pronominal o reflexivo | los valores de se

Without a doubt, one of the most confusing topics in Spanish grammar is the use of the pronoun Se. This is partly due to the multiple functions of this peculiar pronoun, but also partly because of the inconsistency in the terminology used to describe the various constructions.

What some people call a reflexive verb (e.g. peinarse) is in fact a transitive verb (peinar) used reflexively; what some people call a pronominal verb (e.g. hundirse) is in fact, often, a transitive verb (hundir) used pronominally, in what's known as voz media; what some people call the complemento directo (lo/la) others call the objeto directo; what some call the dativo ético (me/le/te/se) others, when it agrees with the subject, call the dativo concordado  (e.g. me comí un bocadillo)... etcetera, etcetera.


Here we outline the eight main uses of the pronoun Se. As usual, context is vital to establish the function that 'se' has in the sentence; some verbs may have multiple interpretations.


1)Replacing 'le' as the indirect object when used along with a direct object pronoun (lo/la).

-Le di el dinero

Se lo di [Le lo di??]

-Le abrió la puerta (a alguien)

Se la abrió [See dativo de interés]


2) Reflexivo. The subject is an animate agent (the 'doer' of the action –see agency) acting upon itself, either as a direct object or an indirect object. The litmus test is to add 'a sí mismo', which may be used emphatically or for clarification purposes.1

-Se miró (a sí mismo) primero [Reflexive with direct object (complemento directo)]

-Se considera una persona inteligente [He considers himself (to be) an intelligent person]


-Se lavó [Reflexive with direct object (complemento directo)]

Se lavó los pies [Reflexive with 'complemento indirecto' (see dativo posesivo)]

→→Le lavó los pies (a su amigo) [See definite article for possession]


3) Recíproco. Plural subjects acting on each other in a reciprocal fashion. The litmus test is to add 'el uno al otro', which may be used emphatically or for clarification purposes.

 -Se ducharon [Without more context, we assume it is reflexive]

Se ducharon el uno al otro con la manguera [If all the subjects are female: 'la una a la otra' -read more]


-Se mataron en el accidente [Voz media: ≈murieron]

Se mataron (a sí mismos) tirándose al mar [Reflexivo:≈se suicidaron]

Se mataron (el uno al otro) a balazos [Recíproco]


4) Voz media. The subject experiences a change but is not the agent (the 'doer' of the action –see agency). The so-called 'Se intransitivador' is added to a transitive verb to form a pronominal version that is intransitive (rather than reflexive). With some verbs there is a grey area between reflexive and 'voz media' (e.g. levantarse), while in other cases the context will dictate which meaning is intended.

-Hundieron el barco [Subject acting on the direct object: They sank the boat]

→El barco se hundió [Subject experiencing a change internally/spontaneously; no external agent: The boat sank)


-Rompió el plato [He broke the plate; subject acting on the object consciously]

Se le rompió el plato [The plate broke (on him) by accident -see dativo de interés]


-Levantó la mesa con una mano

Se levantó de la mesa [Some argue that this is actually reflexive, since the subject may be acting voluntarily upon themselves upon getting up; others claim it is pronominal since the person is not lifting themselves up strictly speaking, but rather rising up]

→→El viento se ha levantado [Clearly 'voz media' with inanimate subject and no external agent]

→El telón se levanta con una palanca [Pasiva refleja with external agent; es levantada]


-Sorprendió al niño

Se sorprendió al ver al niño [Many verbs of emotional response have a pronominal form]

→→Se quedó sorprendido [See verbos de cambio]


5) Pasiva refleja .  As discussed previously, the pasiva refleja is generally formed using inanimate objects of transitive verbs (which become the subject of the passive construction), where there is an implied external agent. With verbs that have a clear pronominal form (e.g. cerrarse), the position of the subject and the context may change the meaning from pasiva refleja to voz media. In some cases, verb usage and transitivity may vary between countries (e.g. destacar).

-Cortamos los pepinos primero

→Los pepinos se cortan primero / Se cortan los pepinos primero [Son cortados; concordancia siempre con el sujeto (lo que sería el objeto en la oración activa)]


-Sabemos que fue idea suya [Objeto oracional]

Se sabe que fue idea suya [Es sabido]


-Consideramos que es un error omitir la tilde

Se considera un error [Es considerado un error]


-Cerramos las puertas cuando hace mucho viento

→Las puertas se cierran cuando hace mucho viento [The subject before the verb favours the 'voz media' interpretation: se cierran solas - see voz media vs. pasiva refleja]

→→Se cierran las puertas cuando hace mucho viento [The subject after the verb allows for the pasiva refleja interpretation, although both are possible:  'son cerradas (por alguien)' or 'se cierran solas']


-La revista destacó la entrevista con el Rey [Transitive verb]

→En la revista (se) destaca la entrevista del Rey [In Spain, 'destacar' can be used intransitively without the need to add the 'se'; in Latin America the pronominal form (voz pasiva) is preferred when used intransitively]

En la revista se destacó la entrevista del Rey [In Spain, this would be pasiva refleja: the interview was highlighted]


-Se buscan camareros [Pasiva refleja can be used with animate objects (subject of passive) as long as they are indefinite (no article or personal a); agrees with subject in number]


-Le vi las cicatrices [With indirect object pronoun (le) indicating possession; ≈vi sus cicatrices]

Se le vieron las cicatrices [≈se vieron sus cicatrices]


6) Se impersonalAs discussed previously, the impersonal Se has two clear uses: either with intransitive verbs or with transitive verbs whose direct object is animate (with the personal 'a'). When a verb already has a pronominal form, the impersonal uno/una must be used –read more.

-Se vive bien aquí [Intransitivo: Uno/La gente vive bien aquí]

-Se come mal allí [Uno/La gente come mal allí]


-Alguien en recursos humanos contrató a dos artistas

Se contrató a dos artistas [≈Fueron contratados; concordancia siempre en singular]


-Se busca a los dos camareros que estuvieron allí aquel día [With article and personal a, always singular]


-Cuando uno/una se levanta por la mañana, debe estirar bien el cuello ['Levantarse' already has a pronominal form so 'uno' must be used to clarify the impersonal meaning]


-Lo/Le consideramos un hombre inteligente

Se le considera un hombre inteligente [Person is direct object but takes the dative pronoun (le) in impersonal constructions -see se le/lo considera)


7) Pronominal verbs, strictly speaking, are those that can only be used pronominally (pronominal intrínseco/inherente). In some cases, there may be a transitive version whose meaning is different.

-Se arrepiente de haberlo hecho ['Arrepentir' doesn't exist; Juan arrepiente??, alguien arrepiente a Juan??]

-Se queja de todo

-Se suicidó con las mismas pastillas [Only exists in pronominal form]


-Han acordado comprarlo

→ Se han acordado de comprarlo ['Acordarse' is not reflexive or 'voz media', since the transitive form has a different meaning to the pronominal form: me han acordado comprarlo??]


The pronominal form of some verbs are known as semi-copulative, which means they act like the copulative verbs ser, estar and parecer.

-Se vio perjudicado [≈Fue/Resultó perjudicado]

-Se encuentra solo [Está solo]

-Se mostraba nervioso [Parecía nervioso]


8) Dativo concordado/ aspectual. As discussed previously, this use of Se is the most difficult to master as a learner of Spanish. The pronominal form, or the presence of the dativo condordado (also known as se delimitador / se aspectual/ se enfático / se intensivo and sometimes the dativo ético), may change the meaning ever so slightly and can usually be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence; in the case of  the verbs of consumption (e.g. comerse), the pronominal form is far more idiomatic (in spoken Spanish) when the object is a specified quantity. The dativo concordado can normally only be used when the subject is an animate agent (the 'doer').

-(Se) fumó un cigarrillo antes de marcharse [Se lo fumó todo; denotes totality or culmination]

-(Se) leyó el libro de un tirón [Todo el libro: denotes totality or culmination and possibly agency]


-El humo subió al tejado [Inanimate subject (the smoke went up/rose to the roof)]

→(Se) subió al tejado para echar un vistazo [Denotes agency and captures the event seen in its entirety (he got up onto the roof); some people consider this to be a separate pronominal verb (subirse)]


P.s. I recommend watching this series of videos on the subject to revise the different uses.


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-pronominal vs. reflexivo | los valores y usos de se | verbos reflexivos y pronominales-