Reflexive Verbs With an Indirect Object

Sentence Structure Unfamiliar to English Speakers

funny picture of tomato
Se me olvidó el tomate. (I forgot the tomato.). Photo by Alfred Brumm; licensed via Creative Commons.

Spanish often uses reflexive verbs in a way that seems unfamiliar to English speakers, as the following question from a reader illustrates. Briefly, a reflexive construction is one in which the subject of a sentence 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.

Question: Se me rompió la taza. Se me olvidó el tomate. What exactly is that se doing there? What role is it playing grammatically?

Answer: Sentences like those are definitely confusing at first, because they are structured so differently than anything we use in English.

What is happening here, first of all, is that some verbs in Spanish can be used reflexively, but they don't have to be. In your first example is a form of the verb romper, which means "to break." The reflexive form, romperse, could be literally translated as "to break itself," but we don't talk that way in English. So a sentence such as "La taza se rompió" normally would be translated as "The cup was broken" (using the Spanish reflexive is the equivalent of the English passive voice) or "The cup broke."

So in the first sentences, se literally means "itself," even if you wouldn't say it that way in translation, and indicates what was broken.

So what about the me? In this case, me is an indirect object, which indicates who was affected by the action of the verb. If you were being extremely literal, you might translate the sentence as "the cup broke itself for me" or "the cup broke itself to me." But we don't talk that way or even think that way. It's better here to translate this as "My cup got broken" or even "I broke the cup." In one sense, wording the sentence this way in Spanish might be seen as a way of not taking responsibility for breaking the cup. More likely, though, the use of a reflexive verb here is a way of indicating that the breakage was accidental.

Your other sentence can be analyzed in the same way, and probably the best translation would be "I forgot the tomato," with the use of the reflexive verb here indicating that the forgetting was accidental rather than intentional. This way of using olvidar reflexively is fairly common but obviously foreign-sounding for the English speaker.

Another verb that can work this way is perder. To say the keys got lost, you can say "se perdieron las llaves." But if they were your keys, you could say "se me perdieron las llaves" for "I forgot the keys."  If someone else lost the keys, you could say "se le perdieron las llaves." This use of the reflexive perderse, although it may sound indirect, is a very common way of indicating that something was lost.

Two other similar sentences:

  • 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.