If you're new to learning Spanish, you might easily be confused by some of the signs you could see in a Spanish-speaking area:
- SE VENDEN ORO Y PLATA
- SE SIRVE DESAYUNO
- SE ALQUILA
Translate the words the best you can, or type them into a portable translating device, and you very well could end up with translations such as these: Gold and silver sell themselves. Breakfast serves itself. May it rent itself.
Obviously, those literal translations don't make much sense. But once you become familiar with the language, you realize that such usages of se and verbs are quite common and are used to indicate objects being acted upon without stating who or what is doing the action.
That explanation might be a mouthful, but we do the same thing in English, only in a different way. For example, take a sentence such as "The car was sold." Who did the selling? Out of context, we don't know. Or consider a sentence such as "The key was lost." Who lost the key? Well, we probably know, but not from that sentence!
In English, we call such verb usages the passive voice. It is the opposite of the active voice, which would be used in sentences such as "John sold the car" or "I lost the shoe." In those sentences we are told who is performing the action. But in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by someone (or something) rather than being the one performing the action.
Spanish does have a true passive voice corresponding to the English one: El coche fue vendido ("The car was sold") and el zapato fue perdido ("the shoe was lost") are two examples, but it isn't used nearly as much as in English. Much more common is use of the third-person reflexive verb form, which uses the pronoun se. (Don't confuse se with sé, which means "I know" or sometimes "you be" as a command.) Rather than saying that something is done to something, Spanish speakers have the object doing it to itself.
Thus, se venden oro y plata, although translated literally would mean "gold and silver sell themselves," can be understood to mean "gold and silver are sold" or even "gold and silver for sale," neither of which specify who is doing the selling. Se sirve desayuno means "breakfast is served." And se alquila, which might be seen as a sign on a building or object, means simply "for rent."
Keep in mind that the function of such reflexive verb forms is to avoid stating who or what is performing the action, or simply to recognize that the performer of the action isn't important. And there are ways of doing that in English other than using the passive voice. As an example, look at the following sentence in Spanish:
- Se dice que neverá.
Literally, such a sentence would mean "it says itself that it will snow," which doesn't make a lot of sense. Using a passive construction, we might translate this sentence as "it is said that it will snow," which is perfectly understandable. But a more natural way of translating this sentence, at least in informal usage, would be "they say it will snow." "They" here doesn't refer to specific people.
Other sentences can be translated similarly. Se venden zapatos en el mercado, they sell shoes in the market (or, shoes are sold in the market). ¿Se comen mariscos en Uruguay? Do they eat seafood in Uruguay? Or, is seafood eaten in Uruguay?
Sometimes in English we also use "one" or an impersonal "you" where a Spanish speaker might use a se construction. For example, se puede encontrar zapatos en el marcado. A translation in passive form would be "shoes can be found in the market." But we could also say "one can find shoes in the market" or even "you can find shoes in the market." Or, se tiene que beber mucha agua en el desierto could be translated as "one has to drink a lot of water in the desert" or "you have to drink a lot of water in the desert." The "you" in such cases doesn't mean the person being spoken to, but rather it refers to people in general.
It is important to keep such meanings of English sentences in mind when translating to Spanish. You might be misunderstood if you were to use the Spanish pronoun usted to translate "you" in the above sentences. (It is possible to use usted to mean a kind of impersonal "you" as in the English sentence, but such usage is far less common in Spanish than English.)