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In the phrase

La niña se baja del coche

Why is the se needed as we know it is the girl that gets out of the car?

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There are a number of questions in this site already dealing with pronominal verbs, which I would advise the OP to read. From the descriptive point of view, some Spanish verbs just work like that, and that's it. Other Romance language have them and use them extensively, and German has a lot of them as well. In English their use is much more restricted: only in phrases like pick oneself up and pull oneself together.

A lot of Spanish intransitive verbs of movement are pronominal. This makes some sense since the action is performed by the subject on theirself, which makes it reflexive (sort of): bajarse, subirse, irse, marcharse. They are pronominal and thus suggest reflexive action even when the action is involuntary: deslizarse, caerse, tropezarse. They are also pronominal when there's a decision not to move: quedarse, plantarse. Most can be used also as plain non-pronominal verbs, and some can double as transitive (bajar/subir las escaleras), but in general they are indeed pronominal most of the time.

The only reason I can think of for emphasizing the fact that the subject is performing the action on theirself, as in La niña se baja del coche, is that, as you begin to hear and parse the sentence, there is the possibility that the verb is actually transitive.

La niña baja del coche. (intransitive) — but:

La niña baja a su amigo del coche a patadas. (transitive)
La niña baja del coche a su amigo de un empujón. (transitive)

With verbs other than subir and bajar this might or might not happen, but there are often shades of meaning that make a pronominal form useful. For example, with quedar(se) there is again the contrast (not always very clear) between an action performed by the subject vs. an action perfomed by someone else:

La niña quedó sola en la casa. = "The girl was left alone in the house."
La niña se quedó sola en la casa. = "The girl stayed alone in the house."

I realise this is not a satisfactory explanation but I doubt there is one that covers all the pronominal verbs.

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This is because the verb bajar can be used in a pronominal form when referring to geting off a vehicle or an animal:

  1. intr. Quitarse de encima de un animal o de una cosa. Bajar DEL caballo. U. t. c. prnl. Bajarse DEL taburete.

  2. intr. Salir de un vehículo. Bajar DEL taxi. U. t. c. prnl. Bajarse DEL avión.

Where U. t. c. prnl. means "Usado también como pronominal". That is, "also used as pronominal".

So both of these are equivalent and correct:

La niña baja del coche

La niña se baja del coche

  • @walen this is indeed a good point, see your comment for more info... Jokes apart, yes. I am not specially skilled for such explanations, so feel free to do so if you do. – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Jun 27 '17 at 14:42
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That's because se in this case indicates the reflexive nature of the verb bajar. It will be easier to understand it changing the phrase this way:

The girl lowers herself.

So the agent (girl) of the verb to lower is the same as the patient (herself). herself in this case acts as se in the spanish sentence.

And it's worth mentioning that:

La niña baja del coche

is correct too

  • I suppose there's also some emphasis, as in "Sit yourself down and tell me all your news." – aparente001 Jul 5 '17 at 8:35
  • You are right. You sit yourself down (I've deliberately changed your sentence) is another example of using reflexive verbs. In spanish it is siéntate or changing it to better understanding sienta te. The difference is that "sit yourself down" is an imperative sentence and "la niña se baja" is declarative – Ruslan Mukhanov Jul 5 '17 at 10:30
  • Right, I know what reflexive means. I'm just offering some rationale for why the expression in OP's question is a reflexive in Spanish but not in English, by recalling a somewhat similar expression in English. – aparente001 Jul 5 '17 at 23:29
  • Wow, I didn't understand you. If we drop yourself in sit down then it is very similar to la niña baja. But if we don't then it's similar to la niña se baja. Maybe you are right. I have no clue if it is the same thing but looks very similar. – Ruslan Mukhanov Jul 7 '17 at 11:00
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Consider

El sol baja por el oeste. The sun goes down in the west.

This doesn't take any effort on the part of the sun. It just goes down. Another example would be when the exchange rate in a country changes. For example, the dollar could go down, in relation to other currencies:

El dólar bajó dramáticamente ayer; a ver si se corrige hoy.

Now imagine a girl descending from a carriage or from the driver's seat of a carriage. Getting down from the carriage or the carriage's driver's seat is more involved. There's a dismounting or an extricating -- collecting of personal items, gathering up the long skirt, etc. This extra effort, on the part of the person dismounting, is expressed by using a reflexive pronoun. The pronoun makes the action more deliberate.

At least, that's how it feels to me.

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As a Spanish native speaker I can tell you that we often use the pronoun se to mean she is doing so by herself.

For example:

La niña se baja del coche

  • 1
    Bienvenida a Spanish Language. Te recomiendo visitar las secciones de tour y help center para entender un poco mejor la filosofía de este sitio. Échale también un vistazo a otras preguntas y respuestas. Procura responder realmente a la pregunta (de la manera que te gustaría que te explicasen a ti cosas de otro idioma, el porqué de las cosas, etc.) y recuerda que el formato adecuado puede servir para hacer tu respuesta más fácil de leer y entender. No dudes en pedir ayuda si lo necesitas. Bienvenida de nuevo. ¡Espero seguir viendo contribuciones tuyas en el futuro! – Diego Jun 28 '17 at 18:20
  • La pregunta es, literalmente Why is the *se* needed as we know it is the girl that gets out of the car? , es decir, "Por qué se necesita el se si sabemos que es la niña quien realiza la acción de bajar del coche?" Aparte, la frase puede funcionar sin el se: "La niña baja del coche". – Diego Jun 29 '17 at 13:11
  • Gracias @Diego, solo quise decir que en la práctica el se es una manera de hacer notar que lo hace por si misma, sin ayuda... Pero entiendo la intencion de tu comentario. Gracias otra vez. Mis saludos – Lidiana Alonso Jun 30 '17 at 20:21

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