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I'm confused about when "se" should be used. I thought it would always go before a like here:

Ella se mejora a su coche

but I see here that it is not being used.

Él observa a su hija

My question is, when is se used before the verb?

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Usage 1, Usage 2 –  Emilio Gort Mar 15 '14 at 0:06
@EmilioGort Sorry, I'm not able to read that as my spanish is not good. –  0x499602D2 Mar 15 '14 at 0:23
Sorry my english isnt good enough to explain, I think someone look into the links and he/she will explain in an answer –  Emilio Gort Mar 15 '14 at 0:28

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Emilio's link are correct.

I will focus on the wide use of se as reflexive.

Se can be translated as the third person. Like the reflexive pronouns himself, herself, itself, themselves.

  1. El/Ella se mejora su coche --> He/She improved his/her car himself/herself

  2. La mesa se mueve sola! Es mágia! --> The table moves itself! It's magic!

  3. Se alimentaron en el restaurante --> They fed themselves at the restaurant

On the first example you can drop the reflexive pronoun and everybody will understand you, it is just extra information.

On the second example you mention

Él observa a su hija --> He watches her daughter.

You are asking about Él se observa a su hija

Se is indirect of the person who is doing the action (Él).

Él se observa a su hija --> He watches by himself to her daughter / He watches her daughter (by) himself.

I am not English but it sounds a bit strange to add himself here. In English I remember you can use himself / by himself / for himself but here it is useless. You can apply the same on Spanish.

I think I won't be wrong if I ask you to put in this sentences the pronoun themselves.

Las enfermeras están vigilando a los chicos --> The nurses are watching the children.

  1. Las enfermeras se están vigilando a los chicos (not correct) -->The nurses themselves are watching the children (Watching includes the nurses on the action, you do not need the pronoun)

  2. Las enfermeras están vigilando a los chicos por si mismas --> The nurses are watching the children by themselves. (Correct...but they are nurses everybody knows the children will be ok, they are capable of, do you really need it on both sentences? )

Se has several uses, if you are learning Spanish in the future the other uses of se would become familiar to you but right now as a starting point I think it is enough to know his use as reflexive pronoun, it is quite usual.

For other uses you can use this website http://spanish.about.com/

Se venden oro y plata, although translated literally would mean "gold and silver sell themselves," can be understood to mean "gold and silver are sold" or even "gold and silver for sale," neither of which specify who is doing the selling. Se sirve desayuno means "breakfast is served." And se alquila, which might be seen as a sign on a building or object, means simply "for rent."

I am learning English so this answer can contain errors when it comes about translations and differents uses of pronouns in English examples

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This was very helpful. Thank you! –  0x499602D2 Mar 16 '14 at 0:42
Question: I sometimes see sentences that start with "Me tengo" and some that start with just "Tengo". When should I use "Me tengo" instead of just "Tengo"? –  0x499602D2 Mar 16 '14 at 1:08

From my Advanced Spanish Manual, by Veronica Martinez of ITESM Querétaro.

SE Reflexivo.

El reflexivo significa que la misma persona que hace la acción la recibe. 

suicidarse, especializarse, arrepentirse de, asombrarse de, atreverse a, burlarse de, darse cuenta 
de, empeñarse en enterarse de equivocarse, portarse bien / mal, resignarse, quejarse 

Hay otros que conocemos como reflexivos pero también pueden ser transitivos, es decir pasar su 
acción a otra cosa o persona. 

Cambiarse, vestirse, lavarse, cepillarse. 
Me cambio todos los días y cambio mi dinero en el banco. 
Aburrirse, alegrarse, cansarse, enojarse, divertirse, molestarse, preocuparse, interesarse, 
sorprenderse, asustarse, entristecerse, enfermarse, hincharse, mejorarse, curarse, pararse, sentarse, 
acostarse, etc. 

También están los que nos indican un consumo total de algo. 

Tomarse, comerse, beberse, devorarse. 

** This form is self explanatory. Reflexive verbs are, in my opinion, the easiest "se" to grasp. Translated to English, a sentence with a reflexive verb will have the word "self" in there somewhere, and if not, the sentence will indeed express some kind of emotion. In English, we say that we want to Take a bath/shower when in Spanish you would bathe or shower yourself... or someone else even. Quiero ducharme -- I want to take a shower.

At the bottom of the list above are some other reflexives that do not express emotion, but rather, consumption of some kind, whether it be yourself or something else, a consumption of ... all of it... as the quote says. nos indican un consumo total de algo

Example.. - We're eating all of the pizza -- Nos comemos la pizza - He drank the whole thing! -- `¡Él se lo tomó!.

SE Recíproco.

Implica una acción y dos personas realizándola al mismo tiempo.( Ellos= se). 

amarse, quererse, llamarse, verse, besarse, abrazarse, admirarse, tocarse, odiarse. 

I would call this the opposite of a Reflexive verb. These are personal verbs that involve another subject, as the defnition suggests.

SE Accidental.

Se usa para expresar la realización de una acción de manera accidental o donde el sujeto no quiere 
asumir la responsabilidad. 

Romperse, perderse, olvidarse, caerse, quemarse, doblarse, quebrarse, abrirse, 

In the Spanish language, for some reason, they do not accept the blame. You don't forget your wallet, your wallet forgets you. It's strange, but it's true.

SE Impersonal.

Lo usamos cuando no sabemos o no queremos o no importa quien hace la acción, sirve para expresar 
generalizaciones. Comúnmente aparece en la tercera persona singular con verbos intransitivos sin 
embargo también aparecen con algunos transitivos que se toman como “impersonales”. 

Intransitivo. Se vive bien en Querétaro 
Transitivo. Se habla español en México. 

** This is the form that, to me, seems the most difficult. You will often here this usage when you are asked how to say something. ¿Cómo se dice ... potato... en español? Using English as an example you can see the trend used in this form of SE.

In English, we use "they" or "you" a lot to explain instructions, or advertisements, or, mainly, just to generalize... in some cases, "we"... as in We sell furniture... translated to Se vende muebles.

Other English examples -- in spanish.

`We speak Spanish` (like the signs outside of a business) -- `Se habla español`
`You open it with a fork` (instructions) -- `Se la abre con tenedor`
`They say the homework is hard` (generalize) -- `Se dice es dificil la tarea`
`You don't say it like that` (instructions) -- `No se lo dice así`

This impersonal "se" is a bit tricky to get used to. I still use it incorrectly to this day, even after 15+ years of practice and education.

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+1 for the number of examples. On accidental and impersonal "se", I would say it's a trick we use in Spanish to avoid naming the subject. I would also mention that, when we use this trick, the direct object becomes the subject, i.e.: "[yo] rompí el vaso" becomes "el vaso se rompió" –  Nico Mar 17 '14 at 22:23
Exactly. To hide the subject. Those Spaniards and their sneaky language! ¡Él se lo tomó! and Se lo tomó have two different meanings, one of which hides the subject, leaving the translation for the second example to be "It was drunk", a very vague and innocent statement. –  dockeryz Mar 17 '14 at 22:35
I'm afraid "tomarse" is an example of reflexive "se" :) as "ducharse" and "lavarse". It translates better into "I got drunk", that is, I'm the only one to blame for getting drunk :p. "Me ducho" is "I take a shower", that is, "I wash myself" –  Nico Mar 17 '14 at 22:42
If you actually read this list, you would see tomarse at the bottom of the SE Reflexivo list. If I have to think of it lierally, I think of to take on. If you take on a responsibility, you have all of that responsibility. At the end of the day, all tomar really means is to take.. to receive.. to obtain... to consume... they all represent having the weight of something bestowed onto you, physically, orally, audibly even.. Tomarse en cuenta can have the same meaning as enfocarse, darse cuenta de, haber hecho caso... and more. –  dockeryz Mar 17 '14 at 23:03
I do mean it in that way, Nico. But it can also mean It was drunk.. as in .. someone drank it, someone took it, someone consumed it, and so on. Just like La bebida se toma means The drink is drank, The drink is being drank, Someone is drinking the drink and then there is the impersonal 'se' making it You drink the drink ( an instruction ). It all depends on the context in the end. –  dockeryz Mar 17 '14 at 23:24

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