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7. The many uses of 'se'
The use of ‘se’ is one of the trickiest topics for students of Spanish. It is just everywhere in conversation and in most cases there is no easy way of translating it into English.
It is used in a variety of ways and usually has no meaning by itself but changes the meaning of the entire sentence. The best way to learn it is by paying attention to native speakers and trying to find as many examples as possible. We have put together a few examples for you to make it a little easier.
common uses of 'se'
1. The most common usage you may have already seen is when using reflexive verbs with Él, Ella, Usted or Ustedes.
Él se afeita por la mañana – He shaves in the morning
Necesito bañarme antes de salir – I need to take a bath before going out
¿Ustedes se divirtieron en la fiesta? – Did you have a good time at the party? (Divertirse – to enjoy oneself)
¿Ustedes ya se conocen? – You already know each other?
2. You can also use ‘se’ to express something that two different parties do to each other:
Ellos se ven casi todos los días – They see each other almost every day
3. You are probably already very familiar with the following usage. It is the way you say things like “How does one…?”, “It is said that….”, “One can….”, etc.
Se habla Español aquí – Spanish spoken here/One speaks Spanish here
Se puede levantar con una palanca – It can be raised with a lever
¿Cómo se dice ‘driver’ en Español? – How does one say ‘driver’ in Spanish?
Se dice que este barrio es bastante peligroso – They say/It is said that this neighborhood is quite dangerous
Se venden casas aquí – Houses are sold here
Se lo doy – I give it to him/her/them
If you want to specify exactly what you mean you can expand it as one of the following
Se lo doy a él/ella/ellos/ellas – I give it to him/her/them
No se lo diga a mi esposa – Don’t tell it to my wife
Se lo mandé a ella por correo – I sent it to her by mail
¿Vas a prestar la silla a Juan? Sí, se la voy a prestar – Are you going to lend the chair to Juan? Yes, I’m going to lend it to him (See Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns)
Special case: use of 'se' when something happens suddenly
The last case using ‘se’ is usually the most difficult for English speakers to get but the construction is used very commonly in conversational Spanish. It is used when something happens suddenly, involuntarily and unexpectedly.
Compare the two sentences below. The translation is the same in English but there is a slight difference between the meanings that tell you a little more about the way the speaker forgot something:
Me olvidé su nombre – I forgot his name
Se me olvidó su nombre – I forgot his name
The first sentence is a general way of saying I forgot his name. It could be that you forgot it a while back but are just saying it now or that you forgot his name because it just wasn’t important to you.
The second sentence is very much like saying ‘His name slipped my mind’. I forgot his name suddenly and unexpectedly and it definitely wasn’t intentional. Notice how the conjugation of ‘olvidar’ now agrees with ‘su nombre’ and not with ‘Yo’ as in ‘Yo me olvidé’.
Let’s take a look at one more comparison to drive the point home.
Rompí el vaso – I broke the glass
Se me rompió el vaso – I broke the glass
The first sentence is very general. I broke the glass but it could have been an accident or that I just flung it against the wall. Not very specific. Note that ‘romper’ agrees with ‘yo’.
The second sentence indicates that it was an accident and that it happened unexpectedly. Probably it just slipped out of my hand or something like that. Note that ‘romper’ now agrees with ‘el vaso’.
Here are a few more examples to help you understand the nuance of using ‘se’ in this case.
Se me cayó el teléfono - I dropped the phone
Se les había olvidado mi cumpleaños – They had forgotten my birthday
Se le perdió mi licencia de conducir – He/she lost my driver's license
Se nos está agotando el agua – We are running out of water (Using ‘agotar’ implies a liquid running out. You could use ‘acabar’ as well, and that would apply to just anything that is getting finished)
A Martha se le salió un grito – Martha suddenly let out a yell
A Lucía se le cayeron los platos – Lucia dropped the plates
A Roberto se le salió un pedo – Roberto accidentally farted (Implying that a fart slipped out. See flatulence under our useful verbs)