What Does Se Mean?

The word se can mean so many different things in Spanish that it's difficult to know how to translate it. Here's a list of possibilities.

Saber

First of all remember that (with the accent) is the irregular, yo form conjugation of saber:

Yo matemáticas.
I know mathematics.

Yo dibujar bien.
I know how to draw well.

Reflexive Pronouns

See also: Reflexive Verbs

It's pretty likely that if you see a se, it's a part of a reflexive verb (which may or may not have an English translation):

Ella se despierta muy temprano.
She wakes up very early. / She awakens herself very early.

Él se bañó y comió la cena.
He took a bath and ate dinner. / He bathed himself and ate dinner.

Reflexive verbs can also convey the idea of "becoming" or "getting":

Marta se enojó y salió.
Marta became angry and left. / Marta got angry and left.

Reciprocal Reflexives

And sometimes the reflexive idea isn't that somebody does something to him/herself, it's that people do something to each other. This is known as the "reciprocal reflexive." Some examples:

Ellos se abrazaron.
They hugged. (They hugged each other.)

Ellas se dieron la mano.
They shook hands. (They shook each other's hands.)

Reflexive Intensifiers

Sometimes reflexive pronouns are added to a verb intensify it or make it stronger than it would otherwise be. We often accomplish this in English by adding the words "up" or "down":

Ella se cae mucho.
She falls down a lot.

Él se comió toda la comida rápidamente.
He ate up all the food quickly.

Indirect Object Pronouns

Se is used to replace the indirect object pronouns le or les in a sentence which also has a direct object pronoun starting with the letter "l":

original sentence:

Él mandó la carta a su hermana.

w/ direct object pronoun:

Él la mandó a su hermana.

w/ indirect object pronoun:

Él le mandó la carta.

w/ both IOP and DOP:

Él le la mandó.

Él se la mandó.

Therefore se could be translated as "to/for him," "to/for her," "to/for it," "to/for you," or "to/for them." Context should make it clear:

¿Recibió ella las cartas? Si, Diego se las mandó.
Did she receive the cards? Yes, Diego sent them to her.

¿Porqué él tiene tus zapatos? Yo se los di.
Why does he have your shoes? I gave them to him.

The Impersonal Se

Occasionally our subjects don't refer to any one person in particular, but rather a general, nonspecific, unknown person or people. This is known as an "impersonal" subject. In English we we often use the words "you," "one," or even "they" to convey this idea. In Spanish to communicate this, we use se:

No se sabe.
It isn't known. / One doesn't know.

No se puede fumar aquí.
You cannot smoke here.

Se dice que la playa es linda.
They say the beach is nice.

The impersonal se is also used in passive voice sentences:

Se venden refrescos.
Beverages for sale. / Beverages are sold (here).

The "No-Fault" Se

Sometimes in order to avoid blame or to really emphasize the accidental nature of something, we'll say things like "My book got lost." Spanish has a really great way to deny responsibility using the word se:

Se me perdieron los libros.
Se me olvidó.

The first sentence literally translates to something like "The books lost themselves on me," giving the idea that, "Yes, I lost my books, but it wasn't really my fault. They just got lost." The second is similar; "It forgot itself on me," giving the idea that "No, I can't remember. It just slipped my mind."

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