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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Preguntolandia: hola

I teach Spanish at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia in the United States. I have studied Spanish for about 7 years and a half in Mexico and in the US.

Sometimes my students ask me questions that are a little difficult to explain in one or two sentences. I imagine that a lot of students of Spanish have the same questions, that's why I decided to publish some of the answers I usually give to my students. These answers may not follow the traditional grammar explanations, but rather try to explain an easy or crazy way to learn a concept.

Lulú De Panbehchi

What is the impersonal "SE"?

Impersonal “SE” = se impersonal. Se vende casa. Se venden casas. Se habla español. (think signs and ads)
When you read the phrases “newspapers sold here,” “help needed,” “Spanish spoken here,” and “house for sale,” can you tell who or what the subject is? There is no specific subject in these phrases, but rather an impersonal one. This is actually a passive structure. Here are a few more sentences:
  1. Banks open at 10:00 a.m.
  2. They eat paella in Spain.
  3. They drink sake in Japan, tequila in Mexico, and vodka in Russia.
  4. Football is played in the US and Canada.
  5. Soccer is played in Latin America.
  6. Who opens the banks?, the buildings themselves? Who eats paella? Who drinks sake, tequila, or vodka? Who plays
  7. football or soccer?

The subject again is an impersonal one. Whatever is open, eaten, drunk, played, sold, etc. is a subject that opens, eats, drinks, plays, sells, etc. by itself or themselves. We use the SE IMPERSONAL, which is a type of REFLEXIVO with these phrases. One of the most used structure is:

verb + whatever is open, eaten, drunk, etc. In most cases, we don’t need to use articles or demonstrative pronouns (el, la, un, una, esta, este, etc.).

Here are the translations for all the phrases I mentioned in this part.
1. Newspapers sold here. = Se venden periódicos aquí.
2. Help needed. = Se necesita ayuda.
3. Spanish is spoken here. = Se habla español aquí.
4. House for sale. = Se vende casa.
5. Banks open at 10:00 a.m. = Se abren los bancos a las 10:00 a.m. or Los bancos se abren a las 10:00 a.m.
6. They eat paella in Spain. = Se come paella en España.
7. They drink sake in Japan, tequila in Mexico, and vodka in Russia. = Se bebe sake en Japón, tequila en México y vodka en Rusia.
8. Football is played in the US and Canada. = Se juega fútbol en los Estados Unidos y Canadá.
9. Soccer is played in Latin America. = Se juega fútbol [or futbol] en América Latina. / El fútbol se juega en A. L.

Two more: We sell stamps. /or / Stamps sold here . = Se venden estampillas.
Programmers wanted. = Se solicitan programadores.

Why is the verb in the plural form in the first question listed above?
The English phrase needs a participle—sold—but the Spanish structure needs the reflexive, which in this case is as passive as the participle. Since the verb needs to be conjugated, it takes form of the objects involved:
Los periódicos se venden
Se venden los periódicos

A trick to understand this structure better: imagine that since there is nobody in particular to sell the newspapers, the newspapers sell themselves.
If you add where the newspapers are sold, that information does not change the verb because usually we add a preposition or an adverb.
Se venden periódicos en la farmacia.
Los periódicos se venden aquí.

Of course, in English, “WE” is used sometimes as an impersonal subject. In Spanish too, but that's another story.

Some signs use “SE” instead of commands:
No smoking. /or/ Smoking prohibited here. = No se fuma. / Se prohibe fumar

Can you guess what the following phrases mean in English?
1. Se prohibe dar de comer a los animales.
2. Se venden gatos.
3. Se hablan dos lenguas en Canadá.
4. Los juguetes se hacen en China.
5. El juramento a la bandera se dice en las escuelas públicas todos los días.
6. “Juguete” se dice “toy” en inglés.
7. La letra “h” no se pronuncia en español.
8. Se prohibe tirar basura aquí.
9. En Texas, el chile se hace sin frijoles (beans).
10. Un sándwich de jamón se prepara con pan, jamón y mayonesa.
11. ¿Cómo se dice “juramento a la bandera” en inglés?
12. En la universidad se usan mucho los hornos de microondas.
13. En Starbucks se vende café.
14. En 7-11 se venden café, cigarrillos, revistas y dulces.
15.En la librería se venden libros. /or/ Se venden libros en la librería.


  1. this actually helped me a lot! thanks!

  2. Will you post more information on how to differentiate between all of the Spanish tenses including the conditional, pluperfect, futuro perfecto, subjunctivo, imperative and indicative?


    I've never read a more clear explanation than yours. You've helped me tremendously. I am indebted to you. Muchas gracias.