Posted in English

Oh Se Can You See (Version 3)

This is an updated version of my brainstorm about the four intractable problems (“4 evil exes”) I identified before my first B2 exam, 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. Since I wrote the first version, and then my second my understanding as developed a bit so I thought I’d update this to solidify that knowledge.

Quite often in Portuguese, the word “Se” crops up in unexpected places, hanging around verbs, and it isn’t always clear what it’s doing there. Here is a breakdown of its possible uses,

As a word meaning “If”

This is the odd one out, really, and the easiest one to spot. 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.

Não sei se na vossa casa sobrou muito chocolate dos ovos de Páscoa?

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
 beijar to kiss beijar-se to snog each other
 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
 achar to find achar-se to find oneself

*sentar apparently exists but it’s not used often

**When I first wrote this article I confidently said that “suicidar” couldn’t exist in a non-reflexive form since you can’t suicide someone else. However, you’ll occasionally come acorss this sort of thing:

which my teacher tells me is just crap grammar.

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

*surprisingly, rir is supposed to be reflexive most of the time. You’re not laughing something, you’re just laughing. There’s nothing on the receiving end of the verb. People often use it non-reflexively but that’s an informal use.

As an impersonal pronoun

When discussing a generalised situation – like the english “one”

One shouldn’t drink too much

It’s not used very often these days because it’s usually felt to sound a bit pretentious, so people will usually use “you”

You shouldn’t drink too much

which of course sounds as if the speaker is admonishing their listener directly to lay off the booze. This is a bit of a loss to the english language, because being able to speak in general terms is useful and avoids a lot of misunderstandings.

The Portuguese haven’t made this mistake and use “se” as an impersonal pronoun, which makes more sense, I think.

Here’s an example that really threw me because it was used with the verb “ser”

Há uma frase inglesa que está sempre presente: “I had to smile“. Significa que se foi obrigado a sorrir

Se foi means “one was”. Some person was obliged to smile.


Sabia que é preciso pagar se ser santo?

I was confused because it looks lihe “Saint” is a noun and it’s the object of the verb so it shouldn’t need the se, but santo is more like a condition – an adjective. “Did you know that you need to pay to be [holy]” not “Did you know that you need to pay to be [a saint]” There isn’t really a thing or an object on the receiving end of the verb.

Ou lá o que se faz no Facebook

Or whatever happens on facebook.

Here’s a nice example that’s a lot harder to translate but pretty.

O êxito do celebre poema de Florbela Espanca deve-se a maneira como trata o verbo amar como intransitivo. Ama-se como chove. Perguntar: “Mas amar quem?” é como perguntar: “Chove quem?”

autorid01231OK, I said it would be hard to translate but I’ll have a go. Amar is normally a transitive verb (X loves Y.) but here Miguel Esteves Cardoso praises  Florbela Espanca for the way she uses it intransitively (X loves.) and he uses “se” to talk about how people in general love.

The success of the well-known poem of Florbela Espanca is owed to the way in which she treats the verb “to love” as an intransitive. One loves like it rains. To ask “but love who” is like asking “rain who?”

Um… well, I hope I’m not too far off the mark there. Incidentally, I think this is the poem he means.

Notice that he also uses “deve-se”, and that brings me onto the next type of se:

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.

O êxito do […] poema […] deve-se… means “The poem’s success is owed…” [or “is due to”]

“O livro publicou-se” means “the book was published”

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

But which one is it?

Now, it’s not always clear whether a phrase like

Em Portugal bebe-se muito café

should be translated as “a lot of coffee is drunk” (passive voice) or “one drinks a lot of coffee” (imperonal pronoun) but, really, is there a lot difference? I think in the more ambiguous cases, it’s best not to worry about translating and just read it as it is, and not think of it as directly equivalent to either english form. The upshot of both sentences is that an awful lot of coffee drinking goes on in Portugal. This is a good way of training yourself not to automatically translate everything into english but instead just try and absorb the meaning from the portuguese words.


Just a data nerd

One thought on “Oh Se Can You See (Version 3)

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