I've been testing out various sentences and grammar on my Argentine mother to see how common or correct they are. Lately I've been working on the passive voice. "fue atacado" vs "se atacó"

According to my mom...

"Se atacó la persona ayer" is incorrect (I was trying to say the person was attacked yesterday) She said I need to say "Se atacó a la persona ayer" Now, is that just the personal a or is that effectively changing the meaning of the sentence? Is this generally accepted as correct, or could this be a colloquial thing?

She also seems generally unfamiliar with the passive se usage in the past tense, and usually assumes the se is either reflexive or reciprocal. Would you say the "ser + past participle" construction is more common?

Thanks in advance!


Your mom is correct that “Se atacó la persona ayer” is ungrammatical.¹ You need the personal a here before the direct object, just as in any other sentence where there's such a specific animate object. For the purposes of correct grammar, you need to think that the se in this passive usage can be replaced by alguien (if the verb is singular) or algunas personas (if plural). The subject slot, in other words, is occupied by se; the rest is just a normal sentence.

I find it strange that a native speaker could be “unfamiliar” with passive se in the past tense. This construction is found in all tenses and also common, even more so than the periphrastic passive (ser + participle). It's true that one mostly hears it in the present; for example, one common way to provide instructions is to use the passive se in the present, e.g. “Se coloca esta pieza aquí, luego se ajusta este tornillo, finalmente se cierra la tapa.”

The past tense passive se construction often appears in formal writing; a list of se passives often reads like a technical description, e.g. “Se extrajo sangre del paciente, la misma se testeó usando el protocolo XYZ, no se hallaron rastros del virus.” But really this is just a change in tense; the syntax and the meaning are exactly the same. What your mom might be trying to say is that using the se passive in the past is unusual in speech or informal writing, which is true. Passive voice in general is often formal anyway.

¹ Atacarse (intransitive, not passive) is slang in Argentina; it means “to get extremely worked up about something, to become hysterical”. But that's not the meaning you're trying to convey here.

  • Thank you so much! This really helped! And I think you're right. She wasn't unfamiliar with it but more found it odd to be used in everyday speech. – mmango May 12 '20 at 3:35

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