Spanish Grammar


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Uses of the Pronoun Se as a Verb Mark

The uses of the pronoun se in Spanish can be divided into two groups: when the pronoun has a syntactic function (direct or indirect object) and when it is simply a verbal mark or morpheme. When we are dealing with the latter option, the pronoun is used to change the nature of the sentence and not to introduce a meaning or replace a person.

Before going deeper into this topic, if you have not read our article on the uses of the pronoun se with syntactic function, take a few minutes to do so. This way, you will better understand the other uses of this pronoun.

Now, let’s see how the pronoun se works when it’s used as a verbal mark or morpheme. With this usage, the verbal mark can change the nature of the sentence. Thus, we can find ourselves with a passive mark, impersonal, middle voice or pronominal verbs.



Reflexive Passive Mark

There are different ways to express the passive voice in Spanish. One of them is the use of the pronoun se. When this occurs, the sentence has a passive meaning but an active form. The subject receives the action of the verb, not performs it, but the verb is conjugated in active form with the pronoun se. Therefore, the verb and subject agree in number and person.

Speakers usually choose this passive form when the agent of the action is unknown or it’s not interesting to mention it. Therefore, it does not appear in these constructions:

Se aprenden muchas cosas en

Se descubrió un fósil de dinosaurio en mi ciudad.

In the first example, the agent is los estudiantes, but it is so obvious that we have no interest in mentioning it. In the second one, we probably don’t know who discovered the fossil.

The Uses of the Pronoun Se in Impersonal Sentences

Another use of the pronoun se can be found in impersonal reflexive sentences. They are characterized by the absence of a subject, either semantically or grammatically. Therefore, in impersonal sentences with the pronoun se, the verb is always in the third person singular.

We can differentiate two types of reflexive impersonals: those formed by intransitive verbs and those with transitive verbs with a direct object of person.

Reflexive Impersonals with Intransitive Verbs

In the first group we find sentences that express generalizations, therefore, we do not refer to a specific subject:

Se come bien en España.

With this example we indicate that everyone, in general, eats well in Spain.

Reflexive Impersonals with Transitive Verb

This type of reflexive impersonals is formed by a transitive verb, whose direct object is personal, preceded by the preposition a.

Desde aquí se ve a los niños en el parque.

This last type of reflexive impersonals can sometimes be confused with reflexive passives. In fact, if we use them with the latter value, their meaning changes a little. With the impersonal form, we refer to specific people we know. However, with the use of passive, we talk about people in general.

  • Impersonal: Se ve a los niños = our children or our students, or maybe our friends’ children…
  • Passive: Se ven niños = we don’t know who they are. We only see children in general.
  • Impersonal: Se busca a un actor = we know which actor it is.
  • Passive: Se busca un actor = we need to find some actor, but we haven’t made the selection yet.

The Uses of the Pronoun se: Middle Voice

Another of the uses of the pronoun se that we are going to study is a bit complex. Again, the pronoun is a verb mark. At first glance, they look like reflexive sentences; however, this only affects the form, but not the meaning. In reality, the subject does not actually perform and receive the action, but rather affects the subject without its control. This experiences a physical or psychic change. This is what we call middle voice: neither active nor passive.

With Subject of Person or Animal

We can use the pronoun se when the subject is animate and undergoes a physical or mental change, usually involuntarily:

El niño se sonrojó cuando vio a la chica y su mente se nubló.

With Verbs of Motion

We also find these constructions with animate subject and verbs of motion:

Cuando mi hermano se marchaba, se resbaló y se cayó al suelo.

Non-Animate Subjects

Not only humans and animals can undergo changes of state. Things and places are also susceptible to being subjects of a sentence in the middle voice. Of course, the change occurs accidentally or involuntarily by the subject.

Estaba a punto de terminar mi proyecto cuando, de pronto, mi ordenador se apagó. Creo que se ha estropeado.

The Uses of the Pronoun se with Pronominal Verbs

Finally, we have come to the last use of the pronoun se in Spanish. There are a number of intransitive verbs that require a pronoun to be formed. When this happens, they are usually accompanied by a prepositional complement called suplemento or complemento de régimen. This makes them really complex to use. The student must remember the pronoun and, in addition, the preposition. But, to make matters worse, the preposition is impossible to deduce in most cases. Therefore, it is necessary to learn them by heart. They are called pronominal verbs. We can distinguish two types:

Exclusively Pronominal Verbs

These are verbs that only exist in Spanish in their pronominal form and it is not possible to use them independently.

El pecador se arrepiente de sus pecados.

¿Por qué no te atreves a hacer el examen DELE?

Other exclusively pronominal verbs are: atreverse a, quejarse de, adueñarse de, esforzarse en, antojarse algo, obstinarse en…

Optionally Pronominal Verbs

These are verbs that can be used with both forms. However, when they are used pronominally, they change their meaning.

Mi padre dirige la empresa con puño de hierro.

Mi padre se dirige a la empresa.

In the first example, my father manages or rules the company very strictly. On the other hand, in the second sentence, my father goes to the company.

Other optionally pronominal verbs are: encontrar(se), negar(se a), despedir(se de), parecer(se a), dar(se con)…

These are the uses of the pronoun se in Spanish. As you can see, it is a very complex subject, so we recommend that you reserve classes with us at We will be able to help you to learn these uses and to put them in practice.

Infographic about the uses of the pronoun se as a verb mark in Spanisha