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Impersonal "Se" Vs. Passive "Se": What's the Difference?

What's the difference between the impersonal "se" construction and the passive "se" construction in Spanish? Although they look rather similar (and may be confused with reflexive verbs as well!), they function slightly differently, which we hope to illuminate for you today. 

 

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The Impersonal "Se" Construction in Spanish

“Impersonal se" constructions, which consist of the pronoun "se" plus a verb conjugated in the third person singular, are called such because they describe people in general rather than any specific person. In other words, no specific agent performs the action of the verb. For this reason, impersonal "se" constructions are used to describe, for example, the manner in which things are done customarily in a particular place or to convey general principles. In English, we tend to express such concepts by using the universal “you,” “they,” “one,” “people," or sometimes omitting the personal pronoun altogether. Let’s take a look at some examples from our Yabla Spanish library. 

 

1.

Bueno, se baila mucho, eh... se come bastante, y se espera hasta las doce para desear la feliz Navidad.

Well, people dance a lot, um... people eat quite a bit, and people wait until twelve to wish [people] Merry Christmas.

Captions 42-44, Cleer y Lida La Navidad en Colombia

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Note that all the verbs in this example are conjugated in the third person singular, and the speaker describes actions that are done customarily (by people in general rather than a specific person) during the Christmas season in Colombia. And, while the translator opted to employ "people" to express this idea, the same sentence could read, "you dance a lot... you eat quite a bit... and you wait..." or, more formally, "one dances... one eats... and one waits." Let's take a look at another example:

 

2.

Se duerme de noche y se vive de día

One sleeps at night and lives during the day

Caption 38, Calle 13 No hay nadie como tú

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The lyrics to this catchy tune by Calle 13 refer to the way things are in the world in general, where "one sleeps" (or "you" or "people sleep") at night and live during the day. Let's move on to the next example:

 

3.

Es mi furgoneta, una camper van, una furgoneta camperizada, que se dice en español.

It's my van, a camper van, a "furgoneta camperizada" [camper van], like you say in Spanish.

Captions 9-10, Amaya "Mi camper van"

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Alternative translations for se dice in this sentence include "like people say," "as is said," or "like they say" because its intention is to describe what something is customarily called in Spanish. Are you getting the hang of it? 

 

4.

Y juntas vamos a ver algunas de aquellas situaciones que os podéis encontrar en algunos de aquellos países en donde se habla español.

And together, we're going to look at some of those situations that you might encounter in some of those countries where Spanish is spoken.

Captions 4-6, Karla e Isabel Alquilar una habitación - Part 1

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Se habla español is impersonal because it explains that people in general speak Spanish in certain countries, rather than any specific person. An alternative choice here might have been" "in some of those countries where they speak Spanish." Let's look at one last one: 

 

5.

Ahora se llega a la cima bajando por la sierra

Now you reach the summit by going down the mountain

Caption 23, Calle 13 Ojos Color Sol ft. Silvio Rodríguez

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Note that directions are another common thing for which the impersonal "se" construction is utilized. This is similar to English, where we ask "How do you get there?" (¿Cómo se llega ahí?" in Spanish) when what we really want to find out is the objectively correct way to go. 

 

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The Passive "Se" Construction in Spanish 

In contrast to the impersonal "se" construction in Spanish, in the passive "se," although a specific agent usually does perform the action, said agent is often unknown or unmentioned. Furthermore, the verb in this construction must be a transitive verb, or verb that transmits some action to a direct object. So, this would describe something that "is" or "was" done, for example, to something else, which is most typically inanimate (non-living). Additionally, the verb can be singular or plural depending upon whether the noun/direct object in question is singular or plural, which is not the case with the impersonal "se" construction, where the verb is always singular. Let's look at some examples:

 

1.

de una habitación que se alquila en un piso compartido.

about a room that is being rented in a shared apartment.

Caption 17, Karla e Isabel Alquilar una habitación - Part 1

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Here, someone specific is renting out a room in a shared apartment; we just don't know who it is. The verb alquilar is a transitive verb because a direct object (una habitación, or "a room") receives its action. And, since the noun una habitación is singular, the verb has been conjugated in its third person singular form: alquila

 

2.

Aquí se venden barcos, ¿no?

Here boats are sold, right?

Caption 78, 75 minutos Gangas para ricos - Part 20

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This example is similar in that the agent who is selling boats is unknown, and the verb vender (to sell) is transitive because it exerts its action onto the noun (los) barcos. However, because the noun los barcos is plural, the verb has been conjugated in the third person plural: venden

 

3.

¿Mi confianza? Se perdió desde el día que me dejaste caer del columpio del parque a los dos años. 

My trust? It was lost the day that you let me fall off the swings in the park at two years old.

Captions 14-15, La Familia Cheveroni Capítulo 1 - Part 3

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The verb perder is transitive because a direct object (la confianza or "the trust") is, or in this case "was" lost (since it is conjugated in the preterite, or simple past tense). And, although the speaker is telling his father that he himself lost his confidence when his father let him fall from the swings, he opts to use the passive "se" construction se perdió, or "was lost," which doesn't specify that anyone actually did the losing. Let's look at another example.

 

4.

Otra de las hipótesis, de para qué se construyeron estos edificios, era para albergar ritos que se hacía en aquella época

Another one of the hypotheses about why these buildings were built was to house rites that were held during that era

Captions 44-46, Rosa Los Dólmenes de Antequera

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Here, we know who "built" (the transitive verb) "the buildings" (the direct object) in question: the ancient civilizations of Andalusia. But, since the sentence does not mention this agent, it employs the passive "se" construction to convey the idea that the buildings (los edificios) "were built" (se construyeron) in the past, utilizing the third person plural conjugation of construir (to build) in the preterite tense. Let's finish with one last example:

 

5.

La película más importante que se ha rodado en Guatemala y es cien por ciento guatemalteca es Ixcanul.

The most important movie that has been filmed in Guatemala and is one hundred percent Guatemalan is "Ixcanul."

Captions 17-18, World Travel Market en Londres Maria nos habla de Guatemala

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All of the same conditions have been met for the passive "se" construction: 1. the verb rodar (to film) is transitive: it exerts its action onto la película (the movie). 2. While we know that specific people filmed the movie, the sentence does not reference who they are. 3. The verb has been conjugated in the third person singular (this time in the present progressive tense) because the noun/direct object la película (the movie) is singular. 

 

We hope that this lesson has helped you to learn to distinguish the impersonal "se" construction from the passive "se" construction in Spanish, which can be a bit confusing. Se ha terminado la lección de hoy (Today's lesson has finished), and don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments

 

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