I am confused by the highlighted "se" and "le" in the following sentence:

El director de Reddit Steve Huffman admitió en 2016 haber editado personalmente algunos de sus comentarios, en los que se le insultaba y criticaba tras haber cerrado otra comunidad en la que se discutía y bromeaba sobre la teoría de que Hillary Clinton formara parte de una organización pedófila.

The translation seems to be that Steve Huffman "was insulted and criticized", so why is it not "estaba insultado y criticado"?


2 Answers 2


"Se" is the so called "pasiva refleja" a way of expressing passive form when there is no explicit subject. You can also express the same meaning with "él era insultado y criticado" which would be the usual passive form. In the latter passive form the direct object becomes the subject so le would become él and is usually omitted because it can be inferred from the ending of the verb.

  • Thanks for clarifying that this is a "pasiva refleja". I didn't know there were two passive forms in Spanish. I saw another example: "La ley se aprobó ayer". Why is "le" necessary in the original sentence? Wouldn't "se insultaba" already imply that the object is Steve Huffman?
    – Quang
    Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 16:15
  • "Se insultaba" would be "it was insulted", because the direct object is missing ("le"). There are situations where this is correct : "se ha hablado acerca de ..." it has been said that... In this example though, we want to explicitely mention who was insulted, therefore "le". He was insulted
    – julodnik
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 9:29

Okay, this sentence has many issues.

Firstly, we've got here a case of leísmo, which consists in using "le" instead of "lo". Many people think taht "lo" is for objects and "le" for people, but that's nor always true. "Lo" is for direct objects, so the sentence here should have been

Se lo insultaba y criticaba.

So let's go into the sentence. We can look into the first verb only, without loss of generality. Let's reduce it to

Se lo insultaba.

We've got a verb (insultaba), a direct object (lo) and a mysterious word "se". Unless a person is called "Se" (which is very unlikely), "se" is NOT the subject. Where is the subject then?

There are two options:

a. The sentence has no subject.

b. The sentence is actually a passive one.

The way to tell which one, is trying to "rearrange" the sentence and see if it can be expressed as a normal mpassive.

(I hope you didn't get lost, but keep reading).

There are two types of passive in Spanish. The normal passive uses the same structure as English: ser + participle.

Check that it is NOT "estar", but ser.

He was insulted = Él fue insultado.

As you can see, the usual passive is word-by-word the same as English. Be careful to use "ser", since "estar" would mean a different thing.

Fue pintado = it was painted (the action of being painted was applied to it)

vs. Estaba pintado = It was painted (it's just indicating its current state)

So, back to the topic, there are two types of passive in Spanish.

The first type is exactly the same as English.

The second type is called "pasiva refleja" and it uses the word "se". ser + participle becomes se + conjugated verb:

That was done = Eso fue hecho || Eso se hizo.

I know it sounds weird at the beginning, but that's because you're not used to it. Unfortunately, the second way is more common in Spanish, so you'll have to get used to it haha.

So finally,

se lo insultaba

can be rephrased like a passive sentence.

él era insultado.

Why is it like this? "lo" is the direct object. The direct object of a passive is "by definition" the subject of the real sentence.

It was done ↔ someone did it.

  • So "lo" acting as a DO becomes subject in the passive voice.

Then I use "era" because "insultaba" is in imperfect preterite.

And I think that's all.

It might be complicated for a beginner. I admit it is an "advanced topic". Tell me if you don't understand.

  • Se lo insultaba might not be incorrect, but it is definitely not as wide-spread as "se le insultaba". As a native speaker I have definitely never heard the former version and a google search shows a difference of around 3000 results against just 15.
    – julodnik
    Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 10:45
  • Yeap, unfortunately leísmo is winning the battle, but I won't give up haha. Now seriously, first times are always weird, but start using it and I bet you'll soon start finding "le" weird.
    – FGSUZ
    Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 21:05

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