The Passive Se and Impersonal Se in Spanish | My Daily Spanish
My Daily Spanish
Shares

The Passive Se and Impersonal Se in Spanish

Shares
passive se and impersonal se

Se is used in lots of different scenarios in Spanish, for example, we see it in reflexive verbs.

In this lesson, we’ll show you three other ways to use it: Passive se, se + transitive verb + personal a, and impersonal se.

Let’s get started!

You may have heard people talk about the passive voice. It’s pretty much the opposite of the active voice. We use the passive when we want to focus on what’s being done, rather than who’s doing it.

In passive constructions, the object of a verb (the thing that’s having something done to it) becomes the subject (the main focus of the sentence). The formula is:

Noun + ser + past participle

For example, in the following sentences, the ball (la pelota) and the documents (los documentos) go from being the object to being the subject.
Tiro la pelota.I throw the ball. (The ball is the object.)
La pelota es tirada.The ball is thrown. (The ball is the subject. The person throwing it doesn’t matter too much.)
Carmen firmó los documentos.Carmen signed the documents. (The documents are the object.)
Los documentos fueron firmados.The documents were signed. (The documents are the subject. Carmen doesn’t matter too much.)

We now have the option to say who did it, using the word por:

Los documentos fueron firmados por Carmen.

But that’s totally optional—the documents are more important than Carmen in this passive sentence.

BEWARE: overuse of this construction can seem unnatural to native speakers, so sometimes you’ll need to avoid it. That’s where this article comes in...

1. Passive se (‘se’ pasiva/’se’ refleja)

The first method is the passive se

Here are the rules for using the passive se:
  • It’s used with transitive verbs*.
  • It’s used only in the third person, either singular or plural. Remember to make the verb agree with the noun!
  • It’s only inanimate (non-living) objects being acted upon.
  • We don’t say who’s performing the action. It’s more important WHAT is happening than WHO is doing it.

*A transitive verb is a verb that’s followed by a direct object, i.e. something that the verb acts upon. For example, I fed the cat; I watch TV; I love my wife.An intransitive verb is a verb that’s not followed by a direct object, e.g. I lied, I swim, I skate.

Se alquila piso.An apartment is sold. (Apartment for sale.)
Se alquilan pisos.Apartments are sold. (Apartments for sale.)
Aquí se habla español.Here Spanish is spoken.
Aquí se hablan varios idiomas.Here various languages are spoken.
Se debatió el problema.The problem was debated.
Se debatieron varios problemas.Various problems were debated.
¿Aquí se reparan coches?Are cars repaired here? (Do you repair cars here?)
¡Oye, eso no se hace!*Hey, that is not done! (Hey, don’t do that!)

*This kind of exclamation is common in parents scolding their children!

2. Se + transitive verb + personal a (‘se’ + verbo transitivo + ‘a’ personal)

Sometimes, with transitive verbs, things can get confusing. If we tried to use the passive se before a living thing, people might mistakenly think we were using a reflexive se or a reciprocal se. For example:

Se tratan bien los pobres.Poor people treat themselves well. (Reflexive se.)
Poor people treat each other well. (Reciprocal se.)
Poor people are treated well. (Passive se!)

To help with this, a kind of hybrid of the passive se and impersonal se has developed. We use the word se, followed by a transitive verb in the third person singular form, then add the personal a and the person(s) having the action done to them:

Se trata bien a los pobres.Poor people are treated well. (A passive-impersonal mashup, definitely not reflexive se or reciprocal se.)

This construction is similar to the passive se, and has pretty much the same meaning. The difference is that the verb is followed by the personal a, it’s a human (or an animal) that’s having something done to it, and it’s only ever used in the singular. It’s similar to the impersonal se (see below) in that we don’t know/care who’s doing the action. Here are the rules:

  • It’s used with transitive verbs followed by the personal a.
  • It’s used only in the third person singular, NOT plural.
  • It’s only human (or animal) objects being acted upon.
  • It’s a human who performs the action, but we don’t say who. It’s more important WHAT is happening than WHO is doing it.

For instance:

Se busca a los culpables.
The people responsible are being searched for.
Se arrestó a dos ladrones.
Two thieves were arrested.
Se admira a Juan.
Juan is admired.
Se llama a los perros con un silbido.
Dogs are called by whistling.
Se vio a muchos bomberos durante el fuego.
Many firefighters were seen during the fire.

3. Impersonal se (‘se’ impersonal)

The impersonal se is used to outline things that people in general do. Here’s more detail:

  • It can be used with a transitive verb, but missing out the direct object.
  • It can be used with an intransitive verb.
  • It can be used with a copulative verb. A copulative verb is a special type of verb. Two of the main ones are ser (to be) and estar (to be).
  • It’s only used with the third person singular, NOT plural.
  • There’s no specified noun that’s doing the action. It means ‘one’ or ‘you’ or ‘people in general.’ That’s what makes it impersonal!

En los Estados Unidos se come mucho.

In the United States, one eats a lot. (No need to include a direct object, i.e. a named food.)

Se critica demasiado.

People criticize a lot. (No need to include a direct object, i.e. what is being criticized.)

Cell
Cell

¿Se puede fumar aquí?

Can one smoke here?

¿Se puede entrar?

Can one (I) come in?

Se trabaja mejor en equipo.

People work better as a team.

Se vive bien en Dinamarca.

One lives well (life is good) in Denmark.

Se habló de cosas insignificantes.

Insignificant things were spoken about.

Cell
Cell

Se está mejor solo que mal acompañado.

One is better off alone than in bad company.

Si se está embarazada, hay que dejar de beber.

If one is pregnant, one must stop drinking.

Se es más feliz sin enfermedades.

One is happier without illnesses.

To sum up...

We know there’s a lottt to take in here. It might help to look at the three constructions side-by-side.

Passive seSe + transitive verb + aImpersonal se

There is an agent (who does the action) but it’s not mentioned.

There is a human agent (who does the action) but it’s not mentioned.
No specific agent. People in general.
Transitive verbs.Transitive verbs.Transitive verbs without specifying the direct object.
Intransitive verbs.
Copulative verbs.
The thing that’s having something done to it is inanimate.The person having stuff done to them is human.Not applicable.
Singular or plural.Singular.Singular.

Quiz

Let’s try a little test. These are tricky, even for native Spanish-speakers, so just give them a go! Say whether the se used in the construction is the passive se, the se + transitive + a, or the impersonal se.

1. Con este teléfono se llama a los amigos. (With this phone, people call friends.)

       a. Passive se

       b. Se + transitive + a

       c. Impersonal se

Click to reveal the correct answer:

2. Los coches se vendieron en poco tiempo. (The cars sold out in no time.)

       a. Passive se

       b. Se + transitive + a

       c. Impersonal se

Click to reveal the correct answer:

3. Se busca casa con dos cuartos. (Seeking: two-bedroom house/a two-bedroom house is being looked for.)

       a. Passive se

       b. Se + transitive + a

       c. Impersonal se

Click to reveal the correct answer:

4. Se duerme mejor en una cama cómoda. (One sleeps better on a comfy bed.)

       a. Passive se

       b. Se + transitive + a

       c. Impersonal se

Click to reveal the correct answer:

5. No se paga mal a Francisco. (Francisco isn’t paid badly.)

       a. Passive se

       b. Se + transitive + a

       c. Impersonal se

Click to reveal the correct answer:

6. No me gusta esta discoteca. ¿Quién puede bailar cuando se está rodeado de borrachos? I don’t like this club. Who can dance when you’re surrounded by drunk people?

       a. Passive se

       b. Se + transitive + a

       c. Impersonal se

Click to reveal the correct answer:

All this se stuff can get super confusing, so don’t worry if you don’t fully get it. By practicing little and often, you should start to notice the kinds of sentences where it’s used. ¡Suerte!

For more lessons like this, don't forget to subscribe to My Daily Spanish newsletter!

About the Author Annabel Beilby

Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.

Leave a Comment: