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)

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)

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

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.


Q&A Forum 4 questions, 5 answers

A suggestion

Though it is a bit formal sounding, another way to translate the passive form in English referring to a  '"general you", i.e. people in general ',  is "ONE must/can...". For example "One must always tell the truth".

I find that helps me differentiate between "you must" - debes (a specific person), and the passive "One must" - se debe (people/individuals in general) 

InmaKwiziq language super star

Hola Doug,

We took some time to decide which was the best way to translate the passive sentences, because, as you mentioned, there are different ways in English. After thinking about it thoroughly, we went for these options, as the most natural translations. The other reason to not use the "one must/can..." here is because there is a very similar construction that you cannot substitute by a passive with "ser"; these are the Impersonal sentences using the same verbs but only allowed in the 3rd person singular, not plural. This other lesson reflects more that construction that you are suggesting, and we used that translation there. Here is the lesson if you want to have a look.

Thanks for your observation,

Saludos,

Inma

A suggestion

Though it is a bit formal sounding, another way to translate the passive form in English referring to a  '"general you", i.e. people in general ',  is "ONE must/can...". For example "One must always tell the truth".

I find that helps me differentiate between "you must" - debes (a specific person), and the passive "One must" - se debe (people/individuals in general) 

Sign in to submit your answer

Don't have an account yet? Join today

Thanks - I think a light bulb went on for me!

For months, in Costa Rica, I drove by a handwritten sign on the road that read "se chopean quintas". I knew what it meant - that he was advertising that he cut or weeded yards or fields but I couldn't understand the construction of the plural 3rd person chopear ( or maybe chapear?). Now, I think I get it, because quintas is plural so should chopear be plural. Correct? Thanks again
Asked 9 months ago
SilviaKwiziq language super star

¡Hola Meghan!

Yes, it is correct what you say. We are glad that you understood it!

Gracias,

Silvia.

Thanks - I think a light bulb went on for me!

For months, in Costa Rica, I drove by a handwritten sign on the road that read "se chopean quintas". I knew what it meant - that he was advertising that he cut or weeded yards or fields but I couldn't understand the construction of the plural 3rd person chopear ( or maybe chapear?). Now, I think I get it, because quintas is plural so should chopear be plural. Correct? Thanks again

Sign in to submit your answer

Don't have an account yet? Join today

Hola, I'm very confused about the difference between debe haber; debe de haber; debe ser; debe de ser; debe tener. Is there a lesson on these?

Asked 1 year ago
InmaKwiziq language super star

Hi Brett

There is a lesson about this difference planned by the team. In the meantime I can tell you that adding "de" changes the meaning. Take these two examples:

La tienda debe abrir a las 9 de la mañana (The shop must open at 9 in the morming) (obligation)

La  tienda debe de abrir a las 9 de la mañana (The shop will probably open at 9 in the morming) (supposition/assumption) 

Saludos

Inma

Muchas gracias Inma, Deseo ver la lección.

Hola, I'm very confused about the difference between debe haber; debe de haber; debe ser; debe de ser; debe tener. Is there a lesson on these?

Sign in to submit your answer

Don't have an account yet? Join today

Se pueden or se deben


The question is:


No ________ papeles al suelo.
You must not throw papers on the floor.
HINT: Choose the correct passive form.


The four possible answers are:

se puede tirar
se puedes tirar
te puede tirar
se pueden tirar


The correct answer given is se pueden tirar. Should it not be:-....   “No se deben tirar papeles al suelo”

Asked 1 year ago
SilviaKwiziq language super star
¡Hola William! Thank you very much for spotting this mistake, we have just corrected it in the system. Silvia

Se pueden or se deben


The question is:


No ________ papeles al suelo.
You must not throw papers on the floor.
HINT: Choose the correct passive form.


The four possible answers are:

se puede tirar
se puedes tirar
te puede tirar
se pueden tirar


The correct answer given is se pueden tirar. Should it not be:-....   “No se deben tirar papeles al suelo”

Sign in to submit your answer

Don't have an account yet? Join today

Thinking...