Reflexive Spanish Verbs With an Indirect Object

How to make sense of a Spanish verb with 2 object pronouns

funny picture of tomato
Se me olvidó el tomate. (I forgot the tomato—not a literal translation.).

Alfred Brumm / Creative Commons.

Spanish often uses reflexive verbs in a way that seems unfamiliar to English speakers. And they can seem downright indecipherable at when they are in sentences include two object pronouns of a single verb, a phenomenon that is unheard of in everyday English unless those pronouns are connected by "and" or "or."

Here are three examples of sentences that include two object pronouns that have different grammatical functions (that is, that aren't joined by a conjunction such as y or o). Translations given aren't the only ones possible; alternatives are explained below.)

  • Se me rompió la taza. (The objects are se and me. My cup got broken.)
  • ¿Se te olvidó el tomate? (The object pronouns are te and me. Did you forget the tomato?)
  • La espiritualidad es algo que se nos despierta en cierto momento de nuestra vida. (The object pronouns are se and te. Spirituality is something that awakens for us at a certain time of our lives.)

Why Two Objects Are Used

You may have noticed that the three translations above took different approaches—but that none of the translations are literal, word-for-word ones, which wouldn't make sense.

The key to understanding these sentences grammatically is to remember that the se in each of these cases is part of a reflexive verb, and that the other pronoun is an indirect object, one that tells who is affected by a verbs action.

Basically, a reflexive construction is one in which the subject of a verb acts on itself. An example in English would be "I see myself" ("Me veo" in Spanish), where the person speaking is both seeing and being seen. In Spanish, however, it is possible to think of a verb acting on itself even when we don't translate it that way in English.

This can be seen in the first example, where the most common definition of romper is "to break." So we can think of romperse (romper plus the reflexive pronoun se) as meaning "to break itself," (The translation "to be broken" might also be used.)

The other pronoun, in this case me, tells us is affected by that breaking. In English, we might translate the indirect object me as "me," "to me," or "for me." So a fully literal meaning of the sentence might be something like "The cup broken itself to me." Obviously that doesn't make much sense. So how do we translate such a sentence. Normally, if a cup breaks and it affects me, it's probably my cup, so we could say "My cup broke" or "My cup got broken." And even "I broken the cup" would be fine if that fit the context of what happened.

The other sentences can be analyzed in the same way. In the second example, olvidarse typically means "to be forgotten" rather than the literal "to forget itself." And if the forgetting of the tomato affects you, you are probably the person who lost it, and the the translation given.

And in the third example, despertarse usually means "to wake up" or "to awaken." Without the nos in the sentence, we could could think merely of spirituality waking up. The "for us" is used to clearly indicate who is a beneficiary of the verbs action, although "awakens us" could be used.

Note how in all these sentences, the se is placed before other pronoun. Se should not be placed between a verb and any other object pronoun.

Other Sample Sentences

You can see how this pattern is followed with the other sentences. Again, the translations given aren't the only ones possible:

  • Estoy agradecido no se me ocurrió antes. (I'm grateful it didn't happen to me sooner.)
  • ¡El cielo se nos cae encima! (The sky is falling on us!)
  • Pedid y se os dará. (Ask and it will be given to you.)
  • Que se te moje el teléfono móvil es una de las peores cosas que puede pasar. (Getting your cellphone wet is one of the worst things that can happen to you.)

Key Takeaways

  • The reflexive pronoun se can be used along with indirect object pronouns that indicate who is affected by the action of the reflexive verb.
  • Se is placed before the indirect object pronoun.
  • Sentences using se and an indirect pronoun can be translated in at least three different ways.