Posted in English

Oh Se Can You see?

This is the second of my brainstorms about the four intractable problems I identified last week, trying to wrestle with the subject by putting it into a post, because explaining something to someone else is usually a pretty good way of learning it yourself.

Quite often in Portuguese, the word “Se” crops up in unexpected places, hanging around verbs. In some cases, it just means “if” and that’s easy enough to spot, but when it’s acting as some sort of pronoun things get a little weirder. Here’s a breakdown of some of the related grammar:

As a word meaning “If”

As I said, this is the odd one out, really. In this case, the word happens to be hanging around the sentence and maybe the verb will have to change as a result but in this case it’s not really strongly interacting with the verb, so you can just translate it in your had as “if” and move on. If you’re at B2 level and don’t already know about the subjunctive imperfect, go and have a read. Otherwise, forget it.

As a reflexive pronoun

Se is one of the pronouns used in the construction of reflexive verbs. Reflexive verbs. Reflexive verbs are just verbs in which the subject and the object can be the same thing. For example, “I can dress myself”. I am the one who is doing the dressing, and I am the one being dressed, so it’s a reflexive verb. In Portuguese and other romance languages, reflexive verbs seem a bit counter-intuitive.Sometimes they are used in situations you wouldn’t expect and sometimes they mean “each other” instead of “oneself”.

Of course, it’s not always “se”. The complete set of pronouns looks like this:

  • me
  • te
  • se
  • nos
  • vos
  • se

Here are some examples of reflexive verbs:

 Standard Meaning Reflexive Meaning
 lembrar to remind lembrar-se to remember
amar to love amar-se to love one another
 apaixonar to fall in love apaixonar-se to fall in love with each other
 deitar to lay (something) down deitar-se to lie down
 levantar to lift levantar-se to get up
 pentear to comb pentear-se to comb oneself
 banhar to bathe (someone) banhar-se to have a bath
 chamar to call (someone) chamar-se to be called/named
 lavar to wash something lavar-se to have a wash
 sentar* to put someone in a sitting position? sentar-se to sit down
 sentir  to sense something  sentir-se to be conscious of something
 voltar  to turn, return, re-do  voltar-se to turn around
 servir to serve servir-se to help oneself to
 vestir to dress someone vestir-se to get dressed
 ** suicidar-se to kill oneself
 cortar cut cortar-se to cut oneself

*sentar apparently exists but it’s not used often

**suicidar doesn’t seem to exist as a non-reflexive verb, for reasons that are probably pretty obvious….


Of course, by sod’s law, within hours of publishing this post, I see this:

…and now I’m ready to suicidar(-me) too.

—update to the update–

My teacher says it’s just bad grammar. What lessons do we learn from this? Don’t trust Twitter for lessons in correct use of language. 



And here are a few that need pronouns with them (to call back to this post)

Infinitive Meaning
aproveitar-se de to take advantage of
convencer-se de to convince oneself about
lembrar-se de to remember about
esquecer-se de to forget about
queixar-se de to complain about
rir-se de to laugh about
decidir-se a to decide
dedicar-se a to dedicate oneself to
acostumar-se com to get familiar with
parecer-se com to resemble
surpreender-se com to be surprised by

As some other kind of pronoun

Hm… Now I was going to write a whole section on “se” being used as another kind of pronoun but I had a look at the examples and decided that they were all specimens of  either those ones *points up* or these ones *points down*. OK, cool, well that’s one piece of confusion that has been expelled by writing this post, so… bonus!

As part of a sentence in the passive voice

Passive voice is when you use a phrase like “it was done”, “mistakes were made”, “a murder was committed” instead of the more direct “He did it”, “We made a mistake” or “Someone committed murder”. I quite like this form of words and use it in writing but some people find it vague and evasive, and for that very reason it’s popular in political speech and PR briefings.

In portuguese there are two ways of writing the passive voice and one of them looks a lot like the reflexive verbs I mentioned above:

“O livro publicou-se” means “the book was published” but you could equally read it as a reflexive verb “the book published itself” which it didn’t of course, but you can see how the connection is made. Another way of expressing the same thing in Portuguese looks much more like an English construction: “O livro foi publicado”

  • Em Portugal bebe-se muito café (A lot of coffee is drunk in Portugal)
  • Fala-se Inglês (English is spoken here)

and in the negative…

  • Não se fala Espanhol no Brasil



Just a data nerd

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