The uses of se
(Los usos de se)

[It is suggested that you review the section in this unit on
pronombres átonos
before reading about the uses of se]

Se is a pronombre átono, and follows the same rules as other pronombres átonos as far as its position with verbs. What sets se apart is that it has multiple meanings in Spanish. It's also important to note that in some cases, as with reflexive verbs, se is only the form for the 3rd person and Ud. forms; the first person and pronouns in those cases are me, nos, te, and os. This should be clear in the examples given below.

LE(S) > SE
This use of se is very specific. In Spanish, it is impossible to use both le(s) and lo(s)/la(s) with the same verb, so sequences like les lo or le las are never found in Spanish. Instead, in these cases, the le or les form changes to se, so if you are saying "I'm going to send it (lo) to them (les) what would have been "les lo voy a mandar" comes out as Se lo voy a mandar, with se replacing les. Other examples:

-¿Le dijiste a Roberto que el concierto es a las nueve? -Sí, ya se lo dije.
Si Ud. necesita este libro, se lo puedo prestar.

SE impersonal/pasivo

The passive or impersonal se is used to make statements without a specific subject. While some textbooks treat the passive and impersonal forms as separate constructions, they are so close in form and meaning that here we will look at them together. Here are some examples of the impersonal/passive se:

Se dice que la computadora es una herramienta indispensable hoy en día.
El dulce de leche se prepara con leche, azúcar y vainilla.

This kind of construction is often translated into English as a passive: "It is said that the computer...", "Dulce de leche is prepared with...". In the impersonal/passive construction, se is used with either the singular or plural 3rd person form of the verb (the "he/she" form or the "they" form). It is basically always correct to use the singular (he/she) form; the plural can also be used when whatever one is talking about is plural. In the example above, El dulce de leche se prepara con leche, azúcar y vainilla, the verb can only be in the singular (prepara) because dulce de leche is singular. However, if we wanted to say "Books are sold at this market" we could say:

Se vende libros en este mercado. OR
Se venden libros en este mercado.

There is a tendency to use the plural verb form in these cases, especially in everyday speech, but either form is correct.

SE reflexivo y recíproco

The reflexive use of se is the first one learned by most students of Spanish. Reflexive verbs are those in which the person affected by the action of a verb is the person who is performing the action of the verb - in more grammatical terms, they are verbs whose subject and object are the same. In English, reflexive constructions are generally formed by using words like "myself", "herself", "themselves", etc. along with the verb. In Spanish, reflexive constructions are formed by using a reflexive pronoun with the verb.

It's important to remember that se is the reflexive pronoun only for the 3rd person (him, her, them) and Ud. forms. This is the conjugation for the reflexive verb verse, "to see one's self":

me veo "I see myself" nos vemos "we see ourselves"
te ves "you see yourself" os veis "you all see yourselves"
se ve "s/he sees him/herself" / "you (Ud.) see yourself" se ven "they see themselves" / "you all (Uds.) see yourselves"

The reciprocal construction is very similar to the reflexive construction, but is only found in the plural forms. This is because the plural reflexive forms often have two separate interpretations. For example, the nosotros form above, nos vemos, can mean "we see ourselves" or it can mean "we see each other". The same is true for se ven, which can mean either "they see themselves" or "they see each other". The "each other" interpretation is called the reciprocal; because a form like se ven could be ambiguous, sometimes the phrases el uno al otro or los unos a los otros, meaning "one another" are used to reinforce the reciprocal meaning.

SE obligatorio

There are a few verbs in Spanish that are always used with the "reflexive" pronouns. These verbs have no reflexive meaning; the important thing is to remember to always use the reflexive pronouns with them. The most common of these verbs are arrepentirse"to regret", atreverse "to dare" and quejarse, "to complain". Here is the conjugation of quejarse:

me quejo - I complain nos quejamos - we complain
te quejas - you complain os quejais - you all complain
se queja - he/she complains se quejan - they complain

SE proceso

The "process" se is one of the most common uses of the so-called reflexive pronouns. In fact, many of the verbs that you may have learned as "reflexive" are really verbs of process. Consider the following examples:

Dejé el café en la mesa y se enfrió. "I left the coffee on the table and it got cold"
Mi hermanito se enfadó conmigo. "My little brother got angry with me"
Siempre me aburro en esa clase. "I always get bored in that class"
El hielo se derrite en el sol. "Ice melts in the sun"

None of these verbs really has a reflexive meaning; in the first example, the coffee doesn't "make itself cold", it just "gets cold"; you don't "bore yourself" in class, you just "get bored". The "process" se is used to describe this kind of natural process, something that just happens. Sometimes, but certainly not always, the "process" se can be translated with English "get". Here are other verbs commonly used with the se proceso:

Like English "to get..." Other verbs of process
casarse - to get married despertarse - to wake up
cansarse - to get tired divertirse - to have a good time
divorciarse - to get divorced dormirse - to fall asleep
enfermarse - to get sick enamorarse (de) - to fall in love
enojarse - to get angry levantarse - to get up
mojarse - to get wet romperse - to break (get broken)
perderse - to get lost sentarse - to sit down

SE para eventos inesperados

This use of se is related to the "process" se. Think of the example el café se enfrió, "the coffee got cold". If we add the pronoun me to this construction, we get el café se me enfrió, "the coffee got cold on me". Adding the me doesn't change the fact that the coffee got cold on its own, it just indicates that someone else (in this case, "me") was affected by it getting cold. Sometimes it's very hard to convey in English the exact meaning of this construction, but it's commonly used with a certain group of verbs. Here are some more examples, with the more literal English translation in italics:

Se me olvidó que tenía una cita a las nueve = I forgot (It got forgotten on me) I had an appointment at nine.
El vaso se le cayó y se rompió = The glass fell (went and fell on him) and broke.
Se nos perdieron las llaves = We lost the keys (the keys got lost on us)
¡Espero que no se te hayan roto los anteojos otra vez! = I hope that your glasses didn't break (didn't get broken on you) again!

Otros usos de SE

There are many cases of verbs used with the "reflexive" pronouns that do not have a reflexive meaning at all; two examples are the verbs with an obligatory se and the "process" verbs described above. There are various other verbs that change slightly in meaning when they are used with the "reflexive" pronouns. Here are a few of the most common:

ir = to go irse = to leave, to go away
llevar = to take, carry llevarse = to take away
pasar = to pass time pasarse = to spend time (doing something)
probar = to prove, to test probarse = to try on
volver = to return volverse = to turn around

There are also a number of verbs that can be used almost interchangeably with or without se; there may be a subtle difference in meaning, but it is difficult for even advanced learners of Spanish to master. Here are some of these verbs, just to be aware of the phenomenon:


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