"A esto se le llama ..."

"This is called ..."

I came across a new way to say "This is called..." but I do not understand how it is grammatical or why it makes sense. It seems like the subject is "this" and it's reflexive, but then "this" is also the indirect object.

The only other structure that I've seen that is similar is the "accidental se" construction. Such as "Se me olvidó el examen.", where the purpose is to distance someone from an action. Does the first sentence work the same way? If so why would the "accidental se" even need to be used?

Thank you!

1 Answer 1


Differentiating passive from impersonal sentences with "se" is a rather difficult subject. In "Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española" we can read under 41.5.2. Propiedades morfológicas y sintácticas del se impersonal: Las ORACIONES IMPERSONALES REFLEJAS contienen la forma pronominal se y un verbo en singular. Este puede ser intransitivo, como en Allí se discute de grandes cosas (Landero, Juegos), o transitivo, como en En mi casa siempre se les llamó drogas a las deudas (Pacheco, Batallas).

The last sentence, which resembles the one OP submitted to us, can be translated as: At home debts were always referred to/considered as drugs.


  • Esto se llama revolución.

"se" is passive, and "Esto" is the subject (This is called a revolution).

Proof that the sentence above is passive is that it can be replaced with a periphrastic or full passive construction (less idiomatic than the "se" passive but also correct).

  • Esto es llamado revolución. (A more idiomatic form would occur with "poder": Esto puede ser llamado revolución, instead of Esto puede llamarse revolución.)

Now, as you can read here, "se" in:

  • A esto se le llama revolución.

is an impersonal "se", which means that the sentence has no subject.

The pronoun "le" is an object (direct in meaning, indirect in form), and "a esto" is a duplicate object. In the mentioned source, we can read:

La mayoría de los gramáticos, sin embargo, defienden la posición de que, aunque dativo de forma, le(s) en las construcciones con se es un pronombre acusativo en su función, tanto cuando tiene referente femenino como cuando tiene referente masculino [...]

El paradigma pronominal en las oraciones impersonales con se muestra numerosas vacilaciones en el uso de los pronombres en diferentes regiones de habla hispana. Ya no se emplea siempre solamente se le / se les; van apareciendo variantes se la / se las / se lo / se los, que se deben, sin duda, a haberse percatado los hablantes «del carácter de objeto directo del sintagma nominal que acompaña a la oración impersonal con se y haberle asignado el caso que le correspondería en la oración activa correspondiente: el acusativo.» [Fernández-Ordóñez, 1999: §].

The text quoted above states that originally the accepted form with many verbs used impersonally was "le" or "les", even among speakers who didn't use "leísmo", but being aware of its direct-object meaning, many speakers also use "lo", "la", "los", "las". Examples:

  • A esto (masculine) se le llama un sitio de gramática. (This is called a grammar site)

  • A esto (masculine) se lo llama un sitio de gramática. (This is called a grammar site)

  • «Se le llama filia principis» (a Sulamitis) (González Carvajal, Libros poéticos de la Santa Biblia, VII, páginas 16, 19). (Example taken from the reference source)

  • Also: Se la llama filia principis. (This is called "filia principis") ("Sulamitis" is a woman's name)

This phenomenon seems to occur only with certain verbs such as llamarse, denominarse:

  • Esto se denomina XXX. (This is called XXX)

With a pronominal object, "se" becomes impersonal:

  • A este se le/lo denomina XXX.

  • A esta se le/la denomina XXX.

With similar verbs, impersonal "se" sometimes takes only "le" or "les":

  • A este se le dice XXX. (This (masc.) is referred to as XXX) NOT A este se lo dice.

  • A esta se le dice XXX. (This (fem.) is referred to as XXX) NOT A esta se la dice.

With other similar verbs, impersonal "se" sometimes takes only "lo/s" or "la/s":

  • A este se lo conoce como XXX (This (masc.) is known as XXX) ("A este se le conoce como XXX" sounds like a case of "leísmo")

  • A esta se la conoce como XXX (This (fem.) is known as XXX) ("A esta se le conoce como XXX" sounds like a case of "leísmo")

  • A este se lo designa (como) XXX (This (masc.) is designated as XXX) NOT A este se le designa (como) XXX.

  • A esta se la designa (como) XXX (This (fem.) is designated as XXX) NOT A esta se le designa (como) XXX.

  • thank you for your answer. Is there a way to determine what object pronoun is acceptable with a verb in the impersonal se form or is it necessary to memorize that?
    – Walrath21
    Commented May 25, 2021 at 14:59
  • 1
    The tests I made show me that "le" and "les" mostly work only with "llamarse", while "lo", "la", "los", "las" work with all verbs, "llamarse" included.
    – Gustavson
    Commented May 25, 2021 at 17:23

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