warningsignSe aspectual

A topic that is often skimmed over in grammar books, yet which has huge practical implications in everyday conversation, is the so-called Se aspectual (also Se de matización/intensivo or dativo aspectual/concordado).

The topic has been the subject of numerous theses, books and forum discussions, with the authors often attempting to come up with a rule of thumb to explain the presence of the se aspectual. Unfortunately it is not an easy task.

"[...] enfrentarse al estudio de la forma 'se' supone una dosis considerable de riesgo, dado que no es posible ofrecer una explicación general y unitaria sobre el comportamiento de los diferentes tipos de pronombres clíticos del español".1

 

Consider the following sentences:

-El niño se comió la manzana

-El hombre se murió ayer

-El jarrón se cayó al suelo

-Juan se imaginó el cambio

 

In these four examples, se has been used to subtly change the aspect of the sentence. Removing the se might not change the overall meaning, but it would change the way the listener and speaker picture the events and the possible additional information implied by the presence of the se.

"Con el término 'aspecto' se alude a la información que aporta un predicado sobre la manera en que se desarrolla y se distribuye un evento, una acción o una actividad en el tiempo".2

 

"El dativo concordado se ha llamado 'aspectual' en los estudios sintácticos porque su presencia depende del aspecto léxico o modo de acción del predicado verbal [...] ya que los eventos sobre los que incide han de ser delimitados o acotados".1

 

 

Learners are often taught that this use of se is optional and emphatic and, as a result, have the tendency to use them arbitrarily without fully understanding why one version sounds better than the other. 

As noted in A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, "The nuance added by pronominalization is sometimes very subtle. The ability to distinguish correctly between pairs like bajar/bajarse 'to descend'/ 'to get down/out', llegar/llegarse ' to arrive' /'to approach' or traer/traerse ' to bring' is the mark of a true master of idiomatic Spanish".3

 

 

In a previous article we looked at the concept with certain transitive verbs, namely those of consumption, perception and knowledge. 

In the sentences se comió la manzana, se leyó el libro, se sabe la historia, etc., the se denotes totality or culmination, i.e. he ate all the apple; he read the whole book; he knows the story off by heart.

"[...] el 'Se' focaliza una fase de culminación a la que le sigue un cambio de estado. [...] es posible asociar la presencia de se con la idea de cambio o de afectación total, que marcaría el punto culminante de la situación denotada por la oración". 3

 

To understand the role of se used to denote culmination or totality, one must understand the concept of telicidad, discussed in a previous article. This concept classifies the predicate (the verb and other elements telling us what the subject does or is- read more) as either telic or atelic. Atelic predicates have no natural beginning or end, e.g. 'I eat apples'; while a telic predicate implies an implicit end point, e.g. 'I ate an apple'. The se is used with a one-off completed event rather than an open-ended activity; hence 'se comió manzanas' sounds odd.

 

 

This nuance provided by se also explains the change in meaning with verbs such as ir, venir, caer, subir, etc., which, without specifying from or to where the thing is moving, are atelic. In English we often use a preposition to clarify that the event was completed.

"Predicados como 'pasear', 'ir' o 'dormir', que denotan una actividad que no está limitada, una situación que puede mantenerse a lo largo de un período, con el pronombre clítico: 'pasearse', 'irse' o 'dormirse' se transforman en eventos delimitados o acotados. Es decir, el ‘se’ dota al predicado de un límite o acotación". 5

 

El niño fue (¿adónde?) — The boy went (atelic event; without more context this is incomplete)

→El niño fue a la tienda — The boy went to the shop (telic event; it has a beginning and end; focus on the destination)

El niño se fue — The boy went away/off  (telic event; a closed-ended event of 'going/leaving')

→El niño se fue a la tienda — The boy went away/off to the shop (he left, heading to the shop; here the focus is on the departure)

 

El niño cayó (¿de dónde o adónde?) — The boy fell/dropped (this may sound incomplete without more information) 

→El niño se cayó — The boy fell over (telic event; no need to provide more information)

El niño cayó al suelo — The boy fell/dropped to the ground (complete event, telic event; focus on the position of landing)

→El niño se cayó al suelo — The boy fell over onto the ground (lost his balance and then fell onto the ground)

 

 

 

The se aspectual, however, cannot always be explained by denoting the culmination of an event. When used with predicates that are already telic (they have a limit) a commonly held view is that the se denotes agency (see discussion), will or internal cause originating from the subject:

 

"No son pocos los autores que consideran la agentividad del sujeto –o algunas otras propiedades estrechamente ligadas a la agentividad como volición, esfuerzo o involucramiento– como característica más o menos estable de las oraciones marcadas con el se aspectual".6

 

This can be illustrated in the example 'El niño se subió al tejado' - 'The boy got up onto the roof'; this cannot normally be said of an inanimate object.

"Con un verbo como ‘subir’ se establece, además, una diferencia entre sujeto animado/no animado, así en (14a), con un sujeto no animado la frase resulta muy marginal porque el ‘se’ de subirse, además de focalizar la última fase del evento, requiere que el sujeto sea un agente de la acción verbal. De hecho, con un sujeto animado, la frase es perfectamente gramatical: (14) a. ??*El globo se subió al tejado. b. El gato se subió al tejado".7

 

Él no se bajó de la furgoneta hasta que ella bajó del tren  He didn't get out of the van until she got off the train [Agency of his 'getting out' -this event is foregrounded in the main clause; simply stating that she got off the train -this event is somewhat backgrounded in the subordinate clause; if you omit 'se' then you are simply stating the fact that he got out of the van at a specific point in time, not alluding to any will or decision to get out and not viewing the 'getting out' as an entire event from start to finish - see example in context]

 

In fact, the completion or culmination of the event is explained by some authors as being intrinsically linked to the internal cause and effect of the verb and the subject - the pronominal version has a kind of reflexive effect with the se acting as an indirect object (el dativo).

"Nuestra propuesta en este aspecto básicamente trata de relacionar la caracterización aspectual de M y F [Miguel y Fernández (2000)]  con un evento causativo. Así, el evento causante desencadenaría lo necesario para la culminación del evento, es decir, estaría en relación con la fase inicial. El evento causado estaría en relación con la fase final (culminación + cambio de estado)".6

 

According to this line of thought, the difference between morir and morirse, or salir and salirse, lies in the internal cause and effect, where the subject triggers the effect and also suffers the consequence.

-El hombre se murió ayer — The man died yesterday (here the death is more likely to be a result of internal causes; additionally, the se focuses more on the subject and state change)
→El hombre murió en el acto — The man died on the spot (here the death is more likely to be caused by external causes; more formal and matter-of-fact)

 

-Salí del cine — I went out of the cinema [Straight fact]

Me salí del cine — I walked out of the cinema [Intentional, spontaneous decision, unexpected]

 

 

Whatever the case may be, using the se tends to transport the listener and speaker to the moment of the action where they witness it in its entirety. With telic events, the beginning of the event may be instigated spontaneously or by internal factors, and the end denotes completion, with the subject becoming the object, denoting the resulting state change and being affected.

"Por tanto, podemos hacer la siguiente generalización: si un evento puede ser apreciado en su totalidad, podrá usarse el ‘se’; si el estado final de un evento no puede ser apreciado en su totalidad, el verbo que lo designa no podrá ser usado en su versión pronominal". 7

 

In the following examples the pronominal form changes the way we view the event and, in the case of salirse, the implied cause.

 

La niña quedó atrapada en el pozo — The girl became/was stuck in the well [Focus on the resulting state]

→La niña se quedó atrapada en el pozo — The girl got stuck in the well [Focus on the state change and the resulting state; viewed as an entire event]

 

El coche salió de la carretera  The car went off the road (no allusion to the cause; the car simply left the road at a particular point in time; no sequence of events or change of state)

→El coche se salió de la carretera - The car came off the road (internal verber and verbed; the car or driver caused the event that can be pictured in its entirety)

 

Something that you may have noticed is that in written Spanish you will come across the aspectual se an awful lot less than in spoken Spanish (in Spain). This may be explained by the fact that adding the se has the effect of adding a subjective touch to the information. Instead of presenting straight facts, you may be insinuating the cause, culmination or superfluous ideas. The non-pronominal version states the event more matter-of-factly.

 

"La idea es que las diferencias entre la versión pronominal de estos verbos y su versión no-pronominal también puede ser explicada en términos semánticopragmáticos, tomando como punto de partida la visión o punto de vista del hablante o emisor, que es el actante que conceptualiza la acción verbal en el acto comunicativo, ya sea oral o escrito. Es decir, el hablante o emisor (responsable de la enunciación) también es uno de los participantes del acto comunicativo y podrá presentar una predicación desde su propio punto de vista".5

 

In other words, the non-pronominal form is more objective, not adding any more information than the fact and not focusing on the subjects of the verbs; it answers the question, ¿Qué pasó ayer? : Murieron 10 personas

 

The pronominal version often has a subjective slant, implying possible intention, cause, completion, or culmination; and focusing on the subject of the verb, foregrounding the event in the context. It more likely answers the question, ¿Qué hizo X ayer? : Juan se murió

 

 

Further Examples:

Juan pasó por mi casa ayer (¿qué pasó ayer?; more objective fact; stating that Juan went past or stopped by; maybe in passing or by chance)

→Juan se pasó por mi casa ayer (¿qué hizo Juan ayer? - more subjective - Juan had something to do with the action of stopping by my house; implies agency;  more common in Spain)

 

Juan pasó el día entero en casa 

→Juan se pasó el día entero en casa (implies agency)

 

El hombre estuvo de pie todo el viaje (straight fact; not alluding to any cause or intention)

→El hombre se estuvo de pie todo el viaje (implies agency

 

Esperaba esto — I was expecting this 

Me esperaba esto — I was expecting this (self-created expectation; fully expecting; possibly fearing it; implies agency)

 

Ven mañana y hablamos — Come tomorrow and we'll talk (come where?; possibly ambiguous since 'venir' is atelic when no destination is mentioned or implied)

Vente mañana y hablamos — Come over tomorrow and we'll talk (venirse=come round/over; this is telic event and does not need a destination)

 

Imagino que hay vida después de la muerte — I imagine that there is life after death (possibly something I imagine in general; atelic open-ended activity; imagining is something that I do but not necessarily with intention; seen more in written Spanish)

Me imagino que habrá vida después de la muerte — I imagine there is life after death (right now; on this occasion I imagine; complete telic event viewed in its entirety; implies agency; more common in spoken Spanish)

 

Read more on morirse, creerse, caerse, pasarse. volverse

 

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