Table of Contents
What is the impersonal ‘se’ in Spanish?
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.
For general and impersonal information. In this case, the subject is not given, but it always refers to people:
En Chile se come mucho.
In Chile people eat a lot.
Se duerme bien en el campo.
One sleeps well in the country.
To talk about how things are done, to talk about rules, to ask for directions, or to find out how to say things correctly:
No se puede llamar a la oficina después de las 5.
You can’t call the office after 5.
Se prohíbe nadar.
Swimming is forbidden.
¿Cómo se llega al centro?Now that we know the uses of the impersonal se, let’s see how it’s formed.
How does one get downtown?
se + verb in the 3rd person singular
Let’s see some examples:
Se + intransitive verb
Aquí se trabaja duro.
People work hard here.
Se + copulative verb
Se es buen profesor después de muchos años.
You become a good teacher after many years.
Se + transitive verb with no subject
With transitive verbs, the impersonal structure can only be used if the subject is not needed.
¿Cómo se dice?
How do you say it?
For sale. (Lit: it is sold)
After the verb (transitive, intransitive, or copulative) an adverb or a preposition can follow:
- Se come bien aquí. (adverb)
One eats well here.
- En esta biblioteca se estudia sin distracciones. (preposition)
In this library people study without any distractions.
Impersonal ‘se’ vs. passive ‘se’
⤷TIP This type of structure is typically found in wanted ads:
Se busca compañero de cuarto.
Se renta apartamento amueblado.
Furnished apartment for rent.
The intention of both structures (impersonal se and passive se) is to omit the agent and place emphasis on the action and who receives it directly. The main difference is whether the transitive verb requires an explicit subject (passive se) or not (impersonal se).
Impersonal se can be confused with passive se. What’s the difference?
The passive se is used to talk about something that happened to an object without saying who or what carried out the action. You can think of it as an alternative to the Spanish passive voice, with the verb ser (to be). It has some distinctive characteristics:
Only transitive verbs can be used:
En esta oficina se escriben 50 reportes diarios.
In this office 50 daily reports are written.
It’s more common with non-living nouns:
La pizza se entregó a las 8:30.
The pizza was delivered at 8:30.
The verb can be in the third-person singular or plural (because it has to agree with the subject):
La Reina Pepiada es una arepa que se rellena con pollo y aguacate.
Reina Pepiada is an arepa that is filled with chicken and avocado.
Aquí se hablan varios idiomas.
Several languages are spoken here.
What is the accidental ‘se’ in Spanish?
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.
- This structure is quite useful, and serves a similar function as when we want to say things like, “it broke,” “it burned,” “they fell,” in English. In Spanish we don’t have an equivalent of “it” or “they” for that purpose, so instead we just use se me rompió, se me quemó, or se me cayeron.
It is also very useful to warn someone about a potential accident. In this case, use it with the near future: ir a (go to) + infinitive.
¡Cuidado! Se te va a caer el vaso.
Watch out! The cup is about to fall.
To use the accidental se, follow this structure:
se + indirect object pronoun + verb in the 3rd person (singular or plural) + subject
- The indirect object pronoun (me, te, le, nos, les) is used to indicate to whom or to what the action happened to (the “victim” of the accident).
- The verb in the third-person needs to agree with the subject; that’s why it can only be third-person singular or plural.
- The subject would be the thing or animal (sometimes a person) that receives the action of the verb directly.
Se nos olvidó el pasaporte en la casa.
We forgot the passport at home.
- The Spanish indirect object pronoun nos indicates that the problem expressed in the sentence happened to us.
- The verb olvidó is in the third-person singular because it agrees with the noun that follows: el pasaporte (the passport).
- The subject el pasaporte is the “item” or “thing” and it answers the question ¿qué?:
¿Qué se nos olvidó? → el pasaporte What did we forget? → the passport
Notice that a verb like olvidar (to forget) can be used the same way you would in English: “I forgot my keys.” Olvidé las llaves.
However, if you want to stress that what happened was accidental, then you need to use olvidarse:
Se me olvidaron las llaves.
With this type of sentence the subject is usually placed after the verb, however, it is possible to place it before “se” if you want to bring focus to the item.
Los vasos se nos quebraron.
The cups were broken. / We broke the cups.
If the subject is known by context, then it can be omitted:
¿Se quemaron las tortillas?
Did the tortillas burn?
Sí, se me quemaron.
Yes, they burned.
⤷TIP As with all sentences with an indirect object pronoun, you can use the combos:
- a + noun, or
- a + prepositional pronoun
to emphasize to whom the action happened:
- A Juanita se le perdió su muñeca.
Juanita lost her doll.
- A ti se te quemaron las galletas.
I burned the cookies.
These structures can go at the beginning or at the end of the sentence.
To sum up
Direct object: It’s the person, animal, or thing that directly receives the action of the verb in a sentence. You can identify it by asking ¿qué? (what?) or ¿a quién? (whom?). Example:
Ana writes letters. What does Ana write? → letters (direct object).
Ana escribe cartas. ¿Qué escribe Ana? → cartas
Indirect object: It’s the person, animal, or thing that indirectly receives the action of the verb in a sentence. You can identify it by asking ¿a quién? (to/for whom). Example:
Ana writes letters to her friend. To whom does Ana write letters? → to her friend (indirect object).
Ana escribe cartas a su amigo. ¿A quién escribe cartas Ana? → a su amigo.
Transitive verb: A verb that can have a direct object.
Mary had to go feed her dogs.
Intransitive verb: A verb that doesn’t require a direct object because the action can’t happen to someone or something.
All of the water evaporated.
Copulative verb: A verb that expresses a state or condition and needs something else to convey a complete meaning. For example: be, seem, appear, feel, sound, get, become, taste.
- The Spanish copulative verbs are: ser, estar (to be), and parecer (to seem).
Agent: The person, animal or object performing the action.
Prepositional object pronoun: It’s a pronoun used after certain prepositions (por, para, sin, de, a). For most cases they are the same as subject pronouns, but they change for the first and second person singular (mí, ti). Example: ¿Este regalo es para mí? (Is this present for me?)