Using se debe/n and se puede/n + infinitive to say you must / you can (passive)

In Spanish we use the impersonal pronoun se with the modal verbs deber and poder to say "you must" or "you can" in order to explain general statements. The verb is conjugated in the 3rd person singular or plural, according to the direct object in the sentence.

Read and listen to these examples:

En esta tienda se pueden comprar unas joyas muy bonitas.You can buy very nice jewels in this shop.

No se debe beber vino en exceso.You must not drink wine excessively.

En Madrid se puede visitar el museo del Prado.In Madrid you can visit the Prado museum.

Se deben pagar impuestos a Hacienda.You must pay taxes to Inland Revenue.

Notice the difference in the examples above with singular or uncountable nouns and plurals:

  • el museo del prado / vino = se puede/se debe
  • joyas / impuestos = se deben
In the examples above, it is compulsory to use an infinitive after se puede/n or se debe/n.

This type of sentence is a form of passive voice which is used in Spain more frequently than the "normal" passive (ser + participle). It can also be converted into a passive sentence in English, although they may sound a bit odd sometimes, and it sounds more natural to use the form You must/You can [do something], referring to a "general you", i.e. people in general. 

For example:

No se debe beber vino en exceso
Wine must not be drunk excessively (normal passive)
You must not drink excessively (general you/people)

Important note:

Bear in mind that "se" can also be placed at the end of the infinitive and stuck to it. For example:

En esta tienda pueden comprarse unas joyas muy bonitas.You can buy very nice jewels in this shop.

Be careful NOT to place "se" in between the two verbs. This would be incorrect:

"En esta tienda pueden se comprar unas joyas muy bonitas."

See also Expressing instructions and general statements with the impersonal se = one and Using se debe/se puede to say You must/you can (impersonal sentences)

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Examples and resources

Se deben pagar impuestos a Hacienda.You must pay taxes to Inland Revenue.
En Madrid se puede visitar el museo del Prado.In Madrid you can visit the Prado museum.
En esta tienda se pueden comprar unas joyas muy bonitas.You can buy very nice jewels in this shop.
No se debe beber vino en exceso.You must not drink wine excessively.
En esta tienda pueden comprarse unas joyas muy bonitas.You can buy very nice jewels in this shop.
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