That pesky “se” – part II

In my last post, I described some of the more common uses of that pesky pronoun “se” which seems to crop up everywhere in Spanish. We discussed the reflexive, reciprocal and passive uses of “se”. In this and in the next post, I want to dive a little deeper and examine some uses that are conceptually a bit less intuitive, but which are every bit as important in daily speech. Today we’ll focus on one of the more confusing aspects of “se”…

  • Verbs that look and act reflexive but aren’t: I remember, many years ago, sitting in a classroom in Guadalajara and watching my brain ooze out on the floor when the teacher introduced this concept. “¡Carajo, WTH!!??” I thought… how can this language have reflexive verbs that aren’t reflexive? And what does that even mean? Well, I’ve since had some time to wrap my head around this and, for our mutual benefit, I did a little more research this week. Here goes my best attempt to explain it:

Let’s recall that a verb is reflexive when the action is both performed by and to the subject of the sentence. To make a verb reflexive, we simply attach “se” to its infinitive: lavar vs lavarse, bañar vs bañarse, etc.­ The sentence “El lava los platos” is not reflexive, because the subject is performing the action on something other than himself (He washes the plates). If you say, however, that “El se lava”, it is understood that he is washing himself. In both instances, the verb lavar means to wash… the meaning doesn’t change. It turns out, however, that some verbs do change meaning when you add “se”. I alluded to this last week with the verbs ir vs irse, which mean “to go” and “to leave”, respectively, and also with the verbs sentir and sentirse. The former is used to describewhat one feels” (“El siente mucha hambre”), whereas the latter describes “how one feels” (“El se siente triste”). In the strictest, most grammarian, like “who thought this crap up” sense, irse and sentirse are not reflexive verbs, but they look and act exactly as though they were. Let’s look at some common, not really “reflexive” verbs which change their meaning when you tack on “se” to their infinitives:

acordar vs acordarse = “to agree on something” vs “to remember something”

  • Los países acordaron suspender la guerra. = The countries agreed to suspend the war.
  • El se acordó del cumpleaños de su mujer. = He remembered his wife’s birthday.

cambiar vs cambiarse = “to change” vs “to switch (houses, clothes, etc.)”

  • Por fin han cambiado esa ley injusta. = At last they’ve changed that unjust law.
  • Ella se cambió de casa la semana pasada. = She moved to another house last week.

dar cuenta vs darse cuenta = “to account for” vs “to realize”

  • Los participantes dieron cuenta de todo lo ocurrido en la reunión. = The participants gave an account of everything that happened in the meeting.
  • La mujer se dio cuenta de que ya no tenía su bolsa. = The woman realized that she no longer had her purse.

desenvolver vs desenvolverse = “to unwrap” vs “to manage or cope”

  • Los niños desenvolvieron todos sus regalos en cinco minutos. = The children unwrapped all their presents in five minutes.
  • María se desenvuelve sin problemas en la escuela. = María manages without problems at school.

dormir vs dormirse = “to sleep” vs “to fall asleep”

  • Anoche el niño durmió diez horas. = Last night the boy slept ten hours.
  • Anoche el niño se durmió a las siete. = Las night the boy fell asleep at seven.

fijar vs fijarse = “to affix or set” vs “to notice”

  • Fijamos la fecha de la boda para marzo. = We set the date of the wedding for March.
  • Ella se fijó en que ya no tenía su bolsa. = She noticed that she no longer had her purse.

gastar vs gastarse = “to spend” vs “to wear out”

  • He gastado demasiado dinero esta semana. = I’ve spent too much money this week.
  • Toda su ropa se está gastando y es hora de comprar más. = All her clothes are wearing out and it’s time to buy more.

llevar vs llevarse = “to take or carry” vs “to make off with, carry off” OR “to get along with someone”

  • Para el día de la madre, voy a llevarle flores a mi mamá. = For Mother’s Day, I’m going to take flowers to my mother.
  • El ladrón se llevó todas las flores de la tienda. = The thief carried off all the flowers in the store. 

saltar vs saltarse = “to jump” vs “to skip a step in a process” OR “to miss an obligation”

  • La rana logró saltar más de dos metros. = The frog managed to jump more than two meters.
  • Mi hermana se salta comidas para adelgazar. = My sister skips meals to lose weight.
  • Mi jefe se saltó la reunión porque iba de vacaciones. = My boss skipped out on the meeting because he was going on vacation.

valer vs valerse = “to be worth” vs “to make use of” OR “to get along on one’s own”

  • Esta obra de arte vale más de dos millones de dólares. = This artwork is worth more than two million dollars.
  • El se valió de la manguera para subir al techo. = He used the hose to get on the roof.
  • Mi madre es muy vieja pero todavía se vale por sí misma. = My mother is old but she still gets along on her own.

parecer vs parecerse = “to seem” vs “to look like”

  • Todo lo que dijo parece absurdo. = Everything he said seems absurd.
  • El padre y el hijo se parecen mucho. = The father and the son resemble each other a lot.

quedar vs quedarse = “to be left, remaining” vs “to stay or remain in a place” OR “to keep something”

  • Sólo quedan diez minutos antes de la salida del avión. = There are only ten minutes left before the plane leaves.
  • Se va a quedar en casa de un amigo esta noche. = He’s going to stay at a friend’s house tonight.
  • Gracias, señor… puede quedarse con el cambio. =  Thank you, sir… you can keep the change.

volver vs volverse = “to return” vs “to turn around”

  • Algún día me gustaría volver a Paris. = Some day I’d like to return to Paris.
  • El hombre se volvió abruptamente cuando escuchó su nombre. = The man turned around abruptly when he heard his name.

The bottom line is that sometimes you change the meaning of a verb when you add “se” to it. There are countless other examples and I suggest that when you learn a new verb, find out how adding “se” affects it. You can do this by consulting a handy online dictionary like and typing in the verb with or without “se”. If you click the “in context” link on this website, you’ll even see how the verb is being used in journals, news articles and the like.

Next post I’ll describe a few other uses of this little word. Meanwhile, ¡es casi hora de dormirse! Que tengas una buena noche…


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