That pesky “se”

One of the most challenging aspects of Spanish can be spelled with two letters: “se”. This pesky little word seems to crop up in almost every other sentence and has innumerable meanings. I thought I’d dedicate this article and the next to some of its most common uses…

1) “Sé” of saber: We’ll start with this one because it’s the easiest. One of the first things that students of Spanish learn is that “Yo sé” means “I don’t know” and that “Yo no sé” means “I don’t know”. There’s nothing more straightforward than this, but notice how the “sé” in this sentence contains an accent mark. Usually accent marks are used to stress syllables in words which don’t follow normal pronunciation rules (more on that another time), but in the case of small words like “se” and “sé”, “el” and “él”, “de” and “dé”, etc, the accent mark changes the whole meaning. Therefore, you can rest assured that whenever you see an accent mark on , it is the first-person present of the verb saber. Facil, ¿verdad?

2) Reflexive “se”: If you’ve reached an intermediate level of Spanish, you’re probably pretty familiar with the concept of reflexive verbs. When a verb is reflexive, it simply means that it acts upon itself. A verb is made reflexive by adding “se” to its infinitive… let’s break down this down in plain English.

We’ll use the verb “levantar” which means “to pick up” to illustrate. A non-reflexive example of this verb would be: “Todos los días voy al gimnasio para levantar pesas” = Every day I go to the gym to lift weights. In this instance, the subject of the sentence is acting on something other than himself (las pesas). We don’t need “se”.

If, however, you say “Todos los días mi hijo se levanta a las ocho de la mañana” (Every day my son gets up at 8 in the morning), then we need “se”. In this sentence, we are literally saying that “every day my son gets himself up at 8 in the morning”. That “se” means himself, although we would rarely say this in English. The difference between levantar and levantarse is roughly the difference between “to pick up” and “to get (oneself) up”.

Another example of this is “llamar” vs “llamarse” (to call vs to call oneself). If you say, “Lo llamo a las ocho” (I’ll call him at 8), you are directing your action to a different person and do not need “se”. If you say, however, “Mi amigo se llama Jorge” (My friend calls himself Jorge) there is no action from one person towards another. Jorge simply acts upon himself by calling himself Jorge.

The difference between non-reflexive and reflexive verbs is not always intuitive and does not correspond directly with the way we speak in English. Let’s take “sentir”, for example. By itself, this means “to feel”: “Me gusta sentir la arena en los pies” = I like to feel the sand in my feet. Suppose, however, that you wish to describe an emotion. For this we need sentirse: “El se siente mucho mejor hoy que ayer” = He feels much better today than yesterday. Take “ir” and “irse” (to go vs to leave) as another strange example: “Voy a la tienda” means I’m going to the store, whereas “Me voy a la tienda” means that I’m leaving to go to the store or, more literally, I’m taking myself away to the store.

I know this is stretching the mind’s limits a bit, but the point is that if you add “se” to a verb, you change its meaning a bit. You turn the action upon the subject. Spanish speakers sometimes use reflexive verbs where they don’t even make sense: “El se comió diez tacos” = He ate himself ten tacos. In these instances, the reflexive is added only for emphasis… it’s perfectly correct to say “El comió diez tacos”, but then you lose the drama factor.

3) Reciprocal “se”: What’s the difference between mirarse and mirarse? This is where Spanish gets ambiguous. The sentence “Los perros se miran” can mean “The dogs look at themselves” or “The dogs look at each other”. How do we know the difference? Well… the short answer is we don’t. The long answer, however, is that we can use phrases like a sí mismo(s) or (los) unos a (los) otros to make the distinction. Most of the time, however, the context will simply tell us.

Here are a few other examples of the reciprocal “se”:

  • “Al conocerse, los hombres se dieron la mano” = Upon meeting each other, the men shook hands (gave each other the hand)
  • “Las mujeres se gritaron toda la noche” = The women shouted at each other all night long
  • “Los soldados se dispararon en el campo de batalla” = The soldiers shot each other on the battlefield

In the strictest sense, you could also say that the latter example is reflexive (The soldiers shot themselves on the battlefield). Again, common sense and context usually clarify whether the action is inflicted on oneself or on someone else who, um, just happens to be inflicting the same action on the other party (would soldiers be shooting at themselves on a battlefield, or would they be shooting at each other?).

4) Passive “se”: I’ll end today’s article by delving into the science behind this statement: “Se habla español”. Here again we have that bothersome “se”, but it is neither reflexive nor reciprocal. This sort of “se” is used when the subject of the sentence is unknown or doesn’t matter. The sentence “se habla español” simply means that “Spanish is spoken”, but we don’t necessarily know or need to know by whom.

In an earlier article, I made mention of the passive voice. The sentence “Los carros fueron lavados ayer” (The cars were washed yesterday) could also be expressed “Se lavaron los carros ayer.” Neither sentence tells us who washed the cars and it doesn’t matter. A sentence such as “El periodico fue comprado esta mañana” (The newspaper was bought this morning) can be said as “Se compró el periodico esta mañana.” We don’t know nor do we care who bought the newspaper, hence it goes into the passive.

The passive “se” will agree in number with the noun which follows it: “Se habla español” vs “Se hablan varias lenguas” (many languages are spoken). “Se vende la casa” vs “Se vendelas casas”.

By now, many are probably wondering, why does Spanish use one word to express so many different concepts. The answer is “yo no sé”, but the fact is that it gets easier with practice to understand the distinctions. Next week, I’ll send an article with a few esoteric uses of “se”, but in the meanwhile I recommend the outstanding grammar resource shown below. I have consulted “The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice” again and again over the years, and you’ll find within its 480 pages plenty of practice with all eight bazillion different uses of “se”.

As always, your comments are welcome…


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