Impersonal and passive constructions with “se” seem very similar and can be quite confusing until you see them used together. They have quite different uses which can be seen below.
1. Impersonal “Se”
Impersonal expressions don’t really have any specific person in mind when they make general statements or questions about what “they,” “one,” or “you,” do, but rather people in general. That is what makes it impersonal. There is no subject nor is there an outside agent acting on an object. You will use impersonal expressions to find out how things are done according to custom, rule, or general consensus. They are helpful for asking for directions, how to say things properly, what the rules are in a specific place, making general statements, and so on.
¿Cómo se va al Museo? (How does one get to the Museum?)
¿Cómo se dice “car” en español? (How do you say “car” in Spanish?)
Se dice que va a nevar (They say it is going to snow).
Notice that the construction is always se + 3rd person singular verb.
2. Passive with “Se”
Generally, we use the passive voice to indicate what happened to the object without saying who or what carried out the action. The object is acted upon by an outside agent, which is not to be specified. You will only use transitive verbs (verbs that require a direct object) in passive “se” constructions and you will also mostly use non-living nouns and pronouns as the object. It is not common to refer to people using the passive “se”.
Se habla español aquí. (Spanish is spoken here.)
Se tradujo el libro al español. (The book was translated into Spanish.)
Se han encontrado fosiles de dinosaurios. (Dinosaur fossils have been found.)
Se alquilan coches. (Cars are rented).
Notice that in this case, the construction is se + 3rd person singular or plural transitive verb. Use a singular verb with singular objects and plural verb with plural objects.
You can practice more about the impersonal “se” with our quizzes, and you can watch videos “se puede o no se puede” to see the impersonal sentences in context. Also, you can learn more about passive sentences in Spanish in this link.
Remember you can contact your tutor with any question you have. Don’t you have a Spanish personal tutor yet?