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Spanish Se and Strange Things People Do with It

Ethic Dative and Other Funny Ways Spanish Uses Its Indirect Object Pronouns

The impersonal usage of “se” is one of its easiest!

Photo credit: Paul Sableman licensed cc by 2.0

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Indirect object pronouns, innocent as the name appears at first, has been a source of massive confusion and frustration to Spanish learners over the years. To a beginner, there’s le for guys, la for girls, and lo for when you don’t know the gender, and life seems easy. But then along comes se and the confusion begins. And if that weren’t nearly enough, indirect object pronouns can even show up in places you’d least expect them. Take the following example:

No me funciona el portátil (My laptop isn’t working).

Isn’t my supposed to be mi in Spanish? How is there a me in this sentence then? Where is for? This has mucked up my understanding of how Spanish works for a long time. Well, not anymore. In this article, we will attempt to take it all apart and understand how Spanish speakers love to play with their indirect object pronouns in ways we English speakers never would.

Before we get started, this would probably be a good time to thank one of our Facebook® fans, Carol Chung, who requested an article dealing with this devil. Like most rookie learners, she was frustrated with not being able to wrap her head around such unusual ways se and its buddies are invoked in this language. So thank you Carol! By the way, there’s an entire Reddit® thread dedicated to se in case you want to check it out.

A Quick Primer

Before we even begin with the confusing bits, it’s important to just run you past the very basics of the Spanish indirect object pronouns. This way we can ensure we all begin with the necessary understanding of the subject at hand.

The Plain-Vanilla Indirect Object

Take a look at the following examples:

Le di unos de mi libros (I gave him one of my books).

Le tengo miedo (I am afraid of her).

Le hice una capa nueva de pintura (I gave it a new coat of paint).

These are examples of the most primary nature. The le in each of them serves as the indirect object. In English, it translates as it, you, he, or she. That’s right, one word for all genders! Sometimes you might hear people use gender-specific la and lo too but either they’re using them as direct object pronouns or they’re speaking a dialect that prefers gender-segregation even in the indirect-pronoun scenarios.

The indirect object pronoun is gender-agnostic but not number-neutral. Le cannot fill in for plural objects. For those, we use les. This, again, should be a cakewalk as it’s pretty intuitive.

Now that we’re done with le, it’s time we brought in se. How does that figure in this discussion? Well, there are times you need to use both direct as well as indirect object pronouns in the same sentence. And that’s where things start to get funny in Spanish. Take the following situation, for example:

I gave it to her.

In the above sentence, it serves as the direct object while her is the indirect. If you tried to translate it into Spanish unaware of se, you’d come up with this:

Le lo di a ella.

Disregard the a ella bit for now; it just serves to reinforce the fact that the recipient is a female. Focus on le and lo here. In this case, lo is it, the direct object, and le is her, the indirect object. Say the sentence out loud a few times. Does something feel funny? The combination of le and lo sounds strange, doesn’t it? Well, it does to Spanish ears anyway. So, to remedy this, they replace the indirect pronoun – in this case, le – with se:

Se lo di a ella.

That’s really all there is to it! Se is used just to make the sentence sound less funny when both indirect and direct object pronouns are used together. So every time you stumble upon a case of le lo, le la, or le le (this one is particularly awkward!), remember to replace the first le with a se. That wasn’t hard to get, was it? Le becomes se even if the direct pronoun is a plural; so it’s se las and not le las. Just play by the ear and you’ll know when to use it.

Impersonal Se

There are times when something happens and you can’t tell who made it happen. No, I’m not talking about a murder-mystery here. I’m talking about when there actually no well-defined agent involved. In English, the most common example is when you speak of the weather:

It’s very hot today.

Yes, it’s hot but the sentence doesn’t specify what’s making it hot and what’s hot. The it in this sentence is an example of what grammarians call an impersonal pronoun. Check out another example here:

They say she was beautiful.

Who says that? Nobody knows and nobody cares. That makes this they an impersonal pronoun. Sentences of this kind can alternatively be rendered using the passive voice too:

It is said that she was beautiful.

Now that we understand the case for impersonal pronouns, it will be much easier to see how se works in Spanish. Not all impersonal situations in English translate into Spanish using se. The most common example would be weather expressions. They take no pronoun and a hacer for a verb. I won’t dwell on that here because this story is about se, so let’s move on.

The impersonal usage of “se” is one of its easiest! The impersonal usage of “se” is one of its easiest!
Paul Sableman licensed cc by 2.0

The general rule of thumb to translate impersonal expressions is to see it as a statement in the passive voice. Well, that’s the first step at least. And then, you twist the sentence from an is done form to a does itself form. Confused? Take the following sentence:

They speak Spanish here.

The first step is to turn it on its head, i.e. make it passive:

Spanish is spoken here.

And the second step is to change is spoken to speaks itself:

Spanish speaks itself here.

This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever in English but trust me, this is how Spanish works:

Se habla español.

The se in this sentence appears to act as a reflexive pronoun but actually goes further and plays the role of an impersonal pronoun. This might take a little while to master but once you have it down, it’ll become one of the most natural construct to you. So hang in tight and keep practicing.

The Reflexive Se

Okay, this one is not exactly a case of indirect objects but I had to bring it up. Reflexive object pronouns are always direct. Remember how Spanish spoke itself in the example above? That’s called being reflexive, doing things unto yourself. What makes that happen in Spanish is se. The quickest way to remember that would be to see se as a contraction of -self in English. I am pretty sure you’re already aware of this usage of se since no grammar lesson is ever complete without touching upon the reflexives. However, let’s review it anyway since we want to ensure everybody is on the same page.

One thing to remember here is that in this usage, se remains unaffected by the number in question. I mean the subject could be singular or plural, but se stays the same. Look at some examples to drive home this point:

A mi gato, le gusta lamerse (My cat loves to lick itself).

Se miraron y sonrieron (They looked at each other and smiled).

espero que se diviertan (I hope you enjoy yourselves).

As you can see, the object’s number does not have any bearing on the reflexive pronoun which remains se regardless. Another point to note here is that the reflexive se does not always translate into -self; as in the second example, it can also mean each other or one another depending on the context.

Phew! Now that we’re done reviewing the most commonplace usage scenarios for se, we’re ready to move on to the more exotic ones. The following section deals with the aspects that confuse us non-native speakers the most, the very meat-and-potatoes of this article!

Ethic Dative

Ethic what? I doubt any of you would’ve ever been hit with something as esoteric as dative, let alone ethic dative or, god forbid, dative of interest. Don’t sweat it, and certainly don’t let the name stump you. Let me break it down for you and you’ll quickly see it’s not as alien a concept as you thought it would be.

Basically, dative is just a fancy name grammar-nerds use for objects, indirect ones in particular. So for the sake of simplicity, it’s absolutely fair to assume that if you give me the book, the me is your dative. An ethic dative is, in layman terms, when there’s a dative in Spanish that doesn’t seem to have an equivalent in commonly spoken English. Although this is an extremely loose and subjective definition, that’s all you need for now.

Dative of Possession

Dative of possession is a special kind of dative, not used anymore in English but heavily so in Spanish. Ideally, you’d use an indirect object, i.e. the dative, only when talking about the direct recipient of the action. Like if you give me the book, I am the one receiving them, so me is the dative here. But sometimes, and especially so in most European languages other than English, a dative could also indicate an indirect recipient of the action. It could stand for someone that’s affected by the action or even likes it. Look at the following example:

No me funciona el computador (My computer isn’t working).

Here, the computer belongs to me, which makes me the affected party. If it doesn’t work, I’m the one who suffers. And that’s what the me before funciona says. This me is an example of ethic dative. And since me already indicates that I am the affected party, using a mi before computador to show possession would be rather redundant and hence omitted. This system might seem contrived at first but once you use it for a while, it gets more natural. Mostly, this is not optional in Spanish. Especially when it comes to body parts, clothes, or other possessions. Wherever possible, ethic dative is preferred over possessive pronoun:

Me duele la cabeza (My head hurts).

Se cortó el dedo (She cut her finger).

Carmen se puso el vestido rojo (Carmen wore the red dress).

As the name implies, the dative or indirect object in these examples serves to replace a possessive pronoun. There are a few others that are more complicated than this and we’ll see them all one by one.

Dative of Interest

If a dative of possession indicates possession, a dative of interest indicates interest. Duh. What this means is that it stands for the person or thing affected by the action despite not being directly involved. This person either suffers or benefits from the action. In order to illustrate this, let’s go back to our first example:

No me funciona el computador.

As we saw in the previous section, this could imply that the computer belongs to me. But if you slightly change your perspective, it could also mean that the computer, whoever it might belong to, has stopped functioning and it’s affecting me adversely. Maybe because I needed it for some work and now I can’t finish that work because it’s broken? See the subtle but certain difference here? This interpretation does not involve possession; it involves me as an affected party. That’s why the me here is a dative of interest this time. Same sentence, two interpretations!

If this idea sounds alien to you, I’ve some good news for you: It’s not! You use it at least sometimes if not all the time in your very own English! Don’t believe me? Check out these examples:

Please don’t die on me. (If you did, it’ll make me sad)

Cry me a river. (Cry as much as you want in front of me and it won’t move me)

I love me some Bieber. (I love Bieber for myself)

Granted, most of these constructs are rather colloquial. But they work. And every single one of them involves a dative of interest. You just didn’t know that’s what they were called, but you’ve used them all the same. In some cases, e.g., the last one, the dative just serves to reinforce a statement. Think about it, I love Bieber doesn’t sound as desperate as I love me some Bieber, now does it?

A small disclaimer is in order here: I don’t like or dislike Justin Bieber, contrary to what the example above might seem to imply. I don’t know why I even used that name in the first place.

Can you guess the ethic datives in the following sentences now?

Se me ha muerto el niño.

El hombre se comió el pan.

El autobús se me paró en medio del puente.

It’s the se in these situations that messes up with most newbie learners. But don’t let it. Remember the order of object pronouns in Spanish, it’s always first direct and then indirect. So, se is nothing exotic here; it’s just a direct object. This should tell you about the verbs. They’re all reflexive!

In the first example, se is obviously a reflexive pronoun which means the verb in question is actually morirse. It might sound funny but in Spanish, you don’t just die, you die yourself! The me here serves to show either possession (my boy has died) or interest (the boy has died and I’m grieving his death), depending on whether you take it as a dative of possession or that of interest.

In the second example, it’s a strange situation. If you notice, the direct object has already been specified, albeit not as a pronoun – el pan. However, it’s not what it looks like. Strangely enough, el pan is actually an indirect object here! That’s because the se is a part of comer which makes it the direct object. In Spanish, comerse does not mean to eat oneself. It means to eat up. It’s just a reinforcement of comer. So, in our example, the man seems to have been starving which is why he ate up the whole bread. The direct or reflexive here serves as a dative of interest reinforcing the action under discussion.

In the third example, se comes before me which makes it the direct object and the latter indirect. Again, if you look up the dictionary, parar is a transitive verb. It means parar needs an object. Thus, when the subject is the one stopping, parar needs to be used reflexively. That should explain the se in this sentence. But what about the me? Another case for dative of interest. The bus stopped for me, either to pick me up or to drop me off. I am the one benefiting from the stopping of the bus.

Conclusion

I must admit, it takes a lot of practice and an ungodly amount of reading to come to terms with this strangeness of Spanish object pronouns. But if you can trust me as someone who has gone through it all, it’s well worth it. That’s because this strangeness is not unique to Spanish. Almost all Romance and Germanic tongues share this feature.

And if my personal experience were to be considered as any yardstick, it doesn’t take all that long to acclimatize oneself to this usage. Keep practicing and in no time you’ll find the ethic dative is one of the most natural aspects of Spanish!

Given the complexity of this subject, I am pretty sure you have tons of questions on your mind. Feel free to drop me a comment and I’ll try my best to answer them for you as quickly as I can. Whatsay, deal?

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