Introducing 'Se' in Spanish

Cat's reflection in mirror.

Se is undoubtedly the most versatile of the Spanish pronouns. As you learn Spanish, you will come across se used in a variety of ways, usually meaning one of the "-self" words of English such as "herself" or "yourself." 

Using 'Se' as a Reflexive Pronoun

The most common use of se is a reflexive pronoun. Such pronouns indicate that the subject of a verb is also its object. In English, this is usually accomplished by using verbs such as "himself" or "themselves." ​Se is used as the reflexive pronoun for third-person uses (including when usted or ustedes is the subject).

Some verbs (as in the final two examples below) can be used reflexively in Spanish even though they aren't translated that way in English.

  • Pablo se ve por el espejo. (Pablo sees himself using the mirror.)
  • Los padres no pueden oírse. (The parents can't hear themselves.)
  • Rebecca se perjudica por fumar. (Rebecca is hurting herself by smoking.)
  • Benjamín Franklin se levantaba temprano. (Benjamin Franklin got up early.)
  • Se comió los tacos. (He ate up the tacos.)

Using 'Se' as the Equivalent of the Passive Voice

Although this use of se isn't technically the passive voice, it fulfills the same function. By using se, particularly when discussing inanimate objects, it is possible to indicate an action without indicating who performed the action. Grammatically, such sentences are structured in the same way that sentences using reflexive verbs are. Thus in a literal sense, a sentence such as se venden coches means "cars sell themselves." In actuality, however, such a sentence would be the English equivalent of "cars are sold" or, more loosely translated, "cars for sale."

  • Se abren las puertas. (The doors are opened.)
  • Se vendió la computadora. (The computer was sold.)
  • Se perdieron los llaves. (The keys were lost.)
  • Se prohibe fumar. (Smoking is prohibited.)

Using 'Se' as a Substitute for 'Le' or 'Les'

When the indirect-object pronoun le or les is immediately followed by another pronoun that begins with an l, the le or les is changed to se.

This prevents having two pronouns in a row beginning with the l sound.

  • selo a ella. (Give it to her.)
  • Se lo dijo a él. (He told it to him.)
  • No se lo voy a dar a ellos. (I'm not going to give it to them.)

Using the Impersonal 'Se'

Se is sometimes used in an impersonal sense with singular verbs to indicate that people in general, or no person in particular, performs the action. When se is used in this way, the sentence follows the same pattern as those in which the main verb is used reflexively, except that there is no subject to the sentence that is explicitly stated. As the examples below show, there are a variety of ways such sentences can be translated to English.

  • Se maneja rápidamente en Lima. (People drive fast in Lima.)
  • Se puede encontrar cocos en el mercado. (You can find coconuts in the market.)
  • Muchas veces se tiene que estudiar para aprender. (Often you have to study to learn.)
  • No se debe comer con prisa. (One ought not to eat quickly.)

A Caution About a Homonym

Se shouldn't be confused with (note the accent mark), which is usually the singular first-person present indicative form of saber ("to know"). Thus usually means "I know." can also be the singular familiar imperative form of ser; in that case it means "you be" as a command.