What does “se” mean in Spanish?

People often ask what “se” means in Spanish as they see it used everywhere yet is has no single meaning; it can be translated differently depending on how it is used. If you are just starting to learn Spanish you don’t need to worry too much about it, however, as you advance further with the language, you will begin to understand what it can mean in different contexts.

Keeping it simple – here are the most common ways you will see “se” used:

1. Himself / herself / themselves (Reflexive pronoun)

With reflexive verbs the subject is also the object.

Se levanta = He/She gets up [Literally: He/She gets himself/herself up]

Se duerme = He/She falls asleep

“Se” is also as the plural pronoun to talk about “themselves”:

Se levantan = They get up

Se duermen = They fall asleep

2. To form the passive:

Se vende apartamentoThe apartment is for sale

Se venden pisosFlats are sold

Se alquilan cochesCars are for hire

La tienda se abre a las nueveThe shop is opened at nine.

3. Impersonal verbs

This is to talk about what happens generally, not referring to any specific person.

Se come mucho pescado en EspañaOne eats/You eat a lot of fish in Spain (In Spain a lot of fish is eaten)

Se bebe mucha cerveza en InglaterraOne/You drink a lot of beer in England.

Se tiene que estudiar mucho One has to/You have to study a lot.

4. To substitute “le” / “les” when two object pronouns are used:

To avoid having two pronouns beginning with “l” together,

e.g. le lo voy a comprar (I am going to buy it for him/her)INCORRECT

You must change the “le” to “se”:

Se lo voy a comprar – CORRECT

The same with the plural “les” (them):

Les lo voy a comprar (I am going to buy it for them)  INCORRECT

Se lo voy a comprar – CORRECT

NOTE: Don’t confuse this pronoun “se” with the accented verb “(yo) séwhich means “I know” from the verb “saber”.

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