Explained: The Impersonal SE in Spanish

Impersonal SE in Spanish

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It’s likely that you have used the impersonal se in Spanish at some point before, even if you aren’t quite sure what it is.

The impersonal se is used when there is no clear subject performing the action, which is often the case when we make a general statement i.e. it’s impersonal. For example, when we talk about general things that people do, we’ll often say something like: one must, you have to, people say, they require.

This is not to be confused with the reflexive se or the accidental se in Spanish, which uses the same se pronoun, but for different actions.

  • the reflexive pronoun se is used to indicate that an action is being performed by the same subject who receives the effects of that action.
  • the accidental se is used to imply that something happened by accident or unintentionally.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples to see the differences between how these se pronouns are used differently.

Reflexive SE

  • He gets (himself) dressed every morning after taking a shower – Él se viste todas las mañanas luego de tomar una ducha

Accidental SE

  • They got lost in Japan trying to find the hotel – Ellas/Ellos se perdieron en Japón tratando de encontrar el hotel

Impersonal SE 

  • Mecatronic specialists are needed –  Se necesitan especialistas en mecatrónica

When To Use The Impersonal SE In Spanish

Back to the impersonal se, and how we form impersonal sentences.

Before we continue, now is a good time to mention something that causes confusion for many Spanish students – the passive se.

While this is different from the impersonal se, both have the same purpose – to substitute the subject of a sentence with se.

As we mentioned before, impersonal se sentences are used to describe an action, without referring to a specific person. It’s important to remember that these impersonal sentences are always formed with a verb conjugated in the third person singular.

  • For sale – Se vende
  • Patients are attended by appointments – Se atiende a los pacientes por citas
  • It’s getting late, let’s go! – ¡Se hace tarde, vámonos!
  • It’s better to sleep with cold than with hot weather – Se duerme mejor con frío que con calor

However, the passive se is generally used to talk about something that happened to an object, without saying who or what carried out the action, and it will generally refer to objects, not people.

  • DNA has been studied for a long time – El ADN se ha estudiado por mucho tiempo

Forming Impersonal Sentences

The number one rule to remember for forming the impersonal se sentences is that they are always formed with singular verbs.

Here is a simple formula to remember how to form these sentences:

  • SE + VERB (3rd person singular) + COMPLEMENT

In the next section, we’ll list the most commonly used verbs with impersonal sentences.

1) Copulative verbs

These verbs express a state or condition but need to be accompanied by something else that gives them full meaning.

The most commonly used verbs are.

English Spanish
To be Ser, Estar
To seem Parecer
To become Volverse
To be made Hacerse
To put on, getting Ponerse
To stay Quedarse

Examples:

  • It became very complicated to travel as a backpacker – Se volvió muy complicado viajar como mochilero
  • Being in that Spa is very good – Se está muy bien en ese spa
  • Looks like an old painting – Se parece a una pintura vieja
  • In winter it gets dark very fast – En invierno se pone oscuro muy rápido
  • You do what you can – Se hace lo que se puede
  • Suddenly the weather got ugly –  De repente el clima se puso feo

2) Intransitive Verbs

These verbs do not require a direct object, and are often (not always) used to form one-word sentences.

English Spanish
To open Abrir
To find Buscar
To close Cerrar
To catch Coger
To eat Comer
To take care, look for Cuidar
To meet Conocer
To give Dar
To sale Vender
To need Necesitar
To interview Entrevistar

Examples:

  • It opens at 7am and closes at 9pm – Se abre a las 7am y se cierra a las 9pm
  • If you don’t like this house, look for another one – Si no te gusta esta casa, se busca otra
  • You give without asking anything in return – Se da sin pedir nada a cambio
  • It takes courage – Se necesita valor
  • Many people were interviewed today – Se entrevistó a muchas personas hoy
  • People eat very well in the restaurant of that hotel – Se come muy sabroso en el restaurante de ese hotel

3) Transitive verbs

These verbs require more complements or “arguments” in the sentence, otherwise, they won’t make sense.

Let’s see an example of what happens without a complement when we use the transitive verb “ofrecer”, which means “to offer”.

  • Is offered – Se ofrece (hmmm what is being offered – why don’t know!?)
  • Accommodation is offered – Se ofrece alojamiento (ah, makes sense)

As you can see, transitive verbs require extra information to make sense.

Below are the most common transitive verbs you’ll likely use with the passive se in Spanish.

English Spanish
To offer Ofrecer
To appear Aparecer
To start, Begin Comenzar
To run Correr
To sleep Dormir
To cry Llorar
To rain Llover
To laugh Reir
To breath Respirar
To serve Servir
To finish Terminar
To live Vivir

Examples:

  • You live better when you’re happy – Se vive mejor cuando eres feliz
  • The rehearsal starts at 9am – Se comienza a ensayar a las 9am
  • In that hostel, you sleep well – En ese hostal se duerme muy bien
  • I love this place, the air you breathe is brand new – Me encanta este lugar, se respira un aire nuevo
  • You laugh like crazy watching the play – Se ríe como loco viendo esa obra de teatro
  • Break time is over – Se terminó la hora de descanso

The Impersonal SE in Spanish: Exercises

Test your knowledge of the impersonal se by trying to form the impersonal sentences:

  • Se _____ que hará mucho calor (It is said that it will be very hot tomorrow)
  • Se _____ mejor cuando hay silencio (You sleep better when there is silence)
  • No me gusta esta habitación, ____ _____ todo el ruido (I don’t like this room, all the noise is heard)
  • Se _____ mesoneros (Help wanted)
  • Se escucha esa canción en todas las emisoras (That song is heard on all stations)
  • Este fin de semana se _____ (This weekend you must attend work)

Answers

  • Se dice que hará mucho calor
  • Se duerme mejor cuando hay silencio
  • No me gusta esta habitación, se oye todo el ruido
  • Se buscan mesoneros
  • Se escucha esa canción en todas las emisoras
  • Este fin de semana se trabaja
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