I get really confused about this and am looking for some kind of trick.
It seems sometimes "se" means to do something to oneself and sometimes not.

"Juan se ducha" (Juan showers himself)

Other times "se" doesn't mean to do something to oneself.

"se venden oro y plata" (I know this means gold and silver are sold here but it really means- gold and silver sell themselves)

How I distinguish? How do I know when it's being used reflexively and when it's not?



2 Answers 2


In the first case: subject (Juan) conveys the action (duchar), and the result of such action falls to Juan himself (hence the 'se').

In the second one: an action is performed (vender) but there is no agent mentioned, and following the verb, there is a passive subject (two objects in which the action is placed, oro y plata).

First sentence is in active voice with a verb used in a 'reflexive form' (forma refleja o pronominal), because action falls on same subject (a defined one) performing it. Verbs in these cases are preceded with a personal pronoun: me (if subject is first-person singular), te (2nd-person singular), se (3rd-person, both singular and plural), nos (1st-person plural), os (2nd-person plural)

[no pronominal]
duchar (to shower)
Pedro ducha a su perro (Pedro showers his dog)

Yo me ducho (I shower myself)
Me ducho (same as above, me indicates that I perform the action, thus, Yo may be omitted)
Juan se ducha (Juan showers himself)
Se ducha (Someone known showers himself/herself/itself). It is not a good idea to omit the subject if he/she/it is known, unless he/she/it is very obvious in the conversation (i.e. as a short answer to the question ¿Qué hace Juan? - What does Juan do?
Ellos se duchan (They shower themselves)
Se duchan (A group of known entities shower themselves). Same case as 'se ducha', but duchan indicates a plural.

In the second sentence, to say in Spanish 'Gold and silver are sold' (a passive voice sentence), you could say it like:

'Oro y plata son vendidos' (voz pasiva analítica o perifrástica) [not used, however gramatically correct]

But if the subject is a 'thing' (or 'things', like your case), or an unknown/undefined entity/entities, you will prefer:

Se venden oro y plata (voz pasiva sintética o refleja)

Another examples of voz pasiva refleja:

Se buscan actores para la película (Actors are wanted for the movie)
Se necesita carpintero ([A] carpenter is needed)

Furthermore, in Spanish, there are impersonal sentences (oraciones impersonales), which I think they are worth to mention briefly here, whose construction is very similar to pasiva refleja sentences, except their verb is always expressed in 3rd-person singular, even if the subject is in plural:

Se entrevistó a los candidatos para el puesto (Candidates were interviewed for the position)

In all these cases, the word 'se' is merely an auxiliary word, it only shows passivity.

In short, if you can tell in a sentence who (or what) is performing the action, and that action falls on himself/herself/itself/themselves, 'se' is depicting a reflexive form, and the sentence is in active voice.

If you cannot tell who is performing the action (Who is selling gold and silver? Who interviewed the candidates? Who wants actors?), then 'se' is an auxiliary word indicating that your sentence is in passive voice.

I hope it helps.

  • 1
    Thanks. This helps but still seems to be a big hurdle for me. I am sure with "speaking" it will become more clear.
    – GinaV
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 7:25

What a common question.

Se celebra translates to They celebrate which is how we, English speakers, would say it.

For instance, Aquí se celebra Navidad en Pascua

Here, they celebrate Christmas on Easter

Not they as in 3rd person plural, but rather, they as in the people here.

When we are giving instructions we tend to say things like

You mix the milk in with the eggs

Se mezcla el leche con los huevos

You soak the bread in the mixture

Se moja el pan en la mezcla

You cook the bread

Se cocina el pan

In my opinion, the best real world example to understand this passive se is this:

¿Cómo se dice 'something' en español?

It translates semantically as

How do you say 'something' in Spanish?

but literally as :

How is 'something' said in Spanish?

Cómo dice...

This translates to something indicative

How does he/she/it say ... ?

Where there is a pronounced subject in the sentence.

What is the difference in meaning between: se celebra & celebra?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.