This small little word is probably the most confusing pronoun to use in translating from English to Spanish. I have read so many lessons besides being taught in a classroom and I still have trouble recognizing its usage and I continually leave it out of my sentences when writing them. It is used as "passive" {cooking instructions/on signs};"pronomial(reflexive) {washing oneself/looking at oneself/calling, naming oneself}; "I.O." {se lo/se la}, easiest to understand.

I have a few sentences I would like to list to demonstrate the use of "se":

Sólo se es joven una vez.
You are only young once.

I am not sure how it is used here and if I was translating the English to Spanish, se would have been left out.

Sus padres se divorciaron en 1985. {pronomial?}
In 1985, his parents divorced.

Los cerdos se comen casi cualquier cosa. {don't know??}
Pigs eat almost anything.

¿Se está volviendo loca? {don't know??}
Is she losing her mind?

Se lastimó la mano. {reflexive for sure}
He hurt his hand.

Mi madre se llama Carmen. {reflexive for sure}
My mother's name is Carmen.

No se lo digas a nadie. {I.O. for sure}
Don't tell anybody.

I really hope someone can untie the twisty and put it in simple{minded ja,ja} terms so all can grasp the use of se?


  • Posted Jun 27, 2011
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  • Amen. "Se" continues to be the bane of my existence! - territurtle Jun 27, 2011
  • Estoy de acuerdo. - amykay Jun 27, 2011
  • Muy, muy bien - danrivera Jun 28, 2011

11 Answers



In my grammar book, the sentence, "Se habla español" is called passive pronomial impersonal, which is very confusing.

Many 'se' share a fundamental use, regardless of the name: to turn a transitive verb into a single argument verb. A transitive verb has two arguments: the thing or person that performs the action ("actor" for short), and the thing or person who receives the action ("receiver" for short). In "Se habla español" we have removed the "actor" so we don't have to specify who speaks it, achieving a generic effect. In "Me canso", I am not making anyone else tired (the "receiver"), but since I am talking about myself, it means that I get tired.

  • Jun 27, 2011
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  • And I bet you're already tired of questions form us confused learners! - LaBurra Jun 27, 2011
  • Very enlightening. - 0074b507 Jun 27, 2011
  • very good!!! Thanks for teaching me something else!! :) - 001a2987 Jun 27, 2011
  • Sorry to still be unenlightened. :( But do your remarks above cover all pronominal uses of "se?" - territurtle Jun 27, 2011


Referring to your first sentence, the "se" is necessary because if you left it out, you would be talking to someone directly. For example, I am talking to my Mom and I tell her "Mamá, sólo es joven una vez". I am telling her that she (specifically) is only young once. When I put the "se" in there, it is general, meaning that everyone is young only once.

For the 2nd, some verbs require the "se" to function. If I were to say "Mi Padre le divorció a mi madre," it is understood that he divorced her. If I were to say "Mis padres divorciaron", it implies that they divored someone else, but that someone is not specified. The "se" implies that they "got" divorced from each other.

The "se" in the 3rd example expresses that the pigs "gobbled up" or "ate up almost everything." The same with "beberse", "to drink it all up."

When "se" is added to "volver" it means that someone "went" something...se volvió loca...she went crazy.

The next one is another verb that requires the "se" to imply that they got hurt, but it is not specified who hurt them. "Se lastimó la mano" means literally "the hand was hurt." If I said " Ella lastimó la mano", we are left wondering whose hand was hurt. The "se" in this case lets us know that it was a specific person's hand that was hurt. "Mi hermano se lastimó la mano cuando trabajaba afuera." My brother hurt his hand when he was working outside.

The next one is the same as the last reason, generally. "Mi madre se llama Carmen" literally means "My mom calls herself Carmen." If I said "Mi Madre llama Carmen," it sounds like she is calling someone else named Carmen, whether literally or over the phone. For that reason, we need the "se" to implicate that my mom's name is Carmen.

Lastly, when we shorten direct object and indirect objects, we use pronouns like "se" and "lo". The sentence could be "don't tell anyone that I am leaving." "No le digas a nadie que me voy."

To shorten it, the direct object, anyone, is shortened to "le" and the indirect object, the fact that I am going, shortens to "lo", the neuter, as it is neither feminine nor masculine. We then get the sentence "No le lo digas a nadie". That sounds weird! For reasons similar to those in English, we change the 'Le" to "se" so that it rolls off of the tongue better. For example, in English we say "An answer", instead of "a answer". It is the same here. "No se lo digas (a nadie).

  • Good case by case explanation. But I noticed something with the "reflexive" verbs. Should I treat each one separately and not just conclude that I am "simply" adding a "____self" when I see a verb with "se" tacked onto the end of the infinitive? - territurtle Jun 27, 2011
  • Yes, treat each one differently. For example, "Se peina el cabello" would mean that he/she brushes his or her own hair...but "se enferma" does not mean that one gets themself sick...just that they "got" sick. The "se" is sometimes added for that purpose - vivalafuriar Jun 27, 2011
  • Thanks so much!! Now I know one of the main reasons I was so puzzled sometimes. - territurtle Jun 28, 2011
  • These explanations are just so great and has finally cleared up a lot of the fog. - foxluv Jun 28, 2011


My favorite "se" sentence is, "Se fue."

It means, "It took itself away." It is used with an expressive circular hand movement with a swoop at the end to indicate, "It's gone." It can be used to indicate that money disappeared (no one spent it; it just vaporized into thin air) or a person is no longer around.

alt text

  • Jun 27, 2011
  • | Edited by JoyceM Jun 28, 2011
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  • Excellent example to help us non-native speakers "think" better in Spanish, rather than continue trying to unscramble the grammar. - territurtle Jun 28, 2011
  • Gracias Joyce...This is great to give us a handle on "se". - foxluv Jun 28, 2011
  • Two word sentences are my favorite! I can remember them. - JoyceM Jul 10, 2011


It is used as "passive" {cooking instructions/on signs};"pronominal(reflexive)...

Pronominal, from pro + nominal.

Sus padres se divorciaron en 1985. {pronominal?}

Pronominal. Without "se" they would causing other people to become divorced.

Los cerdos se comen casi cualquier cosa. {don't know??}

Check previous sentences about "comerse". It is "to eat up".

¿Se está volviendo loca? {don't know??}

"Volverse" (=to become) in this case is a pronominal with a completely different meaning from "volver" (to turn, to come back).

Mi madre se llama Carmen. {reflexive for sure}

Nope; pronominal. In "Esta piedra se llama caliza", the stone it is not calling itself that name, is it? Look at this: "Se llama Juan, pero se llama a sí mismo Supermán". The first one is pronominal (His name is Juan); the second one is what he calls himself, so it is reflexive (he calls himself Superman).

  • Geez, we need a "se" for dummies pamphlet. - foxluv Jun 27, 2011
  • But isn't the mother calling "herself" Carmen? - foxluv Jun 27, 2011
  • Hey, I think the light bulb is finally blinking on! - territurtle Jun 27, 2011
  • foxluv: No, "se llama Carmen" even though she has never called herself Carmen. - lazarus1907 Aug 1, 2011


Do you remember the picture ( and Fleming's novel) about agent 007? 'You only live twice' was translated in Spanish as 'Sólo se vive dos veces' .The English 'you' in this case is not 'you', but a synonym of the impersonal 'one'. And in the same way the Spanish 'se vive' doesn't refer to just one person, but to a rather impersonal group of people, to 'all of us'. The same construction can be used with other verbs. F.i. 'En España se come muy tarde, se toma el aperitivo en un bar ' etc. And, of course, se habla español. wink

  • Jun 27, 2011
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  • good explanation - patch Jun 27, 2011
  • The impersonal hides the doer (subject) by using an impersonal you or they. In the example with comerse the pigs are mentioned. - 0074b507 Jun 27, 2011
  • Correct. But in the pig-sentence it is the idiomatic 'comerse', in 'se come muy tarde' it is just the verb 'comer'. Not comerse, which has a slightly different meaning. As explained before. - GerdaD Jun 27, 2011
  • Gracias Gerda...no wonder I didn't get the pig sentence it was idiomatic. - foxluv Jun 27, 2011


qfreed...I still do not get the pig sentence, could you break it down more? gracias

You would be better to ask Lazarus, becuase anything that I said would just be reiterating an earlier explanation of his.

In my understanding the reason that pronominal verb forms are sometimes listed in the dictionary and sometimes not, is that the pronominal verb changes the meaning of some of the non-pronominal verbs.

Some of these changes in meaning just add nuances of meaning such as accidently (the shifting of blame), suddenness, and completeness.

Other reasons for listing the pronominal form of the verb in the dictionary is that it switches the verb from a transitive to intransitive verb meaning.

In the case of comer vs comerse the pronominal meaning adds the nuance of completeness. rather than just to eat, it means to eat up or devour. It is just a minor connotation added to the non-pronominal verb.

Let me correct myself. I don't like getting into the position of speaking about comer and comerse like they are different verbs. They are the same verb, one used non-pronominally (without a pronoun) and one used pronominally (with a pronoun).

It is the same with the blame shift in unforeseen occurrences (accidents). Whether you say I lost my watch or the watch was lost to me they both are saying the same thing basically. The difference is in a differerent shade of meaning (shifts blame from the person who lost the watch)

So in the example with the pig....the pronominal usage (a reflexive pronoun is used with the verb) a small connotation is added to the verb without the pronoun. The pigs didn't just eat the food. They devoured it suddenly, completely.

That is not to say that the pronominal usages always just to add shades of meaning. In many verbs the meaning of the verb is radically changed or completely changed from the non-pronominal use of the verb. acordar, acordarse, etc.

In essence, the pronoun is used with the verb to somehow alter the meaning of the verb used by itself. In the case of the pig it is just to add a connotation of completeness to the meaning of comer.

vivalafuriar does an excellent job of explaining these alterations for your specific sentences.

  • Thanks, Q. - vivalafuriar Jun 27, 2011
  • Thanks Qfreed...I have learned so much from this thread, too bad it gets pushed to the bottom. - foxluv Jun 28, 2011


It's not just money. We find another beautiful example of 'se fue' in Federico Garcia Lorca's ' Baladilla de los tres ríos' :

El río Guadalquivir

va entre naranjos y olivos.

Los dos ríos de Granada

bajan de la nieve al trigo.

¡Ay, amor

que se fue y no vino!

  • Jun 28, 2011
  • | Edited by GerdaD Jun 28, 2011
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  • Thanks for the beautiful example. - JoyceM Jun 28, 2011


I'd like some clarification on this topic too!

On this site, the "impersonal se" is covered here: Impersonal se. The best known example is "Se habla español" meaning "Spanish is spoken here." My favorite grammar book adds that the verb in impersonal constructions is intransitive, meaning that it does not have a direct object.

Impersonal se formula: se + 3rd person singular

The "passive se" is covered here: Passive se. The examples given are directions and "want ad" phrases.

Passive se formula: se + 3rd person (singular/plural)

In my grammar book, the sentence, "Se habla español" is called passive pronomial impersonal, which is very confusing. I am beginning to wonder if the various words used to describe these constructions is creating more misunderstanding than anything else!

  • Yes, and yes! - foxluv Jun 27, 2011


Sus padres se divorciaron en 1985. In 1985, his parents divorced.

{reciprocal el uno del otro} detransitizing se then

Los cerdos se comen casi cualquier cosa. Pigs eat almost anything.

{to give pronominal meaning of completeness} gobble up, rather than just east.

¿Se está volviendo loca? ¿Is she losing her mind?

{detransitizing se volverse rather than volver loca. The non-pronominal verb is transitive....to make someone crazy, to drive someone crazy. The pronominal volverse means to go crazy...intransitive, no d.o.)

Sólo se es joven una vez. You are only young once.

I'm waiting to hear a grammar explanation of this one. Someone mentioned this usage in a thread recently discussing this construction with ser + adjectives, but really gave no explanation of the differerence in meaning between es joven and se es joven.

Darn! Lazarus didn't explain that one.

  • "El uno del otro". "Divorciarse de" is intransitive. - lazarus1907 Jun 27, 2011
  • qfreed...I still do not get the pig sentence, could you break it down more? gracias - foxluv Jun 27, 2011


Thanks to everyone -- especially Lazarus. This thread definitely gets my vote for the "thread of the year" award!

I finally understood (thanks to Lazarus's Superman example), that I have been trying to get ahead of myself. Se no es simple. confused

  • Jun 27, 2011
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  • Or is it "Se es no simple." ?? - territurtle Jun 27, 2011


Let's go back to the "pig" sentence...

No one has stated what kind of use "se" is in this sentence. Since it does not refer to "oneself" I assume it is not reflexive so is it a "reciprocal construction"? {which I did not mention}

The pigs "themselves"?

  • Jun 27, 2011
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  • No, the "se" just slightly changes the feeling fo the sentence, like Q stated. Instead of just eating the food, the pigs "gobble it up" or "eat it up quick." - vivalafuriar Jun 27, 2011
  • *of - vivalafuriar Jun 27, 2011