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I'm working through a Level A1 Spanish course at Memrise.com. I came across an idiom that boggles me:

First, the basics:

se (a alguien) dar bien (algo) | to be good (at something)

And then some examples:

se me da bien (algo) | I am good (at something)

se le da bien (algo) | he is good (at something)

se les dan bien muchas cosas | they are good at many things

se me da bien tocar el piano | I am good at playing the piano

The construction of these phrases are sooo different than English. I'm not knowing how to even search Google for an explanation of this construction.

First off, is this a common way to express that 'someone is good at something'? When I put any of the above phrases into a translation engine, none of the results translate to "being good at...".

Secondly, can someone give a brief explanation of this particular idiom?

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Note: The form "se (a alguien) dar bien (algo)" only works with pronouns (me, te, se, nos, os). If you want to you specify a name, you have to place it at the beginning (more common) or at the end (rare) of the sentence, the choice depending on what part of the sentence you want to emphasize:

A Pepe se le dan bien los niños. (Pepe is good with kids.)

Note how I used a "with" there, not an "at". Both "to be good at" and "to be good with" can be expressed in Spanish with "dársele bien algo a alguien."

Some answers state that "ser bueno en/con" is more frequent. I personally disagree, but don't forget there may be regional differences. Either way, both are common and understood everywhere.

However, using "ser bueno en/con" poses a couple of problems. The first one would be choosing the right preposition, and the second one is ambiguity. Consider the first sentence, now using a "ser bueno en/con":

Pepe es bueno con los niños.

This sentence could mean either that Pepe is good with them (whenever he has to spend some time with kids he doesn't know, he gets to get on well with them. Kids consider him a "cool guy". That is, you are describing a skill), or that he is nice to them (he generally doesn't ground them when they misbehave, he treats them with kindness and tolerance. That is, you aren't describing a skill but a treatment). Both definitions overlap to a certain extent, but are different. This is made obvious if the sentence is reworded with a superlative form:

Pepe es demasiado bueno con los niños. Los está malcriando.

This makes sense only if one considers the second meaning (Pepe is too nice with the kids. He is spoiling them.), but not the first one, since one cannot be "too skillful with kids".

This ambiguity doesn't arise with objects because one cannot be "nice" to objects. So if the "algo" is a person, go with "se (pronombre) da/dan bien (algo)". Otherwise, any of the two constructions would work.

Finally, it's not easy to parse this idiom because it's, well, an idiom. In general lines, in "se me da bien el ajedrez" (I'm good at chess) you know:

  • The subject is "el ajedrez".

  • The Indirect Object is "me".

  • The pronoun ("se") has no semantic meaning1. It must agree with the subject, but since the subject is always in third person singular or plural, and the third person pronoun is "se" for both the singlular and plural form, it is invariable.

So you can see the subject/object roles are just the opposite as in English (something like what happens with the verb "gustar"), which makes it tricky for Spanish learners. Therefore, and considering subject-verb agreement, the choice between da/dan depends on what you are good at. Consider:

Se me da bien cocinar tartas. (I'm good at cooking cakes.)
Subject = cocinar tartas (sg); verb: da (sg); Indirect Object: me

Se me dan bien las tartas. (I'm good with cakes.)
Subject = las tartas (pl); verb: dan (pl); Indirect Object: me

Here, the Indirect Object can be reduplicated for emphasis under the form of "a mí/a ti/a vos/a usted/a él/a ella/a nosotros/a vosotros/a ustedes/a ellos", and it can be placed at the beginning, in between, or at the end:

A mí se me dan bien las tartas. (common)
Se me dan bien las tartas a mí. (rare)
Se me dan bien a mí las tartas. (rare)
Se me dan a mí bien las tartas. (almost yoda-sounding)

EDIT: Pondering Ustanak's answer, I got to the conclusion there is indeed a second meaning for this saying. In English, "to be good at/with something" is pretty much a permanent thing: you either are good or not. In Spanish, however, "dársele bien algo a alguien" can describe both a permanent trait or the quality of a performance. An example of the former would be all the sentences provided so far, but now consider the following example:

El primer examen se me dio bien, pero el último se me dio bastante mal.

If you only considered the "trait" meaning, you would get nonsense: "I was good with the first exam, but terrible with the second (?)". A much more sensical translation would be "I did well on the first exam, but did terribly [screw it up] on the second". So "dársele bien algo a alguien" can describe a performance too, and in that sense it would be something temporal (how you did on a given occasion) instead of permanent (how good you are at something). This is in syntony with the general meaning of the saying: if you are good at something, it would be expected be that you do well when doing that thing. Both senses ("to be good at" or "to do well in") are valid, although (at least in Spain) the first one is more common. In Chile, on the other hand, it seems to be a common phrase. Per Ustanak's comment:

Se me dan bien las cosas.

...would mean "things are going well" or "I'm doing well". However, if you want to be understood everywhere, you should try to avoid such expression.


1 The pronoun is standing there because the verb requires it, but has no real meaning in the sentence. Some grammarians call it a "marca de verbo pronominal" (pronominal verb marker), thus saying that the verb is "pronominal" (i.e., it always takes a pronoun), and that the pronoun itself would be the "marker" of such a verb. This concept is key because in Spanish pronominal verbs are just as common as phrasal verbs in English, so it's a good thing that one gets familiar with them.

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  • Thanks for such a thoughtful and comprehensive answer. I've read this reply several times over. This is definitely study material. – Rock Anthony Johnson Feb 7 '16 at 20:18
  • You're welcome! I've made some changes including other answers, sorry for all the wordiness! – Yay Feb 8 '16 at 12:25
  • The wordiness is what makes this such a great answer. – Rock Anthony Johnson Feb 8 '16 at 19:03
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The most familiar construction for an English speaker is «ser bueno [gerundio]» for verbs. Soy bueno tocando el piano.

For nouns, «ser bueno [para|con] [sustantivo]». Soy bueno para las matemáticas, soy bueno con los ordenadores. I'm not sure of what the rule to choose between «para» and «con» is, I guess it may be a matter of field of knowledge vs. tools and materials.

Unfortunately I don't know the why for the idiom. But that verb in particular is full of them: dárselas de (pretend), dar por (consider), dar que (produce)...

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The construction is widely used.
Saying se me dan bien + something states that the things that come or happen to you are good.

But if you're actually looking for I am good at something, that's just soy bueno en algo.
This not that easy since many choices are given.

Soy bueno en matemáticas.
Soy bueno en las matemáticas.
Soy bueno para las matemáticas.
Soy bueno para matemáticas.

The construction se me dan bien is probably hard to phrase in English.
I've been thinking of something like things I'm given are good as a passive sense.

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  • "Saying se me dan bien + something states that the things that come or happen to you are good". I've never heard that. Where are you from? Or where have you heard that? – Yay Feb 7 '16 at 19:49
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    @Yay se me dan bien las cosas is a good example. It's used in Chile. – Alejandro Feb 7 '16 at 20:58
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    I wasn't aware it was used that way in Chile. It's good to know! – Yay Feb 7 '16 at 21:26
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    @Yay Yes. Actually, it can also be stated as se me han dado bien las cosas to mean I've worked hard and here's my reward. – Alejandro Feb 7 '16 at 21:27
  • @Ustanak very interesting and like Yay said, good to know. I would personally use ir or salir (rather than darse) for that meaning. – user0721090601 Feb 8 '16 at 1:30

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