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Se + Verb: De-emphasizing the Subject

From a kitchen in Puerto Escondido (Oaxaca, México), we learn in Spanish about making refried beans -- two useful lessons wrapped up in one video. Note that we're not just talking about refried beans and rice: These onion-y beans can be served with bread, tortillas, cheese, scrambled eggs, sausage, nothing, everything... the sky's the limit. In sum, we hear, as a general rule:


Bueno es una... se puede variar con todo lo que... lo que se le antoje.

Well it's a... you can vary it with everything that... that you wish.

Captions 29-30, Desayuno Puerto Escondido - Frijoles Refritos

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Those of you following the subtitles word for word may wonder why we chose to translate se puede as "you can." Here, "you" is really an impersonal, general subject; it could also be translated as "one can." You see, in Spanish, the construction se + a verb in the third person (singular or plural) is commonly used to deemphasize the subject. Here are a few examples:

Se habla español aquí
"Spanish is spoken here"

Se come bien en esta cuidad

" People eat well in this city"

¿Cómo se dice "Formula One" en español?
"How do you say "Formula One" in Spanish?"

As you can see in the above examples, the "se + verb" construction can be translated into English in a few ways: (1) With a passive construction; (2) using "people" or "one" as the unspecified subject; or (3) using "you" as the subject, but in an impersonal, generalized sense. The third choice -- "you" -- seemed like the most appropriate translation for our refried bean recipe.


Native English speakers, if they directly mirror the English passive voice, can come up with unnatural Spanish phrases. Instead they need to accustom themselves to the Pasiva con "se."

"Cars are repaired in two days."
Los autos son reparados en dos días. [Not natural in Spanish]
Se reparan autos en dos días. [Natural in Spanish]

"This bill is being discussed in the Congress."
Este proyecto de ley está siendo tratado en el Congreso.
[Not natural]
Este proyecto de ley se está tratando en el congreso. [Natural]


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