In Spanish, particularly in conversational Spanish, we often use verbs that are not traditionally pronominal with a reflexive pronoun. This is called "se aspectual." While this doesn't dramatically change the meaning of the verb, there is always an element of subjectivity in the pronominal form.

The way the listener sees the action is different with the se aspectual.

  • It expresses the culmination/completion of an action, for example with verbs like comer or beber.

Laura comió una manzana.Laura ate an apple.

Laura se comió una manzana.Laura ate up an apple.

Ha bebido cerveza.He has drunk beer.

¿Te has bebido la cerveza?Have you drunk the [whole] beer?

Although the meaning is similar, comer simply states what happened and focuses more on the action, whilst comerse adds the nuance of culmination/completion of the action. This sense of culmination is often expressed in English with a preposition (eat up, drink up). The listener perceives these two sentences in a slightly different way. 

  • The se aspectual is also used with perception and knowledge verbs to indicate this same sense of culmination/completion, for example:

Javier leyó el libro que le di.Javier read the book I gave him.

Javier se leyó el libro que le di.Javier read the book I gave him. [implying he finished it]

Ayer estudiamos un tema muy interesante.Yesterday we studied a very interesting topic.

Nos estudiamos el tema en 20 minutos.We studied the [whole] topic in 20 minutes.

Hemos aprendido muchas cosas en el colegio.We've learned many things in school.

¿Os habéis aprendido la lección?Have you learned the [whole] lesson?

In the examples above, the verbs that are not using the se aspectual convey more of an open-ended action, while the examples that use the se aspectual imply an implicit end moment.

  • ir vs irse

When we use irse, instead of just ir, we perceive the action differently: the meaning of the verb irse is more intense/complete. With irse, we are implying more than just the action of "going" or "going somewhere"; for example:

Cristina fue a Mallorca.Cristina went to Mallorca.

Cristina se fue a Mallorca.Cristina went off to Mallorca.

In the first example, the focus is on the destination (the most important part is where she went). In the second example with the se aspectual, the focus is on the action of leaving more than the destination - there is more implicit information: the listener understands that she left and headed to Mallorca

  • creer algo vs creerse algo

There is a similar effect as between ir and irse. Have a look at the following examples:

No creas sus mentiras.Don't believe his lies.

No te creas sus mentiras.Don't believe his lies at all. [don't be so naive]

  • morir vs morirse:

There is a tendency to use morir when it's more impersonal, objective, with little emotional involvement from the speaker. It is also far more common to use morir in written Spanish.

El paciente murió de neumonía.The patient died of pneumonia.

Tristemente, en el accidente de ayer murieron 3 personas.Sadly, in yesterday's accident 3 people died.

In spoken Spanish, it is much more frequent to use morirse when the speaker is showing personal affection. In addition, it refers to the "process" of dying:

El médico me ha dicho que mi padre se está muriendo.The doctor told me that my dad is dying.

Estoy muy afligida porque mi perro se murió hace unos días.I am very sad because my dog died a few days ago.

Tengo que darte una mala noticia; Dolores se ha muerto.I have sad news for you: Dolores has died.

  •  pasar vs pasarse

If we use pasarse, we indicate that the subject is more involved in the action; for example:

Pasó un mes en Canadá con su familia.He spent a month in Canada with his family.

Se pasó un mes en Canadá con su familia.He spent a month in Canada with his family.

He pasado un día entero escribiendo esta redacción.I spent a whole day writing this essay.

Me he pasado un día entero escribiendo esta redacción.I spent a whole day writing this essay.

The examples with the se aspectual indicate more involvement, while without it, the subject is more detached from the action.

The se aspectual does not work with all Spanish verbs!
Sometimes students overuse it after receiving a very vague general explanation about using se with verbs simply to add emphasis.

 

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Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Hemos aprendido muchas cosas en el colegio.We've learned many things in school.
¿Os habéis aprendido la lección?Have you learned the [whole] lesson?
Pasó un mes en Canadá con su familia.He spent a month in Canada with his family.
Javier se leyó el libro que le di.Javier read the book I gave him. [implying he finished it]
Laura se comió una manzana.Laura ate up an apple.
No creas sus mentiras.Don't believe his lies.
Cristina se fue a Mallorca.Cristina went off to Mallorca.
Javier leyó el libro que le di.Javier read the book I gave him.
Estoy muy afligida porque mi perro se murió hace unos días.I am very sad because my dog died a few days ago.
Me he pasado un día entero escribiendo esta redacción.I spent a whole day writing this essay.
Cristina fue a Mallorca.Cristina went to Mallorca.
El paciente murió de neumonía.The patient died of pneumonia.
¿Te has bebido la cerveza?Have you drunk the [whole] beer?
El médico me ha dicho que mi padre se está muriendo.The doctor told me that my dad is dying.
Ayer estudiamos un tema muy interesante.Yesterday we studied a very interesting topic.
He pasado un día entero escribiendo esta redacción.I spent a whole day writing this essay.
Tengo que darte una mala noticia; Dolores se ha muerto.I have sad news for you: Dolores has died.
Ha bebido cerveza.He has drunk beer.
Tristemente, en el accidente de ayer murieron 3 personas.Sadly, in yesterday's accident 3 people died.
Nos estudiamos el tema en 20 minutos.We studied the [whole] topic in 20 minutes.
Se pasó un mes en Canadá con su familia.He spent a month in Canada with his family.
No te creas sus mentiras.Don't believe his lies at all. [don't be so naive]
Laura comió una manzana.Laura ate an apple.
No te creas sus mentiras.Don't believe his lies at all. (Don't be so naive)
Thinking...