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I've been using the Duolingo app to get some extra practice and have just come across the following questions:

Translate:

  1. La niña se come una manzana.
  2. Ella se come la manzana.

And the answers are:

  1. The girl eats an apple.
  2. She eats the apple.

Why are they using 'se impersonal' here? Does it make sense, and how is it different than:

  1. La niña come una manzana.
  2. Ella come la manzana.
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    That's not the se impersonal, that's just a verb with a pronominal usage (that is, it conjugates if reflexive, but the meaning is not). Quite different structures, as se impersonal can't be used in other persons, but me como una manzana is perfectly fine. comer as a verbo pronominal means to eat something up (that is, to scarf it down or gobble it up). Thus, it's slightly different than comer as a verbo transitivo which just means to eat in the sense of to intake food). – user0721090601 Oct 21 '15 at 22:16
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The short answer: no, it is not an impersonal se; BUT, it is not reflexive either.

I know this is indeed a hard topic, but that should make us be extremely careful with this. There are 7 usages of "se":

  1. Reflexive
  2. Reciprocal
  3. Variant of "le"
  4. Part of pronominal verb
  5. Passive
  6. Impersonal
  7. Dative

In this case, your sentence has the 7th one. We call it "Dativo ético" in Spanish. Here, "se" is used only for emphasis. It has no other meaning at all, and consequently, you can remove it without changing anything in the meaning. However, using this is more natural.

Ella come la manzana = She eats the apple

This is a valid sentence, but it sounds little natural. Instead, we say

Ella se come la manzana.

The meaning is the same. At most, you can say "she eats it for her", which is a little obvious, but check that it is more "visual". "Ella come" is a subject+verb construction. It has the same structure as "ella hace". If you add "se", it implies a reminiscence of "action back to her". However, these are meaningless nuances.

In short, it is prescindible, but it makes it sound much more natural.


I'm saying this because I've seen other answers are "not accurate". There's one thing true: it is not impersonal. There is a subject, so the discussion is ended. "Impersonal" means "no subject", so it is not impersonal.

But it isn't reflexive either, because a "reflexive se" means that "se" is the object, and here the object is "la manzana", so it cannot be reflexive.

You could discard all others in the list. Only the 7th usage is the one here. Hope this helps to clear it a little bit.

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  • The meaning with or without se is not the same. Se come la manzana implies completeness. – pablodf76 Apr 16 '18 at 11:25
  • As I point out in a comment of other answer, I don't agree with that, but if you can tell us why you say that it will probably be interesting. – FGSUZ Apr 16 '18 at 17:57
  • See my answer. I checked with the NGLE to make sure, but it's impossible to link to the relevant passage. I'll try and take some screenshots at least. – pablodf76 Apr 16 '18 at 20:43
  • Oh I see you expanded your answer. The links you give are pretty interesting.... However, I didn't see much difference. They just say that they are "datives", but does it say anything about "completeness"? If so, where? – FGSUZ Apr 16 '18 at 21:06
  • I've just added another couple of references which I'd forgotten. The treatment of the subject in the NGLE is a bit muddled to say the least. – pablodf76 Apr 16 '18 at 21:12
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There is not difference. There is no reason to use or not to use the reflexive "se" at least in this sentences.

It is the same "la niña SE come una manzana" and "la niña come una manzana".

I would guess that it depends on the region but in Colombia you would most frequently hear us use the "se" sentence.

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  • 1
    I disagree with your last sentence. The construction without se would be very unusual here in Spain. It sounds quite weird. We would only use it when food is considered uncountable (e.g.: La niña come fruta), but I think it is the same in America. – Gorpik Apr 16 '18 at 7:09
  • Oops @Gorpik 3 years later.... hahaha. I should only talk about what I know and not speculate about how it is in Spain. I deleted that part. Tks. – DGaleano Apr 16 '18 at 13:36
  • Wow, I did not notice the question date :D Someone must have pushed it up. – Gorpik Apr 16 '18 at 17:12
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You can phrase it without se. However this pronoun is often complicated to use.

For example, consider walk:

She walks on the sidewalk = Ella camina sobre la acera.

We don't say ella se camina por la acera.


You'll learn how to use it well as a part of a phrase in most of the cases.

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That is not se impersonal at all. There is a clear subject (la niña or ella). We use se impersonal in some constructions with no subject, or with an undefined subject, such as:

Se tarda tres horas en llegar a Madrid.

Se considera que la Ingeniería es una carrera difícil.

No se sabe quién escribió el Lazarillo de Tormes.

Se cree que los monolitos tenían un uso ritual.

Your examples use the quasi-reflexive construction, where the construction is reflexive, but the meaning is not. The subject and the object are unrelated.

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«La niña se come la manzana» is not impersonal (there's a personal subject, la niña, doing the action). Se is being used to mark a finished or complete action (the New Grammar of the Spanish Language refers to it as se aspectual or se intensivo), or to emphasize the effort done to complete it, or even to suggest excess. [Source: NGLE, 23.4o;q, 35.7v-y]

This usage is common with "consumption" verbs: those that refer to eating or drinking, mainly (comer, beber, tomar), and also fumar ("to smoke"). An English equivalent would be phrasal verbs with up.

  1. Los niños se comieron el pastel. = "The kids ate up [all] the cake."
  2. Me bebí tres latas de cerveza. = "I drank three cans of beer."
  3. ¿Te vas a tomar ese trago? = "Are you going to have [all of] that drink?"
  4. Ella se fuma un cigarrillo. = "She smokes a cigarette."

When used this way the "consumption" verbs are often accompanied by words that emphasize the completeness of the action, such as todo, completo, totalmente, completamente, entero, etc.

These same verbs can appear without the pronoun (se, me, te), but the meaning is not always exactly the same, and sometimes the bare verb sounds unnatural. This is what I "hear":

La niña come una manzana.

That means the girl is eating from an apple; she is taking bites out of an apple, not necessarily eating it all up. Also, the sentence simply describes the situation (girl with apple in hand, presumably).

La niña se come una manzana.

That means the girl is eating an apple, from beginning to end; she is consuming it with the intent of finishing it. She's also personally involved with this eating (maybe enjoying it).

There are some other verbs that can take se to show full consumption and/or involvement, for example leer "to read" and ver "to watch":

Me leí todo el libro de un tirón.
"I read the whole book in one go."

Nos vimos una película buenísima. "We watched an awesome movie."

There are some cases where you cannot use se with verbs of consumption. For example, when making general statements like

  1. Estos niños no comen verduras. = "These kids don't eat vegetables."
  2. Ella sólo bebe agua. = "She only drinks water."
  3. Yo fumo en pipa. = "I smoke with a pipe."
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It means to eat the whole thing; to eat it all up. It's the difference between

Joe ate that apple

and

Joe inhaled that apple.

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  • What's your reference to say that? "Ella come la manzana" doesn't mean she doesn't eat it completely, like in "ella come la manzana y él come la pera, una fruta para cada uno". – FGSUZ Apr 16 '18 at 11:00

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