Quick answer – both ‘se’ and ‘le’ are Spanish pronouns; ‘le’ is an indirect object pronoun and ‘se’ is kinda like the chameleon of pronouns as it has LOTS of different uses. They´re both EXTREMELY common, so it´s best not to get them muddled up!
‘Se’ and ‘le’ may look similar, but that one letter actually makes a BIG difference.
Although they may seem tricky, I’m positive that you´ll be using them both masterfully by the end of this article.
I´ve even made a little quiz so that you can put these short but super important Spanish words into practice.
Let’s get started!
‘Se’ can be used in the following ways –
- As a “reflexive pronoun” (Se bañó = He took a bath)
- As an “impersonal pronoun” (Se vive bien en México = Life is good in Mexico)
- In passive constructions (Se buscan payasos = Clowns needed)
- As an “indirect object pronoun” (Se lo di = I give it to him)
- It can also be used as an intensifier (se comió el pastel = He ate the whole cake) and to mean ‘each other’ (Se abrazaron = They hugged each other)
‘Le’ is an “indirect object pronoun” (i.e., a pronoun used to replace the indirect object of a sentence).
Le di la pelota = I gave him the ball
When to use ‘se’
‘Se’ as a reflexive pronoun
You´ll probably first come across the word ‘se’ as a “reflexive pronoun”.
And what´s a “reflexive pronoun”?
Well, they´re basically pronouns that we use when conjugating “reflexive verbs” (verbs used when the person (or thing) in question is doing the action to THEMSELVES).
The reflexive pronoun ‘se’ is used with the 3rd person singular or plural – él/ella, ellos/ellas – or the more courteous ‘usted’ form.
Let’s look at some examples –
María se peina.
María combs her hair.
Voy a cocinar mientras usted se lava las manos.
I’m going to cook while you wash your hands.
Se aburran con mucha facilidad.
They get bored really easily.
El ladrón se arrepintió del* robo.
The thief regretted the robbery.
Los clientes se quejaron de los precios.
The clients complained about the prices.
Usted se enojó con nosotros.
You got angry with us.
Erika´s top tip – ‘del’ is basically a fusion of ‘de’ and ‘el’; make sure to check out our article on ‘de’ vs ‘del’ if you´d like to know more!
We can also add ‘a sí mismo’ – yourself (formal), himself, herself – for extra emphasis!
For example –
Se convenció a sí mismo de que podía ganar.
He convinced himself that he could win.
‘Se’ as an impersonal pronoun
Another common use of ‘se’ is as an “impersonal pronoun”.
Yeah, I already know what you´re thinking! What´s with this “impersonal” nonsense?
Well, it kinda does what it says on the tin … “impersonal pronouns” are used to talk about an action WITHOUT referring to a specific person.
impersonal = person NOT mentioned
And how are impersonal sentences with ‘se’ formed?
Well, you just need to whack a ‘se’ before the 3rd person singular of the verb and then add what we call a “complement” (basically the rest of the sentence!).
se + verb (3rd person singular) + complement
Aquí se respeta mucho a los ancianos.
There’s a lot of respect for elders here.
Se habla muy bien de usted en este pueblo.
The people in this town speak very highly of you.
Se vive muy bien en México.
Life is good in Mexico.
As you can see from the above examples, the impersonal ‘se’ is used to make general statements (or statements that, for the most part, are true!).
We also use ‘se’ in passive constructions.
A passive construction is one in which the action is done to the subject (not the other way around!)
The dog ate the bone.
El perro comió el hueso.
The bone was eaten by the dog.
El hueso fue comido por el perro.
We only use the passive ‘se’ when forming passive sentences in which the subject (i.e., the person or thing doing the action) is NOT mentioned.
This time ‘se’ can be followed by a verb in either the third person singular OR plural, depending on whether the object of the sentence is singular or plural.
se + verb (3rd person singular OR plural) + object
If you´ve ever been to a Spanish-speaking country, you´ve probably seen the passive ‘se’ on signage –
Se venden casas.
Houses for sale.
Se hacen fotocopias.
Se ponchan llantas.
We puncture tyres.
Whoah! Yeah, I know, but this is actually quite a common sign in Mexico, so watch where you park that car!
It´s also commonly used when giving instructions –
Se hornea por 20 minutos.
Bake for 20 minutes.
Se parten los cocos a la mitad.
Cut the coconuts in half.
‘Se’ as an indirect object pronoun
Finally (phew!), ‘se’ can be used as an INDIRECT OBJECT PRONOUN just like ‘le’!
But don´t get your knickers in a twist just yet as it´s only used in very specific circumstances!
In Spanish “direct object pronouns” (pronouns replacing the person or thing being acted upon) and “indirect object pronouns” (pronouns replacing the recipient of the object) always follow a very specific order:
- indirect object pronoun
- direct object pronoun
For example –
She gave it to me.
Me lo dio.
‘Me’ is the indirect object pronoun and ‘lo’ the direct object pronoun.
I painted it for us.
Nos lo pinté.
‘Nos’ is the indirect object pronoun and ‘lo’ the direct object pronoun.
All gravy so far?
Glad to hear it! The only slightly tricky thing here is that in Spanish you CANNOT use the indirect object pronouns ‘le’ and ‘les’ with the direct object pronouns ‘lo’, ‘la’, ‘los’ and ‘las’.
Basically, you can´t say ‘le lo’, ‘les la’, etc. as it´s just way too much of a mouthful!
So, in these instances the ‘le’ or ‘les’ is replaced with ‘se’ –
Se lo dio.
She gave it to her.
Our ‘ol friend ‘se’ is the indirect object pronoun and ‘lo’ the direct object pronoun.
Se lo pinté.
I painted it for them.
Again, our ‘ol friend ‘se’ is the indirect object pronoun and ‘lo’ the direct object pronoun.
Dos amigos están conversando
Ramón – ¿Le diste el regalo a Jorge?
Federico – Sí, se lo di ayer.
Two friends are chatting
Ramón – Did you give Jorge the present?
Federico – Yeah, I gave it to him yesterday.
When to use ‘le’
‘Le’ is what we call an “indirect object pronoun”.
As I mentioned above, an “indirect object pronoun” is just a pronoun that takes the place of the indirect object (i.e., the recipient of the object).
More specifically, we use the pronoun ‘le’ when talking about ‘him’ / ‘her’ or ‘you’ (when using the more formal ‘usted’).
El mendigo tenía un pésimo aspecto. Entonces, Juan le dio algo de dinero (al mendigo).
The tramp had a terrible appearance. So, Juan gave him some money.
Le voy a hablar desde el fondo de mi corazón (a usted).
I´m going to speak to you from the bottom of my heart.
Just remember that in Spanish ‘le’ can mean ‘him’, ‘her’ and ‘you’ (formal), so it´s often used in conjuction with the indirect object itself just to avoid confusion –
Le pedí disculpas a mi madre (a ella).
I apologized to my mother (her).
Le dije a su hermano que viniera (a él).
I told her brother to come (him).
Señor, le suplico que me ayude a afrontar esta tragedia (a usted).
Lord, I beg you to help me face this tragedy (you).
That´s all for today, folks!
Hopefully, I´ve banished those ‘se’ vs ‘le’ woes once and for all!
Just remember that we learn much more by contrasting terms than by studying them alone. As the wise Indian-American author Deepak Chopra once said, ‘Man learns everything by contrast’!
Be sure to check out the quiz below for further practice.
Oh, and if you´re still a little unsure as to how to use pronouns in Spanish, be sure to check out our article on ‘lo’ vs ‘le’ vs ‘la’ as they´re probably the easiest to confuse!
‘Se’ vs ‘le’ quiz
- Finalmente, ___________ conté todo lo que pasó a Robin. Ahora me siento mucho mejor.
- Ella siempre ___________ mira en todos los espejos.
- La incorporación de Max al grupo no ___________ pareció buena idea a Mike.
- ¿ ___________ hacen fotocopias aquí? Necesito fotocopiar mi pasaporte.
- Yo ___________ diré la pura verdad, y es que no me interesa lo que usted piensan.
- Benito no aceptó el dinero. ___________ lo devolvió a su hermano y le dio las gracias.
- La gente que más ___________ queja es la que menos actúa.
- Ellos ___________ enamoraron a primera vista.
- Juan entrenó tanto que ___________ superó a sí mismo.
- Toda la comunidad mágica ___________ debe mucho a Harry Potter.