Why does the first sentence use "se" and the second sentence use "te"?

I know that cómo roughly translates to "how" and "se"/"te" roughly mean you, so the first is roughly "how you say" and the second is roughly "how you are called".

  • ¿Cómo te llamas? (tu/you) vs ¿Cómo se llama? (él/ella/he/she). Keep in mind that here are different persons on your two phrases
    – Bardo
    Apr 16 '15 at 12:18

I think that the question should be "¿Cómo se dice? vs. ¿Cómo se llama?", because in cómo te llamas you're using the second grammatical person and you're saying literally how are you called, but it can mean what's your name so, both phrases in the third person would be

Cómo se dice -> How to say/How is it said/ How do you say...?

Cómo se llama -> What is it called?/What's its name?

I think that, more importantantly than the literal translation, you should focus on what you want to express. In English we usually say What's your name? rather than How are you called?, while in Spanish (at least in my country, Perú) we usually use the opposite literal translation ¿Cómo te llamas? (How are you called) rather than ¿Cuál es tu nombre? (What's your name). So, finally, the most common expressions are:

¿Cómo te llamas? -> When you're asking someone's name to that person.
¿Cómo se llama? -> When you're asking about someone or something's name to another person.
¿Cómo se dice? -> When you're asking how to say some expression or some word.

The first sentence means How is it said; it's in a form of passive called pasiva refleja.

In Spanish you can form this passive form by moving the direct object to the subject and adding se. Compare:

  • [somebody] says Y this wayY is said this way
  • [alguien] dice Y asíY se dice así

The second sentence uses a pronominal verb (verbo pronominal). This is a verb form that has the reflexive pronoun "built-in". That is, you are not performing llamar upon yourself, but using the variant llamarse, which means "to have such name".


The first question “Cómo se dice” is passive voice written in active voice which translates to: how does one day/how do you (in general) say/ how is it said”

The second question is the reflexive verb llamarse (to call onself/to be called). Remember that llamar (transitive verb) means to call. So, “cómo te llamas” means how do you call yourself or (roughly) what is your name.

“Te” is the informal reflexive pronoun of tú.

Now, if you were to differentiate “cómo se dice” and “cómo se llama”, then understand that “se” has two different grammatical functions going on in each question. I.e., “se” has many different grammatical functions in Spanish, which students learn as they advance in their formal studies. The “se” in the first question “cómo se dice” is the impersonal se, while the “se” in “cómo se llama” is reflexive for the subject pronouns él, ella and usted: cómo se llama ella; cómo se llama usted, etc...


To expand a little bit on the previous answer(s) and perhaps clarify:

¿Cómo te llamas? -> When you're asking someone their name (informal - tu, tuteando)

¿Cómo se llama (usted)? -> When you're asking someone their name (formal - usted) OR

¿Cómo se llama (esto)? -> When you're asking about an object. Equates to "What's it called?" or "What's this called?".

¿Cómo se dice? -> equates to "How do you say .... ?" i.e., as the other contributor wrote, when you're asking how to say something in another language.
E.g./P.ej. "¿Cómo de dice 'un boli(grafo)´en inglés?." "A pen."

I hope this helps.

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