The Many Uses of the Spanish SE
Whether you are a person who is serious about learning Spanish or someone who may just have a passive interest, you no doubt have heard and seen the word ‘se’. Just a small word with only two letters. Yet it can mean many things. Becoming familiar with just the basic ways in which ‘se’ is used will help you understand and speak Spanish much better.
‘Se’ in Spanish sometimes can be frustrating. I remember many times I would wonder, agonize really, why ‘se’ was appearing in conversation or in something I was reading. So often, I just did not understand why the ‘se’ was there. But thanks to my Spanish teacher in Coronado, Panamá, and my Spanish teacher in Reno, Nevada, USA, I finally started to understand the use of ‘se’. I hope I can convey to you what I have learned about ‘se’, and save you some frustration.
This is a rather long article. But ‘se’ is everywhere in the Spanish language. So, to move forward, we must have at least a general understanding of the uses of ‘se’. Are you ready?
Let’s look at the easiest form of ‘se’ first. The ‘se’ with an accent over the ‘e’, sé. Most of you already know this is the ‘yo’ or ‘I’ form of the verb Saber. "I know". Saber is the Spanish verb to know facts, information, or to know how to do something. For review, here are some examples:
I know it. – Lo sé.
I already know that. – Ya sé eso. Or, ya lo sé.
I know you are studying Spanish. – Sé que está estudiando español. Or, sé que estudia español.
I know how to do it. – Sé como hacerlo.
Here is another easy to understand use of ‘se’. ‘Sé, also with an accent mark, is used for the informal Spanish command of the verb Ser, to be, referring to permanent situations. You can use this form of ‘sé’ when you want to tell someone you know very well (the informal Spanish tense), to ‘be’ a certain way. Look at these examples:
Be nice (to me)! – ¡Sé amable conmigo!
Be better! – ¡Sé mejor!
Keep in mind however that if you are talking to someone you do not know very well (speaking in the formal Spanish tense), you would say: "Sea amable conmigo" and "Sea mejor". And, if you want to tell someone informally, NOT to be a certain way (a negative Spanish command), you would not use ‘sé’. You would say this kind of statement this way:
Don’t be like that. – No seas así. Or formal, "No sea así".
Don’t be so difficult! – ¡No seas tan pesado! Or formal, "No sea tan pesado".
Spanish commands are another very important area of Spanish. We may look at them further in a future article.
So far so good? Now lets look at the way ‘se’ is used most often. And that would be its use to make Spanish verbs reflexive. You may want to review the article "How Are Your Spanish Reflexes?" especially if you are unfamiliar with Spanish reflexive verbs. And, or, check with another reference on Spanish reflexive verbs if you have a favorite.
‘Se’ is one of several reflexive Spanish pronouns, me, te, se and, nos. These pronouns are used to indicate a Spanish verb is being used reflexively. When ‘se’ is used reflexively, it refers to an action of a verb ‘reflecting back on a he, she, it, they, or you in the formal tense, who are doing the action. He or she does something himself or herself. They do something themselves. You do something yourself (formal). You all do something yourselves and so on. An action done myself would use the reflexive pronoun 'me'. Ourselves would be 'nos'. Yourself informal would be 'te'. Even an object can do something to itself in Spanish, and 'se' would indicate this. Spanish uses verbs reflectively much more often than in English. Look at these well-known examples of ‘se’ being used reflexively:
What is your name? - ¿Cómo se llama? How do you call yourself?
What is her name? -¿Cómo se llama? How does she call herself?
What is his name? -¿Cómo se llama? How does he call himself?
What are their names? - ¿Cómo se llaman? How do they call themselves?
What is the name of that building? -¿Ese edificio, cómo se llama? How does it call itself?
Here are a few more examples of ‘se’ being used to make a verb reflexive. These verbs are most often used reflexively.
Quedar(se), to stay. They are staying (themselves) at a hotel. – Se quedan en un hotel. Or, Están quedándo(se) en un hotel.
Acostar(se), to go to bed. She went to bed (herself) very early. - Se acostó muy temprano.
Levantar(se), to get up. They got up (themselves) at dawn. – Se levantaron al amanacer.
Mirar(se), to look at oneself. He looked at himself in the mirror. Se miró en el espejo.
Duchar(se), to shower oneself. He showered (his self) this morning. – Se duchó esta maña.
All the herself, itself, hiself, etc. sounds unnecessary to us. In Spanish though, it sounds perfectly normal. Do you see how the ‘se’ indicates who the action of the verb is being reflected back to?
And then there are objects that do things to themselves, reflexively.
The sun sets (itself), for the most part, around 5pm. – El sol se pone, por la mayor parte, alrededor de las cinco.
The river overflowed (itself) and caused a flood. – El río se desbordó y causó una inundación.
Did the building collapse (on itself) due to the earthquake? – ¿El edificio, se derrumbó debido al terremoto?
My car broke down (itself) yesterday. – Mi carro se estropeó ayer.
There are many other reflexive verbs in Spanish. Most dictionaries and Spanish verb references will attach the ‘se’ to the end of an infinitive verb to indicate that it is used reflexively more often than not.
‘Se’ is also used in what is known as the Passive Voice in Spanish. Use of the passive voice in Spanish (and English) is when there is an action indicated in a sentence, but no reference as to exactly who is doing, has done, or will do the action. For example,
One should not swim after eating". – No se debe nadar despues de comer.
They built the bridge in one year". – Se construyó el puente en un año.
One will not be able to see it then". – No se podrá ver entonces.
‘Se’ represents the unidentified people doing the actions above.
For sure you have seen and heard the following two classic phrases in Spanish. Have you ever wondered why the ‘se’ is there?
Spanish is spoken (here). - Se habla Español.
How do you say it in Spanish? Or, how does one say it? – ¿Cómo se dice en Español?
In the first example, ‘se’ refers to those unidentified people who speak Spanish wherever here is. And ‘se’ in the second example represents ‘one’ or ‘anyone’, who would want to know how to say what ever it is.
Here are several other simple examples of ‘se’ used in the passive voice:
It is done like this. Or, one does it like this. – Se hace así.
It is said like that. Or, one says it like that. - Se dice así.
They built the house last year. – Se construyó la casa el año pasado.
They say you (one) shouldn’t go out at night. – Se dice que no se debe salir en la noche.
How can one travel to Panamá? - ¿Cómo se puede viajar a Panamá?
Where can one eat well in Coronado? –¿ Dónde se puede comer bien en Coronado?
They will finish the mall next year. – El centro commercial se terminará el año que viene.
One should exercise every day. – Se debe hacer ejercisio cada día.
You (one) need(s) eggs to make an omelet. – Se nececitan huevos para hacer un omelett.
They sell shoes at the mall. – Se venden zapatos en el centro comercial.
Notice in the last two examples that the nouns eggs (huevos) and shoes (zapatos) are plural. Therefore nececitan and venden are used. In the passive voice, verbs are conjugated to the third person (or thing in this case). The ‘se’ refers to the unidentified people doing the action of needing and selling the shoes and eggs.
The passive voice is also used with inanimate objects (things, and sometimes places). In these cases you see no reference to human action. Look at these examples:
The store closes at 10:00. – La tienda se cierra a las diez.
What time did the mall open today? – ¿A qué hora se abrió el centro comercial hoy?
When does the restaurant open? – ¿Cuándo se abre el restrauante?
For Sale (a sign in front of a house). – Se vende.
Now, you can look at the above passive statements in two ways. Both passively, and reflexively. In the first example, ‘someone’ (se), closes the store at 10:00. Sounds passive. Or, the store closes ‘itself’ (se). Also sounds reflexive. It is the same with the next three. Someone (se), opened the mall today. Or the mall opened itself (se) today. And someone (se), opens the restaurant at a certain time. Or, the restaurant opens ‘itself’ (se) at a certain time. And in the last, someone is selling this house. Or, this house is selling ‘itself’.
These are considered passive statements, but for sure, anyone can argue they are reflexive as well. It does not matter how you look at it, so long as you understand the function of ‘se’.
There are a few other ways ‘se’ can be used in Spanish. And I hate to say it, but uses of ‘se’ can be more complicated. But don’t worry because if you understand the basic uses of ‘se’, like in the examples above, you will be able to understand their use as well. Also, you will have another tool that will improve your speaking and understanding of Spanish.
Look for and study other references on the use of ‘se’. And practice using ‘se’ in live conversation. Always look for reasons to say a few lines in Spanish with ‘se’! And say there…
¿Cómo se puede aprender a hablar español mejor? – La respuesta: ¡Siempre practique hablarlo!
Espero que esto les ayude,