Master the ‘Impersonal Se’ in Spanish
There is something in Spanish called the impersonal se form or the impersonal se expression. You may have never heard of it before, but I’m here to tell you that this is one of those useful expressions that once you master them, they make your life easier in the language.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the impersonal se form, what it is and what it means, as well as how it differentiates from other uses of the se pronoun, and how to use it.
¿Qué es la Forma Impersonal Se?
“What is the impersonal se form?” The forma impersonal se or “impersonal se form” is a grammar construction that comes very handy when you aren’t sure about who is performing the action in a sentence. You do this quite often when talking about general things that we all do.
In English, you would say things like “one should,” “you have to,” “people say,” or “they ask for.”
In Spanish, you have it to help you solve all these sentences and you use it with a third person singular verb. However, before starting with the sentence structure and grammar formulas, I want to explore a little bit deeper the meaning of this construction.
What Does It Mean?
As stated above, you can use this form to make general observations about what people do.
A few examples will help to explain this better:
Se come muy bien en este restaurante.
One eats very well in this restaurant.
Se escribe muy fácil con este bolígrafo.
You write very easily with this pen.
Se vende esta casa.
They are selling this house.
In English, you have “one,” “you,” and “they” as subjects for this type of sentence, but there’s no equivalent in Spanish. The reason you have to use impersonal se constructions is precisely because these expressions lack a subject—that’s why they’re “impersonal.”
Comparing the Impersonal Se
One of the main issues with the impersonal se form is that there are as many as 3 other constructions that also use the word se as their main feature:
- The passive se.
- The accidental se.
- The reflexive se.
Let’s compare and contrast the impersonal se with each of them.
Impersonal Se vs Passive Se
In Spanish, you can build the passive voice using the pronoun se, this is known as the “passive se.” The problem to differentiate these two se constructions is that they both have a similar formula:
Se + verb conjugated in third person
However, you can differentiate passive and impersonal se sentences looking at the number—the impersonal se sentences only use the singular, never the plural.
Also, impersonal se constructions never have a specific noun doing the action, while that’s not always the case with the passive se.
Look at the following passive se sentence example:
Se pelearon los niños en la escuela.
The kids fought at school.
Notice how the sentence includes a noun (los niños) doing the action, and how it’s using the plural too. An impersonal se sentence wouldn’t have any of those two elements:
Se vende esta casa.
They are selling this house.
The sentence example is singular and you don’t have a specific noun doing the action. In Spanish, we don’t know who’s selling this house.
Impersonal Se vs Accidental Se
Use the accidental se to express that something happened by accident or unexpectedly. You can better understand this construction by looking at the way you say this in English:
Tú derramaste la leche por accidente.
You spilled the milk by accident.
When you read this example in English, you know that “you” are the subject of blame and that it was an accident. In Spanish, you don’t need to be so specific and can simply say:
Se te derramó la leche.
The milk was spilled (by you).
Notice how the use of the pronoun te communicates the idea that it was tú or “you” who spilled the milk. That’s the difference with the impersonal se with which you never know who is doing the action.
Impersonal Se vs Reflexive Se
The reflexive se is a reflexive pronoun that works with the second person singular and plural, and with all the versions of the third person singular and plural.
The reflexive pronoun se plays the same role as the English words “yourself” (formal), “yourselves” (formal), “himself,” “herself,” “itself,” “themselves,” and “each other.”
Carlos se lavó los dientes.
Carlos brushed his teeth (himself).
On the other hand, el pronombre impersonal se only works with the third person singular and you can only use it to talk about general things people do, without specifying who is doing them.
How to Use It
Remember that to form an impersonal se expression you have to conjugate your verb in the third person singular. This way, the formula is:
se + verb in third person singular
Se vive bien en España.
One lives well in Spain.
Se gana mucho como piloto.
You earn a lot as a pilot.
Se dice que esa casa está embrujada.
They say that house is haunted.
You can also use it in different questions that include the question words qué (what), cómo (how), dónde (where), cuándo (when), and por qué (why).
¿Cómo se hace esto?
How do you do this?
¿Cuándo se puede pescar?
When can one fish?
¿Por qué se casa la gente?
Why do people get married?
¿Dónde se va la gente?
Where do people go?
These expressions are very useful to talk about things in general and when you don’t know or don’t want to mention who is doing the action. The formula is quite simple and all you need to do now is remember to practice your impersonal se expressions and start introducing them in your everyday conversations in Spanish.
Sign up for a free class with one of our certified, native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala and start using personal se expressions in Spanish today. They teach more than 24,000 actively enrolled students every month and have been providing reliable service to Spanish learners for more than 10 years.
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