In Spanish, se has different applications causing its meaning to vary depending on the context, the intention and the grammar elements that you use. Additionally, this word can’t always be translated directly into English because it doesn’t exist in this language’s vocabulary. As a result, learning how to use se correctly can be very confusing and challenging for new Spanish speakers.
Despite all this, understanding the different meanings of se are very important for improving your Spanish. That’s why in this article we’re going to discuss 7 most common and critical uses of the word se:
- When Generalizing about activities and behaviors
- As an Indirect Object Pronoun
- To Emphasize an Action
- To Talk About Accidents
- As a Reflexive Pronoun
- To Talk About Reciprocal Actions
- To Avoid Passive Voice
We’ll also show you some useful and real examples for you to have a better idea about how to apply ‘se’ in your conversations. By the end of it, you should be more comfortable when using this word and you’ll start applying it correctly.
Generalizing – Talking about General Behaviours or Activities
In Spanish, one of the most common uses of se is to talk about activities or behaviours without specifying who is doing them. We use these expressions to describe routines, behaviors, traditions or activities that are common to a place and that all or most people do. As a result, there’s no need to have a specific subject or person.
Where can you apply this?
- When describing customs or behaviours from a country, city or region
- When talking about routines or activities that a big group of people usually do
Let’s see some common examples and structures that you can use in this situation.
En + [place] + se [verb] + [complement]
En México se habla español In Mexico, people speak Spanish
En la escuela se estudia todos los días In school, students study everyday
As you may have noticed, these previous examples always start by mentioning the place you’re going to give information about. You also need to keep in mind that in this case, the verb is conjugated in the third singular person.
In this situation, we don’t have a direct translation of se. As a result, the translation will vary depending on the sentence you’re dealing with. However, be aware that the objective of these phrases is to talk in general and not to specifically mention who is doing the action. Look at the following example:
En mi casa se cocina con muchas especias In my house, we cook with many spices
Even though this example can seem more specific than the previous two, in reality, we still don’t know who is doing the action. I’m just expressing that cooking this way is something common in my house, but you don’t know if all my family members cook that way.
Se as an Indirect Object Pronoun
Even though ‘se’ has many uses, it’s very likely that new Spanish speakers are going to start dealing with this word when learning how to use indirect object pronouns. However, when using ‘se’ with this purpose, we need to follow some rules. In this case, se is a Spanish indirect pronoun and, as a result, it can be translated into English.
So what are the rules we need to follow in order to use ‘se’ in this situation?
- In Spanish, we need ‘se’ when we’re using both direct and indirect object pronouns in a sentence. However, keep in mind that ‘se’ only replaces the indirect pronouns ‘le’ and ‘les’.
Let’s take the following sentence and replace the direct and indirect objects with their proper pronouns.
Compré unos chocolates para mi novia I bought chocolates for my girlfriend
In this previous example, chocolates is the direct object and mi novia is an indirect object. If we’re already familiar with the previous information, it wouldn’t make sense to use such a big phrase. In Spanish, we’ll rather try to make it shorter by using pronouns.
|Le los compré||I bought them for her|
|Se los compré||I bought them for her|
Although there’s no difference in the translation, in Spanish, we cannot use le and lo, as well as their plural forms, together. We do this to avoid the presence of cacophony, but also because lelo, lelos, lela and lelas mean ‘dumb’. Using ‘se’ helps us avoid these issues.
Se to Emphasize an Action
In Spanish, there are some situations where speakers want to intensify someone’s action. In those cases, we use se. Even though we don’t have a direct translation for this meaning of ‘se’, using this word allows us to exaggerate and emphasize the action we’re talking about. For instance:
Clara se tomó cinco vasos de cerveza Clara drank five glasses of beer
Siempre que vamos a cenar mi hermano se come diez tacos Everytime we go out to dinner, my brother eats ten tacos
As mentioned before, there’s no way to translate this structure into English. However, in this case, using se attracts people’s attention to the action and the rest of information. We’re intensifying that these people eat and drink a lot, and we’re also emphasizing on the amount of food and drinks they have.
Keep in mind that in the previous examples we used ‘se’ because we’re talking about a she and he. But if we want to talk about someone else, we need to change ‘se’. Here is the structure, you need to follow:
[Person] + [reflexive pronoun] + [verb] + [amount/adverb]
Yo me bebí dos cafés y me comí tres pasteles I drank two coffees and I ate three cakes
Tú siempre te comes toda mi comida You always eat all my food
When using this structure, keep in mind that the reflexive pronouns are not indicating a reflexive action, they’re just an element that help us build these phrases. You can either include a specific amount of things (10 tacos) or an adverb that helps you intensify your sentence (toda mi comida).
Types of verbs you can use this structure with:
Generally speaking, this meaning of ‘se’ works with verbs related to food, drinks or money, such as:
Se to Talk about Accidents
Another meaning of this word that not many new Spanish speakers are aware of is using ‘se’ to talk about accidents. This is another structure that won’t have a direct translation into English. However, in Spanish, it’s pretty useful because it allows us to reduce the impact of something that we did by accident.
In other words, we use se as a way to say that the action we did wasn’t on purpose. Let’s see some examples as well as the phrase structure you need to use.
Se + [indirect object pronoun] + [verb past tense]
Se me olvidó mi cartera I forgot my wallet
A Ismael se le quebró la taza favorita de su mamá Ismael broke his my mom’s favorite mug
By using this structure, we’re implying that whatever happened was an accident. Even though there’s no direct translation, in Spanish, this type of phrase is very important for your communication. From a Spanish point of view, there’s a slight difference between the following phrases:
Quebré tu taza favorita I broke your favorite mug
Se me quebró tu taza favorita I broke your favorite mug
Depending on the situation you’re in, the first example may be considered a little bit straight and aggressive, and sometimes it may imply that you, for some reason, broke that mug on purpose. However, when using the second sentence, you’re implicitly saying that breaking that mug was an accident.
Accidental se takeaways
When using ‘se’ this way, you need to keep in mind that the verb will be conjugated in singular or plural depending on the object you’re talking about. You also need to match the indirect object pronoun to the person who did the action. Despite these changes, se will always remains the same.
A nosotros se nos quemaron las galletas We burnt the cookies
Discúlpame, es que se me manchó tu vestido I’m very sorry, I stained your dress
¿Como que se te cayó mi celular? What do you mean that you dropped my phone?
Mayra no le ha dicho a su mamá que se le secaron sus plantas Mayra hasn’t told her mom that her plants dried up
Here are some of the most common verbs that you can use se to talk about accidents. Be aware that we never use this structure to talk about flight or motor vehicle accidents.
|Tirar||To throw away/To drop|
|Caer||To drop/To fall|
Se as a reflexive pronoun
As you may know, another context where you get to apply se, it’s when using reflexive pronouns. In this case, se is the reflexive pronoun for the third person – both singular and plural. To help you remember this, here are the reflexive pronouns:
In Spanish, we use reflexive verbs to talk about actions that are performed and received by the same person. Here are some examples:
Ustedes se lavan las manos muy mal You guys wash your hands very bad
Karina se baña en las mañanas antes de ir a trabajar Karina showers in the morning before going to work
Usually, you’ll find that many of the reflexive verbs are used to talk about daily routines. Getting familiar with this topic is an important part of your Spanish grammar and communication. That’s why on this guide to reflexive verbs, I’ll show you the rules, how to conjugate them as well as some useful examples on how to use them in your daily life.
Se to Talk About Reciprocal Actions
In previous sections, we saw that one of the most common uses of ‘se’ is as a reflexive pronoun. As you may remember, this type of verbs is used to express that a person does and is personally affected by the action. Se is also used when two people do and receive the same action. In some cases, this meaning of ‘se’ can be translated as ‘each other’. In others, the translation will vary depending on the sentence.
Here are some examples:
Nadia y Fernando se aman Nadia and Fernando love each other
Gabriel y Brenda se besan todas las mañanas Gabriel and Brenda kiss every morning
Carlos y Matías se hablan por teléfono todos los días Carlos and Matías call each other everyday
This type of phrase is called reciprocal and one thing that can help you differentiate them from reflexive verbs is the fact that with sentences you need more than one person, otherwise, the action wouldn’t be reciprocal. As a result, in these contexts, we can only use se or nos.
Eva y Marco se cuentan todo Evan and Marco tell each other everything
Mi vecino y yo nos gustamos desde la secundaria My neighbor and I like each other since junior high
These are some of the most common verbs that you use to express reciprocality, keep in mind that by removing se you will express that the action is only performed by one person and received by the other.
|Agarrar la mano||To hold hands|
|Despedirse||To say goodbye|
Using ‘se’ to Avoid Passive Voice
In Spanish, as well as many languages, the passive voice is necessary to emphasize more on the object that is receiving the action rather than the person doing it. However, overusing passive voice will make your Spanish less natural. In order to keep the same meaning (emphasizing on the object) without overusing the passive voice, in Spanish we can use se.
Here is the grammar structure that you need to use as well as some examples.
Se + [verb in singular form] + [object]
Se pica la carne en cuadritos Chop the meat in squares
Se vende casa de dos habitaciones Two bedroom house for sale
As you may notice, this structure doesn’t need a subject because we only care about the action and the object (the meat and the lettuce). These types of structures are widely used in recipes, user’s manuals and selling signs. Unlike the impersonal phrases built with ‘se’, in this case, you do need to change the verb to match the number of the object you’re talking about.
Se + [verb in plural form] + [objects]
|Se mezclan los ingredientes||Mix the ingredients|
Notice that the translation will depend on the context and the sentence you use since we don’t have an equivalent in English.
Using ‘se’ for formal writing samples
Another way to use this meaning of ‘se’ is to explain your conclusions and discoveries in your reports, essays or papers. When doing this you need to follow the rules that we already discussed. You can also use the following structure, since in this type of text you need to explain yourself a little bit more or you need to repeat what someone else said:
Se + [verb in singular form] + que + [extra information]
Se concluyó que los datos no fueron suficientes We came to the conclusion that the data wasn’t enough
Se dijo que habrá más investigaciones sobre el tema It was said that there will be more research about the topic
This type of writing is more formal and, as a result, it’s common in essays, papers, news and books. You may also hear this meaning in very formal conversations. There’s no doubt that this is an advanced way to use se in Spanish, so before you start adding it to your writing or conversations, make sure you understand how the passive voice works in Spanish.
Since it’s used in very different contexts, the meanings and uses of se can be very confusing for new Spanish speakers. However, it’s necessary to know how to apply this word since most of these situations are essential for good Spanish communication. In this article, we discussed the top 7 ways to use ‘se’.
We learned that in some cases, se can be either an indirect object pronoun or a reflexive pronoun. We also discussed that this word is used to emphasize some actions as well as amounts. You also learned that you can express that an action was an accident if you include ‘se’ in your sentence.
We learned how to build impersonal expressions with this word and we also talked about avoiding passive voice by using ‘se’. You should now have a better understanding on how to use this word.
In order to make this topic easier, we didn’t give you any grammatical name or category of ‘se’, we instead explained to you the real applications of this word. Learning these grammatical categories can do more harm than good since some of them look very similar and they can confuse you.
Below are some keys that will help you remember when and how to use se in Spanish.
- In order to avoid cacophonies, grammar mistakes as well as miscommunication, if you’re using both direct and indirect pronouns, you need to replace ‘le’ and ‘les’ with se.
- Se is used with verbs related to food, money and drinking to intensify the action and emphasize how much a person is eating, drinking or spending.
- Se can be translated as ‘each other’ when talking about reciprocal actions like ‘besar’, ‘amar’, ‘gustar’, ‘querer’, ect. However, keep in mind that in these cases you need more than one person: they’re going to do and receive the action.
- You can talk about behaviours, activities, traditions and routines that are very common to a place or a big group of people. In this case, we don’t have a subject since ‘se’ is being used to generalize.
- Although it doesn’t have a direct translation, se is used to express that an action you did wasn’t on purpose. In other words, we imply that it was an accident. In this context, this word usually goes with verbs like ‘romper’, ‘quemar’, ‘secar’, ‘olvidar’ and ‘perder’.
- We use se to avoid over using passive voice and to make our Spanish more natural. This way to use ‘se’ is very popular in recipes, selling signs and instructions. It can also be used in formal writing samples such as essays, papers and news.