Four Common Uses of “se” (cuatro usos comunes de "se")

The pronoun “se” can really be a nightmare for learners of Spanish. It comes up so often and can mean so many things and function in so many ways. Here we are going to review 4 common uses of “se”.

  1. Reflexive “se” (el “se” reflexivo):

    Se is very often used to change a normal verb into a reflexive verb in Spanish. In reflexive constructions, the person or thing that does the action also receives the action. In English we use the pronouns “himself, herself, themselves.” In Spanish, you just add a “se” to an infinitive (when it makes sense) and it serves the same function. Obviously “se” is only used with infinitives and 3rd person constructions (él, ella, Ud, ellos, ellas, Uds., etc.); other forms use their corresponding reflexive pronouns (me, te, nos, etc.).

    --La madre baña al niño. [bañar = normal verb]
    The mother bathes the child.
    --La madre se baña. [bañarse = reflexive verb]
    The mother bathes herself.
  2. Reciprocal “se” (el “se” recíproco):

    Sometimes the pronoun “se” is used to signal that the subjects are doing the action to each other; the action is reciprocal. Obviously, the verb needs to be plural order to obtain this reading.

    --Las chicas se saludan.
    The girls greet each other.
    --Los amigos se abrazan.
    The friends hug each other.
    --Los estudiantes se comunican por email.
    The students communicate with each other by email.
  3. “Se” as part of verb without logical reason (el “se” como parte del verbo sin motivo obvio):

    There are many other verbs that have “se” stuck on the end with no obvious purpose. They are certainly not reflexive verbs (even though they are often called that) because the subject does not receive the action of the verb. This use of “se” is often called the “lexical se” because the infinitives of these verbs end in “se” in the dictionary. For example, verbs like:

    --El hombre se olvidó de la cita. [olvidarse (de) = to forget]
    The man forgot the appointment.
    --María se dio cuenta del problema. [darse cuenta (de) = to realize]
    María realized the problem.
    --Mi abuelo se murió el año pasado. [morirse = to die]
    My grandfather dies last year.
    --Los niños se despiden de su maestra. [despedirse (de) = to say goodbye (to)]
    The children say goodbye to their teacher.
  4. Impersonal “se” (el “se” de las construcciones impersonales):

    Perhaps the most common use of “se” in Spanish is to de-emphasize the agent of the sentence. All this means is that the speaker does not specify who or what is doing the action. In English we use the pronouns “one” or “they” and passive constructions to accomplish this same goal. (That is why many Spanish grammar explanations referred to this use as the “passive se.”)

    --Si se estudia mucho, se ganan buenas notas.
    If one studies a lot, good grades are earned. [No specific person is studying or earning grades.]
    --Se dice que la economía va mejor
    They say that the economy is going better. [The speaker does not mention who says this.]
    --Se habla español en los EE.UU.
    Spanish is spoken in the U.S. [There is no emphasis on who is speaking Spanish.]
    --Se mandan los emails todos los días.
    Emails are sent everyday. [The speaker does not mention who is doing the sending.]

    As you can see in the examples above, the verb can be conjugated in the 3rd person singular or plural. However, if the unspecified agent is acting one or more persons, the construction with “se” is always in the singular, and “a” marks the object to avoid a reflexive reading.

    --En la Segunda Guerra Mundial se mató a muchas personas.
    In WWII many people were killed. [There is no focus on who was doing the killing.].
    In WWII they killed many people.
    --*En la Segunda Guerra Mundial se mataron muchas personas.
    *In WWII many people killed themselves. [Yikes! This is not what I meant.]