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The pronoun “se” and its interesting uses in Spanish

The pronoun “se” and its interesting uses in Spanish

If you’ve taken Spanish lessons with Berges, you’ve probably seen the pronoun “se” since level 1 when you learned the reflexive verbs. Those who have persevered until level 4 soon learned that “se” could also represent an indirect object when the indirect object pronoun is immediately followed by the direct object pronoun. For example, Jorge envió un paquete a Martha, pero se lo envió tarde —In this example, “se” is being used instead of “le” to avoid a phonetical problem.

But if you reached level 4, it’s highly likely that you’ve seen “se” in places that defy logic as a reflexive verb, and in places where it seems to not be a pronoun at all. I’d like to shed some light onto this matter. The first area that we need to address is that many reflexive verbs are hard to digest because in reality the subject is not performing the action on itself. Let’s compare verbs like “hundirse – to sink”, “perderse – to get lost” and “caerse – to fall down” to verbs like “ducharse – to shower” and “maquillarse – to put on makeup”

The actions below could be labeled as involuntary:

  • El Titanic se hundió el 14 de abril de 1912.

The Titanic sank on April 14th, 1912.

Just like in English, this action was not performed by the Titanic on purpose. There were a lot of elements that caused this tragedy, but it’s a way to say in Spanish that these events happened to this vessel.

  • Mi tío siempre se pierde en la ciudad.

My uncle always gets lost in the city.

In this case, my uncle getting lost was something that happened to him not something he did voluntarily.

  • Juliana se cayó cuando estaba corriendo.

Juliana fell down when she was running.

And just like the previous examples, this was an accident and not a voluntary action.

Now let’s consider actions that can be labeled as voluntary below:

  • Marcos se duchaba mucho cuando era más joven.

Marcos used to shower a lot when he was younger.

  • Elsa se maquilla cuando tiene que hacer presentaciones en su compañía.

Elsa puts on makeup when she has to make presentations in her company.

In these two examples, the subjects are performing those actions on themselves voluntarily.

Having that in mind, the pronoun “se” will appear in other scenarios, where in English, it would not represent a pronoun necessarily. This is the case of the impersonal “se”. In Spanish, “se” is often used before a verb that is commonly conjugated to the third person singular —“él, ella”, and it’s a structure that can represent a type of passive voice in English, a routine of a group of people, or an unassigned ability. Let’s go through some interesting examples:

Sometimes you will see ads like the ones below in the streets of your city:

  • Se necesita ayudante

Usually said in English as “helper needed” as in a helper is needed

  • Se busca asistente de cocina

Kitchen assistant wanted meaning a kitchen assistant is wanted.

In these examples the impersonal “se” is expressing vacancies in the workforce and a form of passive voice is usually used in English.

Additionally, you’ll soon be exposed —if you haven’t been already— to expressions such as:

  • En Colombia se baila cumbia.

People in Colombia dance cumbia. This sentence displays the customs of Colombians

  • Se habla español

We speak Spanish, meaning that someone undetermined in that location is able to speak Spanish.

The common factor in all these sentences using the impersonal “se” is that the subject is undefined. We know either someone needs something, or does something regularly, or has a certain ability, but we don’t know who specifically.

Having that in mind, we can safely approach a more complex structure in Spanish reserved for those students who are not faint of heart. This structure uses the pronoun “se” in front of indirect object pronouns and the verb is often conjugated to what normally would be the object in English (Hmmm, the object is now the subject! Do you remember something like this from level 1? How about “gustar”?) Anyway, the purpose of this “se + OI” structure is to emphasize an involuntary or an accidental action removing the responsibility of certain actions to an extent. It’s like saying something happened to me instead of I did something. Let’s go through some interesting examples:

Olvidar - to forget

  • Sara olvidó su tarea.

Sara forgot her homework.

In this sentence in the direct voice, Sara is appointed the full responsibility of forgetting her homework. Using direct voice with “olvidar” is a great way to indicate voluntarily forgetting something such as: “Raquel olvidó a su ex-novio rápidamente” — Here it seems she wanted to forget him.

  • A Sara se le olvidó la tarea.

Sara forgot her homework.

In this sentence by rephrasing it using “se + OD” and the verb conjugated to “la tarea”, we are removing Sara’s responsibility about forgetting her homework, and it sounds like it was an accident that happened to her.

Note the verb is now conjugated to what normally is the object in English. Let’s say ‘I forgot my homework accidentally’ using this structure remembering to conjugate the verb to “la tarea” :

(A mí) se me olvidó la tarea.

Just like with the verb “gustar”, we can omit “a mí” but remember it is there. Also, please note the similarity with the sentences ‘I liked my homework’

(A mí) se me olvidó la tarea. — I forgot my homework.

(A mí) me gustó la tarea. — I liked my homework.

The only difference is the addition of “se” to the structure.

Let’s go over some other interesting examples remembering that when we use the direct voice we are assigning the responsibility of the actions to the subject and by using “se + OI” we are removing the responsibility bringing emphasis to its involuntary nature.

Perder - to lose

  • ¿Cuándo perdiste la billetera?

When did you lose your wallet? — assigning responsibility

  • ¿Cuándo se te perdió la billetera?

When did you lose your wallet? — removing responsibility emphasizing it as involuntary and accidental

Quemar — to burn

  • Víctor quemó los frijoles.

Víctor burned the beans.

  • A Víctor se le quemaron los frijoles.

Víctor burned the beans.

Romper — to break

  • Ayer rompimos la silla

We broke the chair yesterday.

  • Ayer se nos rompió la silla

We broke the chair yesterday.

Caer — to fall (as the effect of gravity)

Finally, there are going to be some verbs that will change their meaning if they are used with the “se + OI” structure. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that these actions are involuntary, and thus, the counterparts in English should also be involuntary and not otherwise. Let’s discuss this further with a few examples:

  • Las hojas caen de los árboles en otoño.

Leaves fall from trees in Autumn.

Se + OI + caer — to drop something accidentally

  • Al mesero se le cayeron los vasos.

The waiter dropped the glasses. —accidentally

Notes about caer:

  1. Remember caerse means to fall down.
  2. If you look for the verb ‘to drop’ in a dictionary, you will most likely find: “soltar”, “dejar” or “dejar caer”. These two verbs don’t necessarily mean accidentally dropping something. Let’s compare a few examples to clarify this.
  • Al mesero se le cayeron los vasos.

The waiter dropped the glasses. — meaning the glasses fell on their own while the waiter was holding them

  • El mesero soltó los vasos rápidamente.

The waiter quickly dropped the glasses. —meaning the waiter stopped grabbing the glasses or the waiter released the glasses

  • El mesero dejó los vasos en el restaurante.

The waiter dropped the glasses at the restaurant. —meaning the waiter left the glasses at the restaurant

  • El mesero dejó caer los vasos.

The waiter dropped the glasses. —meaning the waiter allowed the glasses to fall, assigning full responsibility

I hope this brought you some insight into this complex and interesting Spanish grammatical structure. Now you can go out there and fully redeem yourself from guilt using this structure —when it’s appropriate, of course!

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