How to use ‘se’ in Spanish

How to use ‘se’ in Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated October 17, 2023

The word se in Spanish has a variety of uses. It is part of reflexive verbs, an indirect object pronoun and an imperative. The different uses of se can be easy to confuse, especially when listening. 

Spanish-language learners start learning about se as beginners, when se appears as a pronoun in reflexive verbs. These are verbs that always go together with a pronoun when an action is being performed reflexively by the subject, such as in se baña (he bathes himself). 

When you get to intermediate levels, you learn there is more than one way to use se. There are also reciprocal verbs, impersonal se and special cases when se is implied but turns into le. In this article, we’ll outline the uses of se in Spanish so you can keep them straight as you continue to progress through more advanced levels of Spanish.

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What is ‘se’ in Spanish?

Se in Spanish appears most often as a pronoun next to a verb, not as a standalone word. As a pronoun, it indicates to whom the action is happening. The se pronoun is used for the  ella/él/usted (she/he/you; formal) or ustedes (you; plural) subjects.

Remember our guide to reflexive verbs in Spanish?

SubjectReflexive pronoun
Yo (I)Me
Usted (you; formal)Se
Él, ella (he, she)Se
Nosotros, nosotras (masculine we, feminine we)Nos
Ustedes (you; plural)Se
Ellos, ellas (masculine they, feminine they)Se

[H3] ‘Se’ with an accent

Don’t confuse the se pronoun with sé. Notice the accent mark over the “e”? There are two cases in which you will see this word:. 

  1. – sé (I know)

– Sé que no te gustan las mariposas. (I know you don’t like butterflies.)

  1. – sé (be)

– Sé una mejor persona de ahora en adelante. (Be a better person from now on.)

is the yo (I) form of the verb saber (to know) when conjugated. That accent is important for correct spelling.

is also the (you, informal) form of the verb ser (to know) when conjugated as a positive imperative or command. Yes, they are spelled the exact same way. Be firm (se firme) in the meaning of se with an accent by carefully checking the context.

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When to use ‘se’ in Spanish

Let’s go over the more common ways that you’ll encounter se in Spanish.

Reflexive Verbs

In Spanish, the action of a reflexive verb is performed by the subject on itself. Examples of these verbs include: 

  • bañarse (to bathe oneself)
  • despertarse (to wake oneself up)
  • vestirse – (to get oneself dressed)
  • dedicarse (to work or to dedicate oneself to something) 

Because we do these things by ourselves and/or for ourselves, these actions in Spanish use reflexive verbs. Want to talk about the subject she/he/you (formal), they, or you (plural)? This is when to use se in Spanish: 

  • ¿A qué hora se despierta? (What time does she wake up?)
  • ¿A qué se dedican? (To what do they dedicate themselves/What are their jobs?)
  • Marta se viste muy chido. (Marta dresses very cool.)

Impersonal ‘se’

The pronoun se is also used in impersonal, general statements with a verb to speak in the third person. In English, impersonal, general statements often use you/she/he/it/they:

  • What do you say upon receipt of a gift?
  • They dance Salsa in Cuba.
  • In Chile, cake is eaten for teatime.
  • In London, lots of different languages are spoken.

To form these same sentences in Spanish, we use se and conjugate the verb based on whether the object is singular or plural:

  • ¿Qué se dice al recibir un regalo?
  • Se baila salsa en Cuba.
  • En Chile, se come pastel para las once.
  • En Londres, se hablan muchos idiomas diferentes.

Reciprocal verbs

Reciprocal verbs reflect an action that is realized and received mutually by the speakers. In reciprocal statements, there are at least two subjects. With two subjects, the verbs are always conjugated with plural forms. Reciprocal verbs include:

  • irse (to leave)
  • conocerse (to know/meet)
  • pelearse (to fight)

Reciprocal verbs also require a direct object. When the subject is they, we use se:

  • Los jefes se van de la oficina. Nos vamos después. (The bosses are leaving the office. Let’s leave after that.)
  • Romeo y Julieta se suicidaron. (Romeo and Juliet committed suicide.)
  • Mis padres se conocieron en la universidad. (My parents met each other at university.)

Lexical ‘se’

There is also a use of se in Spanish that is unique. It’s used in verbs that are not reflexive but still have se stuck on the end of the infinitive. These verbs are not reflexive or reciprocal because the subject isn’t receiving the action. 

This is referred to as the “lexical” or “passive” se. Examples of these non-reflexive, non-reciprocal verbs include:

  • venderse (to sell)
  • olvidarse (to forget)
  • darse cuenta (to realize)

These are very common verbs in everyday life:

  • Se venden colchones, tambores, refrigeradores. (For sale…mattresses, drums, refrigerators.)
  • Se me olvidó mi cartera en casa. (I forgot my wallet at home.) Literally, this sentence means “the wallet forgot itself to me.”

‘Se’ vs ‘le’ in Spanish

Se in Spanish will change to le when using both direct and indirect pronouns together. 

Indirect Pronouns

There are different direct and indirect pronouns in Spanish. Here, we’ll focus on just two:

Direct PronounIndirect Pronoun
he/she/Itlo, lale (se)
theylos, lasles (se)

When a sentence in Spanish has two third-person pronouns (i.e. two subsequent pronouns both starting with the letter “l”), the indirect object changes to se. This avoids odd pronunciation.

  • Le lo doy. → Se lo doy. (I give it to her.)
  • Le las trajo. → Se las trajo. (She brought them.)

‘Se’ in Spanish: You can do it!

Though there are a few different uses of se in Spanish, they are all distinct. You can identify which type of se is being used by looking for context clues. Is the sentence talking about an action that somebody does to themselves (reflexive), or is it referring to an indirect action being done to an object (pronoun)? 

More important than memorizing rules, listen to the full phrase and see if you can understand the meaning of what is being said. Now that you are learning intermediate-level Spanish, focus on clear communication rather than perfect grammar. Once you understand the different uses for se in Spanish, you’ll be able to decipher the meaning quickly when you hear them.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

Alison Maciejewski Cortez

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