Spanish Grammar


Uses of the Pronoun Se with Syntactic Function

The uses of the pronoun se can be a mystery to students of Spanish. It is one of the most used words in our language, but even native speakers do not understand its uses perfectly. In this article we will unravel this mystery.

Before we begin, it is necessary to make some clarifications. Some of the uses of the pronoun se are personal; this means that we will need to choose the right pronoun for each person. For this, we will use the list of reflexive pronouns: me, te, se, nos, os, se. However, other uses will only require the third person: se.

We will classify the uses of this pronoun in two groups: when it has a syntactic function and when it is a simple verbal mark. If the pronoun has a syntactic function, it will be the direct object or the indirect object in the sentence.

In this article we will learn about the first group. That is, the uses of the pronoun se in Spanish with syntactic function. If you want to learn the rest of the uses of this pronoun, you can do it here.

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As we have said before, the pronoun can have syntactic function; specifically direct and indirect object. When they fulfill this role in the sentence we can distinguish four uses: variant of the pronoun le, reflexive, reciprocal and dative of interest.


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Variant of the Pronoun Le

We already know that the third person pronouns of direct object are lo, la, los, las and in leístas areas, also le and les. On the other hand, the indirect object pronouns are le and les. When we combine them with different persons, there is no problem. Let’s remember that we must use the indirect objects first and then, the direct ones:

Me lo regalaron / Te la contaron / nos las dio

However, when the two pronouns are both third person ones, the combination le lo or le la and their plural variants is not acceptable. Instead, we must replace the pronoun le with the pronoun se. Despite this change, the function of the pronoun se will still be as an indirect object.

Compré un libro a mi hermano > Le compré un libro > Se lo compré

Reflexive Use of the Pronoun Se

Another value of the pronoun se in Spanish is reflexive. When we use it this way, the speaker expresses that the subject of the sentence not only performs the action, but also receives it.

El niño se duchó y se cepilló los dientes.

In this example, the first se has the function of direct object (the child receives the action of the shower directly); on the other hand, the second use is indirect object (the teeth receive the action directly and the child indirectly).

Reciprocal Use

The reciprocal use works in a very similar way to the reflexive. The difference lies in the subject, which has to be multiple. In this case, the verbal action is performed by the subjects, one to the other; therefore, they also receive it.

Los jugadores se pasaron la pelota con precisión y al final del partido se abrazaron.

On this occasion, the first se is indirect, since the ball receives the action directly. On the other hand, in the second action, the pronoun is direct, since the players receive the hugs directly.

Dative of Interest or Ethical

This is one of the most complicated pronoun uses to understand. The word dative refers to one of the cases that existed in Latin and other languages that use declensions. The dative case served the function of indirect object, mainly.

The dative of interest points to the person indirectly affected by the verbal action, but with a high emotional charge. With it, we emphasize the special interest that the person has in the performance of the action. But the main feature is that we can eliminate it and the sentence will keep its meaning, although more attenuated.

El alumno se estudió el libro para el examen DELE. Su profesor espera que no se lo suspenda.

In the first sentence, we can eliminate the pronoun without problem, but with it, we emphasize that the student studied it because it was of great importance and interest to him. In the second example, the teacher shows a clear interest in the student not failing. However, we can also omit the pronoun se.

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Infographic about the uses of the pronoun se with syntactic function in Spanish