5 usos comunes de "se"

En esta sección vamos a repasar y resumir los usos del pronombre “se” que hemos aprendido en este curso.

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 5 common uses of “se”.

1. 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=verbo normal, el niño recibe la acción)
The mother baths the child.

La madre se baña. (bañarse=verbo reflexivo, ella misma recibe la acción)
The mother baths herself.

2. El “se” recíproco

Sometimes the pronoun “se” is used to signal that multiple subjects are simultaneously doing the same action to each other; the action is reciprocal. Obviously the verb needs to be plural in 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.

This type of reciprocal action can also occur with groups in which you, the speaker, are included. These cases will use the nosotros form of the verb and the pronoun “nos”:

Mi familia y yo nos apoyamos.
My family and I support each other.

3. El “se” como parte del verbo sin motivo obvio

They 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:

olvidarse (de) El hombre se olvidó de la cita.
to forget The man forgot the appointment.

darse cuenta (de) María se dio cuenta del problema.
to realize María realized the problem.

morirse Mi abuelo se murió el año pasado.
to die My grandfather died last year.

despedirse (de) Los niños se despiden de su maestra.
to say goodbye (to) The children say goodbye to their teacher.

4. 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, depending on what follows it. As you can see in the first three examples, when followed by an adverb or adjective, “que”, a singular noun, or an infinitive, the verb will be in the 3rd person singular. It will only become plural when followed by a plural noun, as in the first and last examples. However if the unspecified agent is acting on 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.)

5. El “se” que reemplaza le y les

In Unidad 5 we learned that when both an indirect and a direct object pronoun are combined in the same sentence, le or les becomes “se”. Here are some examples to refresh your memory:

Le dije la verdad a mi hermano.
I told my brother the truth.

Paso 1. Le la dije.*
Paso 2. Se la dije.

Se la dije.
I told him it.

La instructora les asignó la tarea a los estudiantes ayer.
The instructor assigned the homework to the students yesterday.

Paso 1. La instructora les la asignó ayer.*
Paso 2. La instructora se la asignó ayer.

La instructora se la asignó ayer.
The instructor assigned it to them yesterday.

Now you are ready to practice these 5 uses of “se” in Acceso Hub: Forma y Función (LingroLearning).