I am having trouble recognizing the difference between the passive reflexive/passive se (se hace/is made) vs the simple reflexive (se hace/(he/she/it makes for it/her/himself). I have a specific example that I am working with.

La ciudad se renueva constantemente. Couldn't this sentence be translated both as:

  1. The city renews itself constantly. (simple reflexive)
  2. The city is renewed constantly. (passive reflexive)

Have I misunderstood one of the forms? If not, how is one supposed to discern the difference? If those are correct translations, I think there is a significant difference in meaning. Through context alone? Thank you for your help, let me know if I need to add more details.

1 Answer 1


I think the sentence:

  • La ciudad se renueva constantemente.

can be parsed either as a pure reflexive or as a "se"-passive sentence, and this is because the noun phrase "la ciudad" can be understood as a human structure capable of evolving by itself (in which case the reflexive interpretation is more feasible), or as a product of human construction (in which case the passive interpretation will prevail).

Another similarly ambiguous example is:

  • La esperanza se renueva todos los días.

If we think of hope as a human virtue that has the power of renewing itself, the meaning is reflexive: hope renews itself every day; if we think of it as a human creation, then the meaning is passive: hope is renewed every day.

With other subjects and the same verb, we can tell the difference more easily, for example:

  • Los planes de desarrollo urbano se renuevan constantemente. (Urban development plans are constantly renewed: it is clear that plans cannot renew themselves.)

  • Los ciudadanos se renuevan constantemente. (Citizens are constantly renewed / Citizens are subject to permanent renewal: though animate, here "ciudadanos" refers to changes in population, due to emigration and immigration, so the meaning is also passive.)

  • Algunas personas buscan renovarse a través de cirugías. (Some people seek their own renewal through surgery: here reference is made to the intention of the subject to renew themselves, so the meaning is reflexive.)

  • 1
    Indeed. In the singular, it's often ambiguous, but as I tell my students, if it is ambiguous, it's ultimately not a big concern, because I have never in my life come across an example where one interpretation or the other is critical to the understanding of a text. There may be a rebuscado example somewhere, but it'd be rare enough to not stress over. Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 9:31

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