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I was listening to one of Michael Thomas's Spanish tutorials and heard this sentence:

a veces se olvidan invitarme.

Why 'olvidarse' is used here instead of 'olvidar'? Is it wrong to just say:

a veces olvidan invitarme.

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Short answer: no, it's not wrong to say olvidar without se. There's a mistake in your first example, but it's not that. Keep reading.

There are a lot of answers to this question already in this site, but surprisingly it seems there's not one specifically about this one verb in this usage. Olvidar has a plain form and a so-called pronominal form (cited as olvidarse). Both mean the same, but they're not directly interchangeable. You would say

A veces olvidan invitarme. (plain form, verb + infinitive)

but if not you must say

A veces se olvidan de invitarme. (pronominal form, verb + de + infinitive)

or else

A veces se les olvida invitarme. (double pronominal form, verb + infinitive)

That is, you can say

  1. Él (subject) olvida algo (direct object).
  2. Él (subject) se olvida algo (direct object).
  3. Él (subject) se olvida de algo (complement).
  4. A él (indirect object) se le (indirect object) olvida algo (subject).

In (1) you simply use the verb as a plain transitive verb, the subject is the person who forgets and the direct object is the thing forgotten. In (2) it's the same, but the verb becomes pronominal (the reflexive pronoun is added); you can't use this with an infinitive as the object, though. In (3) the verb becomes intransitive but the thing forgotten is expressed as a complement with the preposition de. In (4) things become a bit more complicated: the person that forgets becomes the indirect object and the thing forgotten becomes the subject! This is a bit like what happens with gustar, but fortunately there's an exact parallel in English: when you say, for example, "Your meaning escapes me". There's also another parallel in Spanish: Se me ocurre (una idea), literally "An idea occurs to me".

The meaning of the four structures is exactly the same, but at least in my experience the pronominal forms are more informal and show more involvement of the subject. In my dialect (I'm from Argentina), no-one ever says olvidar algo; it's always olvidarse [de] algo, except in very formal contexts. I don't know about other regional dialects of Spanish.


P.S.: I've added a fourth pattern (olvidarse algo) for the sake of completeness, even though it's not applicable to this question because it cannot be used with infinitives.

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    I find the olvidarse more common too in Spain, although the command form I think trends towards the plain form: olvídalo over olvídate de ello, although I've even heard them mixed which would be formally incorrect (unless you consider it an emphatic/ético reflexive, à la comérselo): olvídatelo. In general, I believe Spanish trends towards pronominal forms when both are equivalent in meaning, which is part of what sets it off from other Iberian languages. – user0721090601 Dec 8 '18 at 17:02
  • Thanks for the thorough explanation. I somehow manage to understand the grammatical structures here. But I'm having a very hard time internalizing these tricky usages of reflexive verbs. As I've learned the reflexive verbs are supposed to reflect to the "self". So I'm searching for a "self" implication in the second sentence like: "She forgot herself (her intention of inviting me)" or "She (by being clumsy) distracted herself from inviting me" or ... Am I going the wrong way? – roozbeh S Dec 8 '18 at 20:04
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    The thing is, these are not truly reflexive verbs. The "reflexive" pronoun can have a lot of different meanings. Don't try to memorize them; just try to keep your eyes and ears open for real-life examples. – pablodf76 Dec 9 '18 at 2:15
  • Quite interesting. I wonder if you have any further info on "double pronomial form" in Spanish or if it goes by another term? (tried googling around and this post was the top result). Combining pronomial se with a le/les indirect object always trips me up, I also wonder what would happen if a pronomial se ran into a verb with both direct and indirect third person objects. Then the le couldn't convert to se or you'd have two in a row. I've never seen it in practice though and not being fully clear on "double pronomial form" I've yet to come up with my own example. – Haven Hash Dec 10 '18 at 6:36
  • @HavenHash sounds like you may have a new question forming in your mind. Since these verb forms are a potent source of confusion for learners (at least L1 English learners) the more answers the better. – mdewey Dec 10 '18 at 10:11

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