That pesky “se” – Part III

So far we’ve discussed “se” when it’s used reflexively, reciprocally and passively. We’ve also seen a number of common words that change meaning when you add “se” to them. Today we’ll look at two more uses which are every bit as common and important; namely, the “accidental se” and the “se” that isn’t really “se”. Let me explain:

The Accidental “Se”: Had you ever had a glass break on you? You know, one which you “accidentally” left on the edge of the table and let shatter in a million pieces? Of course, you didn’t intend to break your Aunt Matilda’s precious baroque china from the Hapsburg era, but somehow the glass just let itself fall and there you were seconds later trying to sweep the pieces under the rug before she walked in. Well, in this case, the Spanish language offers an out with the construction “Se me rompió el vaso” which translates, roughly, The glass broke itself on me. You could, of course, say “Yo rompí el vaso”, but then you’re taking full responsibility for the act and even implying that it was intentional. With “se” you’re in the clear!

There are a number verbs with “se” which can help you deflect responsibility. Let’s look at some other examples:

  • “Se me perdió tu celular.” = I lost your cellphone OR Your cellphone lost itself on me.
  • “Se me quedaron las llaves en el carro.” = I left my keys in the car OR The keys left themselves behind in the car on me.
  • “Se me olvidó nuestro aniversario.” = I forgot our anniversary OR Our anniversary forget itself on me.
  • “Se me cayó mi anillo de bodas en la basura” = I dropped my wedding ring in the trash OR My wedding ring fell into the trash on me.

For obvious reasons, this is my favorite use of “se” as it makes life just that much easier. It’s also a lot more natural to use this construction than its English equivalents “I broke”, “I lost”, “I forgot”, etc. After all, why blame yourself for everything?

The “se” that isn’t “se”: This is one which they teach in Spanish 101 but which takes a while to master. To fully grasp it, we need to review direct and indirect object pronouns (yes, that sounds gross but grammar has its place and time). Let’s take a look:

Direct Object Pronouns:

me = me

te = you (informal)

lo, la = he, she, it

nos = her

los, las = them

Indirect Object Pronouns:

me = to/for me

te = to/for you

le = to/for him, her, it

nos = to/for us

les = to/for them

I’m assuming that, if you’ve been studying Spanish for a while, you’re already somewhat familiar with these. Just as in English, it is possible to use both direct and indirect pronouns in the same sentence: I give it to you = Te lo doy. The order of pronouns is different than in English and follows this formula: Indirect Object + Direct Object + Verb. This alone can take some getting use to, but there’s a little twist. Let’s see what happens when we use le and lo in the same sentence:

I give it to him = Se lo doy.

Se = To him

lo = it

doy = I give

But wait, you say… shouldn’t “to him” be “le”??!! The answer is yes, BUT native speakers decided long ago that they don’t like the sound of “le lo“, so they unconsciously changed the le to se. Granted, this wasn’t a very creative idea, since “se” already had a gazillion other uses, but it at least made the language sound prettier. Now whenever you put le, les and lo, la, los, las together, the le and les will change to “se”. Let’s look at another example:

Se lo compré ayer. = I bought it for him/her/them yesterday.

The “se” in this sentence is filling in for le (for him/her) or les (for them). The truth is that, without context, we can’t know to whom “se” refers without some clarifying markers. Let’s suppose that I bought it (un libro, un regalo, etc) for Roberto yesterday. The sentence would read:

Se lo compré a Roberto ayer.

English has no equivalent for this construction. We wouldn’t say “I bought it for him Roberto yesterday.” We would say “for him” or “for Roberto”, but not both. Spanish, however, DOES use this construction to clear up ambiguity. What’s more, the indirect object pronoun “se” (meaning “le”) is indispensable in this sentence whether or not you mention Roberto (you can’t technically say Lo compré a Roberto, although it happens).

As you can see, “se” is an extremely common pronoun in Spanish. While its many uses may seem overwhelming, the reality is that they all begin to fall into place with a little practice and exposure. After a while, “se” will become your friend and ally in your conquest of the language. I look forward to your comments!

Hasta pronto…



1 comment on That pesky “se” – Part III

  1. Love it! After I doused the house in gasoline and lit a match, aparentemente la casa se quemó. Hmmmm
    Una broma:
    ?Cuál es la fruta que más se ríe?
    La naranja, ja, ja, ja, ja…

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