Here is an example using reciprocal se:
Las chicas se saludaron con un abrazo al llegar al restaurante.
The girls greeted each other with a hug as they arrived at the restaurant.
In Spanish, we love to add color and different texture to our sentences. The intensifier se (called se dativo in Spanish) is used to intensify or emphasize the meaning of a verb. A rule of thumb of the intensifier se, is that you can take it out of the sentence without altering its meaning, or without creating any grammatical issues. For example:
El niño es pequeño pero se comió cuatro platos de arroz con pollo.
The boy is small, but he ate four plates of rice and chicken.
*Note how taking the se out of the original Spanish sentence would not alter the meaning or affect the grammatical accuracy of the sentence!
El perro se saltó la cerca cuando oyó los fuegos artificiales.
The dog jumped over the fence when he heard the fireworks.
⤷TIP The intensifier se is often found in Spanish with verbs of consumption, such as comer (to eat), beber (to drink), tomar (to drink), etc.
To sum it up
While se may have been “just a reflexive pronoun” before you started this post, now you know all the different values of it. Here’s a quick glance of what we covered today.
Se is invariable when it is used as the following:
- Accidental se — no one is directly responsible for an accidental or an unplanned event; no one wants to assume the responsibility for an action.
- Impersonal se — the one we use as an equivalent of the words “one,” “you,” “people,” or “they” in English, when the agent of the sentence is unknown or unidentified.
- Passive se — used to talk about something that happened to an object without saying who or what carried out the action.
- Middle se — utilized to express a state, not an action.
- To replace le/les — when there is also a direct object pronoun that also begins with an “L” such as lo, la, los, las.
Se is used as the third-person pronoun, but can change form to other pronouns when it is used as:
- Reflexive se — one of the five reflexive pronouns we use with verbs to talk about actions where the person doing and receiving the action are the same.
- Reciprocal se — to talk about what two or more people do to each other in a reciprocal way.
- Intensifier se — to intensify or emphasize the meaning of a verb.
As always, practice makes perfect. Here are some activities to help you start mastering the different values of se!
Agent: The person, animal or object performing the action.
Adverbs are words that modify either adjectives or verbs. In English, adverbs often have the suffix “-ly.”
She is very clever.
He runs quickly.
Definite articles are the equivalent of the English article “the,” a word that is used to make the noun specific:
the book, the river
Transitive verbs are verbs that require a direct object.
Mary had to go feed her dogs.
John gave Mary a present.
The direct object of a sentence is what receives the action.
He ate an apple.
Reciprocal pronouns are used when something is done or given in return, or a mutual action is expressed. In Spanish, the reciprocal pronouns are the same as the plural reflexive pronouns: nos, os, and se.