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Normally I would use ¿Puedo? to mean "Can I?".

However, I have seen the phrase ¿Se puede? used alone to mean "May I?" as in asking permission.

Why is se being used here? (As in, is it the reflexive se or which type of se is it?).

And why is poder conjugated in the third person singular rather than the first person?

Finally, can I use Se puede in exactly the same way in which I use Puedo.

For example,

¿Puedo tener un vaso de agua? Can I have a glass of water?

¿Se puede tener un vaso de agua? Can/may I have a glass of water?

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    Se puede is impersonal by definition, hence you use it mostly in cases you could also say e.g. is it OK/possible/allowed to in English. In ¿se puede? there is a entrar omitted: as if asking is it Ok to come in?. You are somehow asking for you and anyone else. In puedo tomar un vaso de agua you want it specifically for you, so it doesn't sound right to ask whether se puede tomar/tener. – Rafael Apr 12 '18 at 0:46
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The pronoun se is not being used as a reflexive pronoun here. This is an impersonal construction. Impersonal se is used to make general observations without assigning actions (or obligations, or capabilities, as in this case) to any specific subject. You'll probably learn about this in time.

There's no grammatical equivalent to the impersonal se in English; the closest is the pronoun one, which is employed, like se, in the third person singular (One must do what is right). In English you generally use you for general observations (see what I just did there?), since one may sound stilted, or you use they for unspecified agents.

Se puede means something like "One can" or "It is allowed". So ¿Se puede? means "Is it allowed?" or "May I?" or even "Is it OK?". When to use this impersonal construction and when the personal one is a matter of context.

The impersonal construction distances the speaker from the hearer. This might be considered respectful or rude according to the circumstances, the tone, and you exactly you want (to be given permission, to receive some object, to get something done).

If you're talking directly to someone and asking for permission to do something, it is usually OK to use something like ¿Puedo? (or more indirectly: ¿Podría?). For example:

¿Puedo entrar un momento? ("Can I go in for a moment?")
¿Podría dejar esto aquí? ("May I leave this here?")

If you instead ask ¿Se puede? it may sound more like you're simply asking if there is a rule. It's OK, though, if you want to ask tactfully about something in general, even though it's actually for you. For example:

¿Se pueden dejar las cosas aquí? ("Can one leave one's things here?")

The impersonal might be rude in some cases if you use it to demand something. It is the same as in English when you say e.g. "Can anyone get a good drink around here?" or the like. This has a lot to do with your tone, though. You can make a polite indirect demand using the impersonal, for example:

¿Se puede encender el aire acondicionado? ("Could the A/C be turned on?").
¿Se podría hacer un espacio allá? ("Could some room be made over there?")

As an aside, you don't say ¿puedo tener un vaso de agua? in Spanish. Tener is not used for drinking or eating. You need to say something like:

¿Me puedes/podrías dar un vaso de agua (por favor)?
("Can/could you give me a glass of water (please)?")

or simply:

¿Me das/darías un vaso de agua?
(*Will/would you give me a glass of water?")

You could also ask:

¿Puedo tomar un vaso de agua?
("Can I drink a glass of water?")

but that suggests you're asking for permission to drink, rather than for the water itself.

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  • I'm now thinking we got pretty far away from the simple learner's question OP was asking. My fault, definitely. Could we come up with a separate question and both transfer most of this material over there? // The three examples you gave at the end would all be expressed in everyday, natural English, as "May I have a glass of water?" What I mean is, if you're at someone's house and you're thirsty, but you don't know them well enough to go get yourself a glass of water, 99% of the time, you'll say, "May I have a glass of water?" // Your previous version made the "tener" mistake clearer. – aparente001 Apr 13 '18 at 11:46
  • What would be the question you'd like to see answered? How to ask for something politely? – pablodf76 Apr 13 '18 at 13:09
  • It's hard for me to draft that alone because I'm not familiar with the stuff from Portuguese that you talked about, and I didn't see eye to eye on you with the fine point that you made about what would be rude in Spanish. In principle this is one of the things chat is for, but formatting in chat is difficult (at least, for me). How about we talk about it in Meta, where we can write and edit more comfortably? If you agree, I'd be grateful if you posted the Meta question (something short and simple would be okay), because recently I have overposted in Meta. – aparente001 Apr 13 '18 at 13:41
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Supplemental comment, too big to fit in a comment box:

Cultural note about impersonal constructions. In many (all?) languages, they're used for expressing rules and general cultural expectations (e.g. English: "What do you say after you say hello?"; French: "Qu'est-ce qu'on dit?"; German: "Das macht man nicht"). However, in addition, you can use it to shift from talking about someone specific (usually yourself) to the general air. I think it happens more in Spanish then in English.

Here's an example in English:

When someone makes fun of you, you feel like you want to die.

Here's an example in Spanish:

¡Entre todos, sí se puede!

which could be loosely translated as "We shall overcome!" (sooner rather than later).

Shifting to an impersonal construction can be used to indicate politeness, to soften instructions, or to distance oneself from the other person. For example, if someone is trying to screw in a light bulb by turning it the wrong way, you could gently correct them in English by saying

You turn it the same way as a screw, clockwise.

But English speakers, especially from the US, don't perform this shift as often as some other cultures, and this is probably one of the reasons for the stereotype of the American who tends to be "in your face."

Here's the most extreme example of this shift that I've experienced. I asked a woman for directions in French while on a hike in the Alps, and the answer built a strong bubble around the answerer:

On n'est pas d'ici.

which, literally, means, "One isn't from here." But she was talking about herself and her hiking partner.


Note about the otherwise outstanding answer from @pablodf76: I'm not sure I agree that "¿Se puede tomar un vaso de agua?" would be taken badly, at least in Mexico or the US.

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  • Interesting. I'll try to refine my answer. Distancing oneself from the speaker can be either rude or respectful, and it can be difficult to articulate examples (or to make them enough). – pablodf76 Apr 12 '18 at 16:52
  • One surprising counter-observation to your first statement here: in Brazilian Portuguese you say a gente (lit. "the people", Sp. la gente) instead of nós ("we"), with the verb in the 3rd person singular, but that's informal and shows closeness rather than the other way round. Some have noted that a gente seems to contrast with nós in inclusivity (a gente is often exclusive, "me and them but not you"). As a result you cannot use a gente in Portuguese as easily as la gente in Spanish, or people in English, in general statements. – pablodf76 Apr 12 '18 at 16:58
  • @pablodf76 - I didn't really understand your second comment, but with regard to the first -- there is something in between rude and respectful: neutral and a bit distant. Which feels fine as long as you aren't approaching that person like an impulsive puppy. (As a lot of people from the US fall into all too easily.) – aparente001 Apr 13 '18 at 3:51
  • I was getting at the fact that Br. Port. employs a 3rd person expression to show intimacy and informality where the same strategy tends to be used for distancing oneself in other languages. The rest has to do with clusivity. – pablodf76 Apr 13 '18 at 10:21
  • @pablodf76 - The wikipedia article is a daunting reading, not sure I'm up to it. // Do you want to post a separate question and answer it yourself, to bring out the similarities and differences in this regard between Spanish and Portuguese? I feel like some examples might help me understand. – aparente001 Apr 13 '18 at 10:38

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